Community Food Hub Conference – Bendigo 2016
Presented by Jade Miles, President Beechworth Food Co-Op
There is no 20 second elevator speech which can explain why any food co op exists. To an outsider it appears to be a somewhat higgledy piggledy food store with erratic fresh food offerings grown by locals and dry goods in unsexy white buckets.
In truth the principles which sit behind the business and the greater holistic reason for being are complex, confronting, and fundamentally different to the paradigm that the vast majority of Australians are more comfortable with.
The process of educating the broader community about such things as food sovereignty, food miles, community resilience, provenance, waste reduction, seasonality, seed biodiversity and soil health is the greatest challenge faced in running a food co op…especially when they can go to the supermarket and buy what they want, when they want it, from someone who doesn’t know their names without posters on the wall that challenge their thinking about the food decisions they have made.
Making a commitment to stocking a “fair food” pantry is bloody massive and quite honestly while the industrial system is as unchallenged, price appealing and convenient as it is, the uphill battle to be heard as a voice that offers a broader understanding of the greater impacts that a fair food system can offer, is a very steep climb. That’s the greatest challenge of opening a food co op. because while you are considering all of this, your audience is still looking at the unsexy buckets and asking why you don’t have bananas in stock.
The week in week out push is indeed relentless but with it comes the chance to make a deeper connection with volunteers from your community who you’ve never crossed paths with, to visit farms run by three generations, to taste fresh food picked from the tree, to share the donated abundance box offerings and to swap recipes with women from other parts of the world. Being part of a food co op gives you a ticket to experience an intimacy of shared journeys with people you would otherwise just side step in the street.
The Playing field for Co Ops in Australia is not a sprawling one but rather a tight, closely guarded , grass roots movement of passionates who are committed to their ethical principles. While this comment may be rebuked by some, it takes only a brief comparison with the USA co op sector to realise that Australia’s offering is still being delivered by the deeply committed minority and is yet to leap into the USA paradigm of being not only supported by but led by Corporations and Government who have recognised the potential of a rapidly emerging market. They have recognised not only the economic return but the environmental and community rewards that are reaped when a local, connected, transparent approach to agricultural enterprise and food distribution is taken.
As the name suggests, this approach to doing business requires some serious ability to work cooperatively with a broad range of people, stakeholders opinions, challenges, needs and long term desires but ultimately if the expectations for what success looks like are set early on and adopted by all the ball just keeps on rolling changing its pace as the community pushes or pulls.
While every co op will be (and has to be) different. There is one rule which will always ring true: Your local food co op will only be as strong, vibrant and innovative as the community which adopts it. It will move no faster or slower than the mass of your membership – an individual or group may push harder and faster from time to time but inevitably the pace will be set by the group and this is ok. In fact it’s more than O.K, it is the raw reality and should be embraced, for the sustainable success of your local food, short supply chain, community connecting vision depends on it.