Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

This is a continuation of the rural bulk food co-op series, I have been sharing on the blog. The intention of these blog posts, is to shine a light on the possibilities that exist, for people wishing to reduce waste, shop away from larger supermarkets and become more connected with their community but happen to live in country locations.

Each of these blogs posts is an exploration on how a rural co-op's function, while sharing issues and insights. 

A co-op is a group of people who voluntarily work together through a fairly run business.

These co-ops function the same way a regular bricks and mortar bulk store works. It just happens to operate out of someones space or public room and run by volunteers. Memberships are often required, meetings are held and decisions made by the group for the group.

A bulk food co-op is a way for people to come together, buy staple foods in larger quantities, at an affordable price too. It is a great way for rural communities to reduce their packaging.

So far, my journey has taken me to a rural bulk co-op in Seymour and the unpackaged co-op in Warrnambool here in Victoria. Click through the blog posts to learn more on how each community runs their own co-ops. Today, we are visiting Beechworth Food Co-Op with Jade Miles, Co-Op president. 



Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

What is the Beechworth Food Co-op? How long has it been in operation? why was it started?

The Beechworth Food Co-Op is 100% community owned, operated and registered not for profit enterprise. We are located in Boiler House Lane, a developing food and artisan precinct of Beechworth and currently open three days per week. Opening our doors in January 2015 we strive to create genuine community connection via the medium of food via our retail shop and programs.

The Beechworth Food Co-Op has five primary objectives. They are: 
  • To make available whole and local fresh food to the Beechworth community 
  • To promote and support local sustainable agriculture in the Beechworth region 
  • To promote and support healthy diets and improved health outcomes within the Beechworth community 
  • To proactively assist with the minimisation of and education about reducing waste 
  • To provide a place for community connection 
The overarching objective is to support and grow a vibrant local food production system that provides high quality fair priced fresh and dry food whilst also building community resilience and connectedness around food.

To achieve this the following strategic objectives have been identified, with actions and measures articulated for each.

1. Healthy Food Access: To provide increasing access to high quality local food (Food Co op Bulk and Fresh)

2. Food System Development: Actively collaborate in local and regional food system development (Advocacy). Support the growth of local sustainable agriculture

3. Business Strength: Develop leadership commitment system management and financial viability within the organisation

4. Community Communication and Education: Foster a deep community connection through food and education (Food Co op Living)

Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

How does it work?

We are open Tues 3-6, Thurs 2-6 and Saturday 9-3. We have one paid staff member who covers half of these hours and the rest of the staffing is undertaken by volunteers. We operated for the first 12 months completely on volunteer commitment alone but have recently been viable enough to employ someone for ten hours a week.

Do people bring their own bags or containers for reuse? 

About half do. The other half either use recylced bags available in store which are gfree or they can purchase brown paper bags for 10, 20 and 30 cents.

How many people work or volunteer to run the Beechworth Food Co-op?

We have a board of nine, a working member base of 17 and one ten hour a week staff member.

What are the number of members? Can they request new items be added?

We have grown to service 216 households which equates to an approximate 400 adults and 400 children. We began with just 60 items of food on the shelves and now we offer over 350. Now if new food is desired we place it on a blackboard and once it has 5 votes we source it.

What would be the process to start one up in a community?
​​I have attached our very first prospectus as this was the very first document that we circulated between a working group of 10 people. These 10 then recruited 5 each and once we got to 50 members we opened the doors and began trading. We have since evolved our documentation substantially as we now have a logo a website and an entire operational manual.

We secured space that we paid very little for and we relied soley on volunteer hours. Our range and hours grew as our membership did.

We wrote a rules of association and a strategic plan within the first 12 months and we formalised our governance within 8 months of operating. These were crucial foundations to lay to ensure ongoing viability. I present on the start up stage monthly at various places around the state and am more than happy to discuss this in greater details with you if you like.

Were there any hiccups encountered in the first year? or can you share any lessons learnt from running a co-op? 

We had to move venues three times (nightmare, but maintained low operational costs and are now in a great place which services us perfectly for where we are at.

Managing volunteers was a tricky process too. We have since changed our model to the one reflected in the membership prospectus. The new system is that all members pay $45 or $25 for health care and pensioner card holders and they pay the same price for their food which has gone up to an average of 25% on top of cost. There are 17 working members positions plus board members who still pay the same membership prices but they now receive a 20% discount off all purchases. This is a more efficient system as we only need to managed a very small committed group of volunteers.

Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

What does the co-op hope to do in the future?

Food Co op Fresh and Food Co op living are both the projects on the cards at the moment.

Membership Communications

Membership communication has gradually become more streamlined with monthly e-newsletters, the website, Facebook and volunteer emails all being utilised. Currently a range of people manage the various platforms, but it is projected that this will continue to become tighter and more consistent as time progresses.

The strongest following is on Facebook, and this social media outlet has been used to good effect for advertising produce as well as events. The e-newsletters include information sourced from a variety of Board members and are designed to be consistent and follow the Co-Op branding utilised in-store and on the website. Currently, volunteers are communicated with via a separate email chain from the Volunteer Co-Ordinator. New software is being trialled to see if this process can also be streamlined.

The website was designed with Co-Op branding in mind, and is a great resource for members and curious onlookers alike. Information (such as the Co-Op’s top sellers) is easily available, and the range of produce is captured via the inclusion of a product list. An option exists for members to request items they would like to see on Co-Op shelves. The website is easy to use, inclusive and informative. In future years it is projected that the Education and Fresh sections will come alive, as these portfolios grow and mature.

Retail Shop

Our retail shop is not typical. We always have a pot of tea and a freshly baked cake to share (supplied by volunteers) while members connect and share food stories, recipes and meal plans. We provide a childrens play area, seed swap and abundance boxes. Our retail shop currently has a product range of over 350 competitively priced bulk dry foods and a growing range of locally (and ideally organic) grown meats, fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs, plus a growing range of household cleaning and personal care products. The shop opens three times per week on a Tuesday 3 – 6pm, Thursday 2 – 6pm and Saturday 9 – 3pm.

Co-op shifts are operated by a Working member. Working members are sought each quarter by the Volunteer Co-ordinator, placed on a quarterly roster and are expected to complete three shifts per quarter. Benefits for a Working Member is a 20% discount on items which carry a surcharge (in accordance with the product purchase hierarchy).

Programs

Co Op Living - Wholefood education via events, forums, workshops and school programs.

Beechworth Food Co-Op Living is a commitment to deliver a minimum of 12 educational and connecting workshops per annum. Our first workshop was with Humble Hemp and was incredibly well attended with overwhelmingly positive responses. We have a vibrant and diverse line up of events in the coming months. The objective of this arm of the business is to educate our community about genuinely living a simpler, more connected and more mindful life that embraces the Co-Op ethics.

To stay true to the overarching objectives of the Food Co-Op, a systematic and diverse educational program is being developed for delivery to the members to expand their understanding of what wholefoods (and their health benefits) are and how they can be used. We offer a schools excursion program where kids learn in a tasty hands on environment what the meaning of food provenance, local food systems, organic, wholefoods and food miles are. This has been utilised already by 3 of the 5 local schools across all year levels from prep to year 10.

Weekly meal planners, ‘how to use cards’ and an annual cookbook are being developed and progressively released. We have a e-newsletter that shares recipes, provides updates, promotes upcoming events in the region, highlights new products and producers and opportunities for community members to connect.

We have cooking demonstrations where local producers cook with their product and share their stories.

Rural Bulk Food Co-Op's: Beechworth Food Co-Op

Community connection

A clear objective for the Food Co-Op shop space was to create a ‘third place’(a location that is not your work or your house). Somewhere that is not yours, not mine but ours. A place that can be shared, a place to connect, a place of open, warm friendship where everyone is welcome and learning is encouraged.

We host seasonal morning teas to bring our members together and educate about ways to support local food and utilise wholefoods in their everyday family meals, creating a healthier more connected community and localising our food supply system.

The Food Co-Op delivers quarterly catch up days where mugs of soup or coffee and cake are shared. These mornings have been well attended, are vibrant and richly connecting events which will continue. In addition to the special quarterly events, a weekly addition is the offer of a freshly baked cake (baked by a volunteer) and a cup of tea, this is regularly the reason for more than 20 members at one time to extend their stay at the Co-Op to connect with others.

Abundance boxes

Another community connecting attribute of the Co-Op is the ‘abundance boxes’ which are a free ‘take and leave as you please’ system that encourages those with plentiful amounts in their garden to share with those who do not. This system enhances the understanding of seasonality, encourages the desire to share with others and inspires the creation of recipes which are readily shared.

Seed library

The Co-Op houses a seed library which is serviced by members who deposit their saved seeds and take the seeds from others as needed for their next seasons plantings. Again this instills a strong sense of community connection, inspires questions and results in learnings.

All of these existing initiatives provide the backbone of a strong community group that enables a successful launch into the aggregation and provision of fresh food. Connecting farmers to eaters!

Collaboration and alignment

The Beechworth Food Co-Op has direct organisational links to key local, regional and national organisations. Our closest link is to the Beechworth Urban Landcare and Sustainability Group, from where the Co-Op grew. We share common ideas and collaborate on projects that build community resilience, connections and positive environmental outcomes. The Beechworth Food Co-Op is a contributing member of the North East Sustainability Alliance (NERSA) which is the regions peak body for sustainability groups.

The Beechworth Food Co-Op also sits on the ‘Local Food Network North East and Riverina’ committee which is the regions peak local food advocacy group with connections to local government, health agencies, catchment management authorities and local educational institutions. The Beechworth Food Co-op is represented on the Indigo Shire Councils Environment Advisory Committee taking a leading role within the Local Food sub group. On a national scale the Beechworth Food Co-Op is a member and active collaborater with the Australian Food Soverienty Alliance.

We have initiated an alliance with the Beechworth Montessori School and shall contribute to their Montessori Adolescent Program which includes the building of a permaculture garden. We plan to contribute to the education of children and adults, and in doing so help create a more sustainable, self supporting food system.

If someone is interested in shopping with Beechworth Food Co-op, what do they need to know?

Just come on up and visit us during the opening hours - we are open and welcoming to all!


beechworthfoodcoop.org.au

4 comments

  1. It's so great to read about the Beechy co-op! They are just up the road from us (and by that, I mean 15 minutes away) and have been doing pretty awesome things! It's inspiring!

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    1. I am super jealous you get to live so close to this community driven enterprise. The town of Beechworth is lucky :)

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  2. Hi Erin, I live in Griffith NSW and have a keen interest in estabilishing a food co op in our local community. Enjoying reading the variety of food co ops that are already out there, as I previously have purchased through the food co op in Katoomba (Blue Mountains, NSW) and was thinking of establishing a similar one to it in our community. Look forward to reading and learning more on ways of setting one up, very inspiring!

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    1. That is wonderful to hear. I hope to continue sharing more about rural co-op's. Let me know if you do get one going, as I'd love to feature your story about getting one going.

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