Can We Keep The Co-op Alive??
As many of you know, I absolutely adore the food co-ops that I run. In my thought piece today, I explore why the concept of the beloved food co-op is quickly fading, and how I think we can save this very important piece of our consumerist society. From my previous blogs, you may remember that the concept of cooperation is not new. In early human societies, people learned to cooperate and work together to increase their chances of meeting both their individual and tribal needs. Early agriculture saw farmers relying on each other to defend land, harvest crops, build barns, and share equipment.
As industrialisation happened and people moved from farms to cities, they had to rely on stores to purchase their food (and many other commodities) because they could no longer grow their own. Many workers were paid in chits that could only be exchanged for food and supplies at stores that were owned by the companies they worked for. The average consumer had very few choices and little control over the exorbitant prices they were being charged.
Consequently, groups of people began experimenting with another method of purchasing, which involved pooling their money and purchasing groceries together. They quickly realised that purchasing goods from a wholesale dealer in bulk and dividing equally amongst themselves was a much cheaper option. We call these co-ops.
Over the years, consumer co-ops have experienced waves of growth and development, followed by periods of decline. Many co-ops today fail due to insufficient capital, poor management, inadequate membership support, lack of adequate support from wholesalers and a lack of understanding of the cooperative principles by their members. On the flipside, many co-ops that survive are strong and well established.
Here are my views of why food co-ops often fail here in Australia:
Food co-ops are volunteer-run organisations that provide seasonal and locally grown produce to their members. Essentially, produce is bought in wholesale quantities and shared amongst co-op members. These groups are established to serve their community members instead of making a profit. With each purchase, members are supporting local farmers and producers.
Nowadays, co-ops are hardly heard of and have been relegated to the hippie zone. Unfortunately, the need for convenience and meticulous planning to run an efficient modern lifestyle comes into direct opposition with the expectations of a food co-op. Here’s why:
1. Being part of a co-op involves more preparation – i.e. bringing your own containers and bags: Shopping at a co-op often means that you are purchasing a share of a wholesale amount. This means that things don’t come pre-packaged and pre-portioned and you are expected to bring your own containers, produce bags, jars, shopping bags and the like in order to bring your goods home.
2. Members need to take turns to make a trip out to the markets every week: Often, being part of a fruit and vegetable co-op here in Sydney will involve a trip out to the Sydney Markets by a co-op member each week. This trip is essential to purchase the produce at the lowest (wholesale) prices and at the freshest quality possible. However, the Sydney Markets aren’t convenient for many because of their operating hours (at a crazy-early time in the morning before the world wakes up) and also their distance from the city. It can be tedious and messy lugging the fruit and vegetable haul back home in your car.
3. People want choice: When you are part of a co-op, it is an expectation that you are part of larger collective decisions. This may mean that not all of your wants will be aligned with on a weekly basis, meaning that your cooking will have to be flexible enough to align with whatever food comes your way. Not everyone is keen to do this. They want the choice to purchase what they want to purchase each week.
4. People want convenience: Joining your local co-op usually means that you have to pick up your own goods from the pick-up point, and some people may not have time to do this. Further, being a co-op member may also mean that you need to exchange some volunteer time to assist with the running of the co-op which many people aren’t prepared to partake in, either.
5. You need to find a bunch of like-minded people who are interested in doing the same: Co-ops are all about aligning with others who have a similar value set. In our busy lifestyles, it can often be difficult to find these individuals, especially those who are willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort and convenience to try shopping a little differently, which will ultimately benefit local farmers and the environment. No matter how keen you are to engage in this type of purchasing, the crux of your problem may in fact lie in finding the rest of your clan.
Over the next month, I will start to unveil how Minifarms is set to change the landscape around the food co-op. I am so excited that we have come up with a solution to modernise the concepts of the traditional co-op that fits in with the demands of our busy lifestyles. Keep watching this space – I think you will be so impressed with what’s coming your way!