12 July 2019

How To Start a Community Food Co-op

Plastic Free July is rolling along along, and we've been chatting with people about their experiences with it, and waste-free living in general. As always, there are a few issues that come to light, and we'll be sharing our tips for a couple of the big ones shortly (budget, time...). But for a great many people, the main issue in reducing household waste is easy access to package-free foods. In the greater Hobart area, we have a high number of bulk food options, ranging from small supermarkets to dedicated wholefoods stores where everything is available package-free. Although where we live we're technically in a food desert, we're very fortunate to be a short bus ride away from some amazing resources, and have access to homegrown foods through the community garden and local sharing network. But what do you do if you live even further away from shops and food outlets? You need to find creative ways to bring food closer to your community.

We were fortunate to visit the Bruny Island Food Co-op at the beginning of winter. We were invited to talk to their members about waste-free living and have a look around, and what we saw was more than a little inspiring. Bruny Island (lunawanna-allonah) sits on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, with a population of 600 residents and tens of thousands of visitors each year. It only has a couple of small shops for basic groceries, and seasonal food producers and cafes that appeal mostly to the tourist demographic. It's accessible via ferry from mainland Tasmania and most residents need to shop for fresh food off the island.

Our friend, Liz, noticed a shortage of access to good food in the Bruny Island community and helped establish a food co-op there. The co-op is run in the community hall each month and you can buy most of the basics and some special luxuries there, without packaging! They're able to keep costs fairly low, helping more people in the community access package-free food. Alongside the co-op, they run skill shares and workshops and a space for members to swap and share food, with future plans and ideas for strengthening this inspiring community hub. We asked Liz about her experience with establishing a community food co-op and she has very generously shared her thoughts with us below. If you're living somewhat remotely, perhaps there's some inspiration here to help you build a co-op of your own. 

How did the idea to start a food co-op come about?

After doing the Spiral Garden Seedlings Permaculture eCourse, I really started to think about the waste we were producing in the kitchen. I'd always thought of ourselves as buying little processed/packaged food, but when I checked our bins I was surprised at how many of the plastic bags could be avoided if we bought in bulk. So I joined a food co-op off the island which was not too far away, and started buying lots of food from a bulk wholefoods store also off the island. When talking with a couple of friends in a cafe on Bruny Island one day, we were envisaging how great a food co-op could be on Bruny Island. What we didn't realise is that a local couple on the next table were listening to us dreaming and before they left the cafe, they came over to wish us luck and offered us a very generous donation to get started!

Was it easy to find support in the community?

Yes, we put a post on the community Facebook page asking for expressions of interest and got a handful of people who were interested to come along to our first meeting, where we just brainstormed ideas and what people wanted. We then set up a Facebook page asking people what they wanted to order and put an ad for the first meeting in the community news. As we didn't have any money we couldn't buy products up front to sell, so we had to take orders and try and make sure that a bulk product was already sold out before we even bought it. The most difficult part of it all was finding a location to hold meetings. While this could have been at someone's house, we had a vision of what we wanted to achieve and it was more like a shop and none of us had the space for that at home.

How many members are involved?

We have about 70 names on our email list, over 150 members on our Facebook page, and about 50 paid members. We have been open about 3 years and over that time the numbers have been steadily growing. The tricky thing is trying to find an opening time that suits as many people as possible, so while we have the numbers who support us, not everyone turns up to every meeting. When we first started there were 3 of us running it, but over time that has reduced to 2 with a couple of people who are often free to help us as needed. We are now at the stage were we need to think about asking volunteers for their help in a more formal way. We are thinking of having "active members" who volunteer their time for reduced prices. However we need to think carefully before implementing anything as we have been advised that managing volunteers is often more time consuming that just doing it ourselves!!!

How often do you meet in the community hall?

We meet once a month - the last Tuesday of every month from 2 - 5pm. At the beginning of the year we were open from 3 - 5pm, but this was just too busy - being open 1 more hour just eases the pressure when lots of people arrive at the same time! We are happy to open more often if we think we will be supported, and this is something we are working on at the moment.

Does the co-op have a formalised structure? Memberships?

When we first started we needed to have a bank account and the only way we could do that was to become a Not for Profit incorporated business. So that's what we did. I guess we are really running it a bit like a small business. Membership is $20 per year, per household and for that members get products at good prices, non-members pay 20% more. Members are also able to bring their excess fruit and veg or jams, pickles, bread, cakes etc etc to swap or sell. We also hold workshops and members pay $5, non-members $10. The money for the workshops goes to the speakers (80%). This is to encourage members of the community to come forward to run a workshop, We think of the workshops as more of a skill share kind of thing - I don't like the idea of "teaching" each other, more sharing what we know. We really want to encourage community involvement and think of co-op as a community hub as opposed to just being a place to buy food. Nicola Hubbard and I work together behind the scenes to organise the workshops, products etc and for that we are now able to get paid a nominal fee - it is a lot less than the work we do, but it's a start!

Did it require much financial investment to get off the ground?

We had nothing but the $400 donation, which we used to buy our first products. Over the 3 years we have made enough to gradually buy buckets, scoops, a very expensive set of scales, a POS system, a computer and insurance. 

How much time does running to co-op take each week?

Now that we are organised and in a routine, it doesn't really take much. At the end of each meeting we have a rough idea of what we need more of for the next meeting, so it's a matter of putting in an order, updating the POS and product list and going to pick it up. We also sent out a monthly email with our workshop details for the following month and our latest product list. We put an ad in the local rag and that's about all. The most time-consuming part is the banking - we are happy for people to pay via a bank transfer as we don't have a card payment system yet, so we have to go through the sales and check them off as the money gets deposited then message anyone who has forgotten - this is a bit time consuming. We estimate that we spend about 10 hours a month between the two of us, then of course there's the time that co-op is open, but we think of that as the fun part!

How have you decided on the product range?

We're always open to new product ideas. Initially we just bought what we wanted as we knew that if we were left with it, we could buy it ourselves!!!! As time went on, people have suggested products they would like. The difficult part is keeping it simple. We are not in a position to have heaps and heaps of products yet and we have to keep in mind how long things like nuts stay fresh as we're only open once a month. We did get products from a variety of suppliers but that proved time consuming - more ordering, more time picking up etc, so now we mainly buy food from one supplier with a big range and a just a couple of other places occasionally. We aim for package free bulk foods, as local as possible and if possible organic. 

How has having access to food in this way impacted on the community?

Initially most of our members were people who were already thinking about waste and organic healthy food etc etc, but over the 3 years the range of types of people who are joining is widening, as they hear about the co-op so come to take a peep.. As both of us (organisers) work at the local school, and the hall is opposite, we are able to reach a broad range of people through the school newsletter. 
There has recently been some discussion on Bruny Island as to how to move forward within the community with the number of tourists etc. and one of the ideas is for the community hall to become a bit of a hub. We are trying to set that in motion by opening co-op at the same time as the community library, and the online access centre and encouraging people to pop in for a cuppa, bring the kids and say hi - building a bit of community spirit! 

Any lessons learnt or anything you'd do differently?

It is a commitment, but it is something that we both love, so that's no problem. I think if we had thought too much about it, we might never have started it as it can be quite daunting at times, so I guess my advice at this stage would be that if you are thinking of setting up something like this, to just do it! Buying a POS system has been a huge time saver (before that we were using an excel sheet and neither of us could understand excel!) and I'm glad we started properly from the beginning with our own bank account etc, rather than using our own bank accounts, then getting in difficulty with tax etc. As I mentioned before we need to really look at the way we run the co-op now as a business - we might find that we wish we had set it up differently, I'll let you know! Also, we never borrowed money or got into any debt etc, so actually there's no pressure - if it doesn't work, we can stop!!!! But for now that's the last thing we want to do.


Are you tackling Plastic Free July this year? How are you travelling with it so far?

We'll be talking in a few places in Hobart and Melbourne throughout the next month. You can find all dates for talks and workshops updated regularly, here.

We talk about food co-ops and other solutions for making waste-free living possible, and communities stronger, in our book 'A Family Guide to Waste-free Living', published by Plum. Signed copies are available in our shop, or you can find it in all good bookshops. If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, you should have luck finding it at Book Depository, or in eBook format, available here. 

~ Lauren. x