Food Co-op Consciousness

Are food co-ops an outdated hippy notion, or centres of wholesome, organic goodness with benefits to share?

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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Buying local produce can be a tough task sometimes and often requires shopping around at different stores, or paying a premium. So what if there was a way to buy cheap, local produce at a single location owned by ethical investors? Welcome to food co-ops.

With names like Friends Of The Earth Food Group Co-Op and Thoughtful Foods, co-ops tend to wear their alternative roots on their signage. They have remained a bit of a hippy stereotype, which means they’ve existed largely on the fringe. But the hippies are onto something: co-ops are a source of affordable, healthy, ethical foods, as well as a convenient way to source sustainable products while supporting the local community.

Common values

Co-operatives have been around for more than 150 years, formed for everything from journalists (Associated Press) to orchestras (London Symphony Orchestra). The defining trait among these disparate businesses is that they’re democratic organisations, owned and run by their members, for their members. When it comes to food co-ops, as Beth Cameron from the Melbourne-based Friends of the Earth Food Co-op puts it, “A co-op is a community organisation that provides a cheap, organic alternative to health food stores and supermarkets; an alternative example. It’s somewhere you can put money where nobody owns it”. This shifts the emphasis from the corporate to the community, with its needs and priorities reflected in co-op management, policies, principles, products – and just about everything else.

At their most basic, food co-ops exist to provide their members with food – no surprises there! However, in Australia they’re not generally formed to counter a lack of food, but to provide access to products that aren’t readily available, with a focus on quality, ethics, origins and healthiness. Policies and products differ, but common considerations include organic, GM-free, local, seasonal, minimally packaged, farmer-direct, fair trade, vegetarian and cruelty-free fare.

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