Feature

Food Co-op Consciousness

The whole co-op concept centres on community involvement, and on a much larger scale than simply paying at the checkout and putting back your trolley.

No food co-ops in your area? Try looking for local food buyers’ groups, which are similar in principle but smaller, more informal and generally lack shopfronts, with produce picked up from a central point by members.

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Co-operative work

The whole co-op concept centres on community involvement, and on a much larger scale than simply paying at the checkout and putting back your trolley. Imagine your local supermarket but with a few key differences: all products on the shelves have been vetted against ethical, environmental and health criteria closely aligned to your own; customer suggestions are acted on; membership gives you discounts and a say in management; your bill can be reduced by working in the branch; and profits aren’t split between shareholders, but reinvested into the business to reduce prices and improve services. A faceless superstore it ain’t!

The details differ for individual co-ops, but the principles are the same: members pay a small fee which entitles them to a discount and a voice in the democratic running of the organisation (membership is generally $10 to $40 a year, with the discount around 10 per cent). Your involvement varies: you can join the management committee and make it your social hub, or pop in twice a year for an obscure herb and your hippy fix. Volunteers do a large percentage of the work, with benefits given in exchange (usually further discounts of 15 to 30 per cent). Most co-ops are open to the general public, although membership is encouraged. According to Sydney’s Manly Food Co-operative’s Karen Garrett, there are wide-ranging benefits: “If you’re a volunteer worker, you can buy at cost price. As a recession buster, it’s a way of helping the household budget while doing something for the environment.”

A set of seven principles guides co-operatives worldwide, covering everything from open membership and democracy to co-operation amongst co-operatives (try saying that five times fast!) Working for sustainable development is another tenet, most evident in the sourcing policies, with in-store labelling to promote informed decisions. As Nija Dalal, coordinator at Sydney’s Alfalfa House, explains, “We purchase according to our members’ desires but also according to a set of ethics that are determined by our members. Other stores that you go to, they’ll purchase anything that sells.”

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