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The Food Coo Op veggies feature

The Canberra Food Co-Op: Connections between people is everything

Ashlee Uren

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, entering the cosy, colourful Canberra Food Co-Op Store and Café was like receiving a warm hug from a longtime friend.

The lunchtime rush was well and truly in swing, with the café full of patrons – including a sizeable number of students from the nearby Australian National University – gathered around tables and seated on the mismatched couches to share lunch, Fairtrade coffee, and stories.

I was welcomed by the aromatic scent of something that the Food Co-Op Café chefs had dreamt up for the lunch menu that week. The Food Co-Op’s friendly manager, Conor, told me that the chefs are very autonomous, focusing on creating vegan and gluten-free recipes that showcase what you can make through using ingredients available in the store. I judge that the lentil dhal that was on offer must have been delicious, based on the wonderful smell and on the fact that it had sold out by 1.30pm. At the Food Co-Op, lunch is accessible to everyone and only $5 for students and members, so it is perhaps not surprising that I missed out. Instead, I eyed off a selection of treats in the glass display by the coffee machine and debated a choice between the homemade banana bread and one of the coconut and date balls, which Conor told me were two of the Food Co-Op’s most popular products.

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The Canberra Food Co-Op has come a long way since it first started serving the ACT public out in a demountable block in 1976. Now in a new location on Kingsley Street (off Barry Drive and near the Canberra city centre), the Canberra Food Co-Op Café serves about 120 patrons per day. Part café, part health food store, the Canberra Food Co-Op is one of about 2800 cooperatives in Australia in a broad range of industries, from health to hospitality. The cooperative model is unique. Putting people before profits, cooperatives have three features; owned by members; democratically controlled by members who have a vote in the operation of the cooperative; and designed to both benefit members and serve the interests of the wider community.

Over the last forty years, the Canberra Food Co-Op has been a consistent source of wholesome, real food through a tide of low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar movements and counter-movements. The Food Co-Op has also been witness to a gradual change in consumer attitudes towards food, sustainability and social responsibility. A long-term Co-Op member notes that consumers today are more health-conscious – perhaps because the rise of global media has driven people to become more body image-focused and, as a result, more aware and more concerned about the origins of their food. Increasingly, people are also concerned about their impact and are thinking about packaging, people and animal welfare – but always with an expectation of variety, consistency and quality. The Food Co-op has had to be innovative in trying to keep up. And, though business has grown, the Food Co-Op has retained its commitment to ethics and its connection to community.

The Canberra Food Co-Op has a natural connection to the wider community that is clearly evident. Perhaps most tellingly, when I supplied Conor a list of questions I was hoping to ask during my visit, he printed it out on recycled paper and five volunteers were involved in brainstorming answers. “We rely on people. We rely on volunteers to give their time. And we support each other.”

The Food Co-Op is almost entirely run by volunteers; the very minimalistic hierarchy relies on people participating, rather than outsourcing. This active membership model is slightly different from the traditional cooperative membership model in that it strongly encourages members to be engaged participants in the cooperative and in the community.

Traditional membership in most co-ops is by way of a philanthropic payment, where you pay a fixed price and receive a discount off the goods or service that the co-op offers. This membership model also exists for the Food Co-Op. Sign up for a year as a new member for just $50 (or the concession rate of $35) and you receive a free lunch, coffee and 15% off your first shop. Thereafter, as a non-active member you receive a 10% discount for bulk orders. For active members, an hour of volunteer service in the Co-Op provides you with the benefit of 15% off in the shop for the next fortnight.

Conor describes the Co-Op community as, “great – open and inclusive and really diverse”, citing a core membership of 15 to 20 active members, including one member who has volunteered at the Co-Op for twenty years. Members regularly volunteer and do their weekly food shopping at the same time. Shopping at the Food Co-Op is a slower paced way of consuming that encourages you to think about the food you eat and the impact of your purchases. In a way, the Food Co-Op is a pioneer in the ‘slow food movement’, which focuses on clean and fair food that tastes good, is good for us, and is produced in ways that respect animals, people and the environment.

The store is full of healthy, local food – from seasonal fruits and vegetables; to unprocessed, unpackaged grains, pulses and cereals; to a range of organic, fairly traded coffees and teas; to home-grown, home-preserved and home-made treats; to environmentally responsible cleaning and personal hygiene products. You can bring in your own reusable containers to put unpackaged produce straight in to or, if you forget, the Food Co-Op can provide biodegradable plastic containers. 

The Food Co-Op’s minimal use of plastics offers a model that could be used by supermarkets more broadly. However, if we want this to happen, we have to be realistic; supermarkets benefit from economies of scale to be able to offer consumers convenience and speed, but ethics is a trade-off. There is no quick fix.

But there is a fix – all while being able to access real food at real cost. Conor is passionate that food is a basic right and wholesome food should be accessible and affordable to all; corporations should not make a profit out of selling food. By choosing to live out your values alongside community by shopping at a co-op, you can use your spending power to effect direct, dollar-for-dollar change. One of the benefits of supporting a co-op like the Food Co-Op is that you’re supporting an alternative model of retailer and thereby encouraging larger retailers to become more ethical. When we as individuals and communities begin to make decisions and act on things that affect us, we create a dual system in which the choices we feed up are as valued and influential as the choices fed down by powerful decision-makers.

The Food Co-Op sees a bright future for sustainable and ethical movements, including enhanced dialogue between more sectors of the economy, more young people growing their own food, and radical new models of ownership that are driven by people – not investors or profits. And the Food Co-Op, too, has a bright future ahead, with some exciting possible projects on the horizon, foremost of which is growing the community by creating a Canberra local event space.

Conor tells me that more people need to know about and start food cooperatives in order for them to give back even more substantially to the community, and I couldn’t agree more that enhanced awareness of and engagement with cooperatives would greatly benefit our communities and the world more broadly. Along with more coconut and date balls.

the essentials

What: The Canberra Food Co-Op
Where: 3 Kingsley St, Acton (under the Lena Karmel Lodge at ANU)
When: Open from 10am to 7pm on Monday to Friday and from 10am to 4pm on Saturdays
You can find out more about the Canberra Food Co-Op via Facebook and their Website

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Ashlee Uren

Ashlee Uren made the cross-country journey from Perth to join the public service two years ago and has been defending the capital from Canberra bashing ever since. Ashlee is passionate about ethical fashion and sustainable consumption, stemming from her strong belief that the actions of individuals can be incredibly powerful in positively impacting the world. In her spare time, she enjoys blogging about her ethical lifestyle journey at www.onefairday.com. Ashlee holds a double degree in Law and International Relations. More about the Author