Caring, sharing and wholefoods: that's what life is about at Daily Bread, the Christian Co-operative.
Shopping and spirituality. The two words hardly trip off the tongue together. But in a warehouse on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Cambridge, a small group of Christians is trying to show that you can be a consumer with a conscience this Lent.

Walk into the Daily Bread Co-operative and you might think it was just another wholefood shop. There are no crosses on the walls; no religious music in the background (unless the staff happen to be engaged in their daily session of worship upstairs). Tempting displays of olives, nuts and honey sit alongside vegetables from a local organic farm. A coffee shop sells home-made cakes; a Traidcraft stall has Third World crafts. And then you notice, among the Indian earrings, a selection of "Christian witness Jewellery".

"We don't go out of our way to push our Christian approach," says manager Andrew Hibbert, who founded Daily Bread after working at its sister shop in Northampton. "We hope some of the atmosphere rubs off, but we want people to come because there's something worth coming for." And, indeed, it's worth coming here for the cheapest extra-virgin olive oil in Cambridge.

A manager? In a Christian co-op? It doesn't sound quite right. "It's important to have management in any business, but all decisions are taken democratically at a weekly meeting and the tasks are genuinely shared," says Mr Hibbert. One of his jobs, for example, is cleaning the toilets. "I enjoy doing things like packing lentils and not just sitting at a desk all day," he says.

What else does it mean to run a business according to Christian principles? "We're working towards a tithe, giving 10 per cent of our annual wage bill to charity," says co-op member Gill Barker. A proportion of profits goes back each year to the developing countries from which much of the produce comes.

Staff are all paid the same - currently pounds 8,820 a year. "We pay ourselves enough for our need but not for our greed," says Mr Hibbert.

A leaflet, which is discreetly available to customers who take the trouble to look, makes the link with scripture: "... and they sold all their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as had any need" (Acts 2.45).

"I was at a conference of Christians In Business recently," says Mr Hibbert, "and I thought to myself `we're a darned sight more Christian than all these people who call themselves Christians In Business just because they work in business and go to church. Our whole business ethic is a Christian one'."

In a room beside the shop, a group of people recovering from nervous breakdowns are packing muesli into bags. This is not just tokenism; they are paid the same wage as everyone else and can become full members of the co-op in due course. The long-term aim is for a 50-50 balance between "strong" and "vulnerable" staff. There is no requirement for this second group to be Christians. "Religion and illness don't necessarily mix," says Andrew Hibbert, "and it's not right to say that you will help someone but only if he or she is a Christian."

Pam was one of the original Daily Bread workers when it opened in 1992; she is now in charge of packing and also works on the till. Both she and her husband suffer from depression and their daughter is in care. "Sometimes it's easier to give up than to keep going," she admits, but she has kept going for four years. She is now buying a house on the proceeds of her earnings.

Michael has been at Daily Bread for three months and is still on trial. "Working here has given me a purpose in life," he says. "I can go out and buy things for myself now - the other day I bought a CD and a bag for bringing my sandwiches to work." Few other businesses would risk employing people like Michael and Pam - it might not be economic.

That seems to fit with the Christian ethics. But what about the products - why concentrate on wholefoods? What is particularly Christian about brown rice and Bombay mix? "The sharing of food is a Christian thing to do; the Last Supper is an example of how to share good simple food together," says Mr Hibbert. "Wholefoods are basic foods and we sell them at a good price. By selling them in bulk we keep them cheap, save packaging and encourage people to buy in groups and share. Some of our customers get together for split-pea parties."

Daily Bread Co-operative, Kilmaine Close, Kings Hedges, Cambridge (01223 423177). Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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