Joining an organic produce co-op can get you not only cheaper and better vegies but an introduction to like-minded neighbours.
IT’S 7.30am on a Friday. A dozen people, mostly young mothers, crowd a corrugated-iron back garage in Footscray, sorting fruit and vegetables. They’re hunched over two long rows of waxed grocer’s boxes, sharing out lettuce, leeks, beans, beetroot and much more.
The Seddon Organic Collective is holding its first sorting day. The members, and their toddlers, are making friends. The SOC is made up of 25 local residents. From now on, every week, they’ll buy cheap organic produce from the Melbourne Wholesale Market on Footscray Road, split it up, and dine in on the benefits.
Ken Johnson, the clean-cut president, is puzzling over paperwork, trying to tally the boxes, the money and the orders. He believes organic produce is both healthier and better for the environment. “This is a way to access organic food more cheaply,” he says.
The key to cheap supply is bulk buying from the wholesale market, and for that, the group must be incorporated.
In less than 15 minutes all the boxes are sorted. Each is bursting with more than a dozen kinds of fruit and vegies. While Johnson keeps pondering his lists, the other members chat and sip tea.
Leah Avene is thrilled to be a part of the new co-op. “I’m from Tuvalu, in the Pacific. It’s sinking due to global warming so I made a decision a year ago to try to live more sustainably. The first thing that we did was go vegetarian and start eating organic.”
The 23-year-old journeyed to the wholesale market at 6am to buy the produce from the wholesalers, Biodynamic Marketing. “For $20, it’s amazing value. I used to get a seasonal box from a local place, which cost me $45 a week and it was probably a bit smaller.”Big savings aren’t the only plus. “There’s a real community buzz growing among us, which is really lovely,” she says. “When we established the group it wasn’t just about organic eating. We also wanted to build friendships with like-minded people.”
The Seddon group is following a model begun by the Western Organic Collective in 2001. The WOC, based in Footscray, usually has an extended waiting list.
Long-term member Nick Ray says the group formed out of a desire to buy good organic food cheaply and without too much trouble.
“The quality of the stuff is extreme. None of that wrinkled-up organic produce that some people say isn’t quite up to speed. It’s a feast.”
As well as the weekly veggie box, WOC members buy bread from Pure Bread and run quarterly bulk dry-goods purchases. They also meet socially for “Seasonal Celebrations”. “Once a quarter we have a meal together,” Ray says. “People bring food along, we share news and we often have a theme. We talked about food miles at the last one.”
By 8.15am contented SOC members are leaving the garage, lugging boxes for themselves and others for delivery. The co-op has only just begun and there are still some kinks to iron out — they made three boxes too many today. But already there’s someone on the waiting list. Cheap organic produce is in demand, says Johnson. “It would be great if this model could spread around the city.”
How does it work?
EVERY Friday morning, two people buy the fruit and vegies from the Melbourne Wholesale Market. They drop the produce off at a designated house, where four people sort it, then deliver a box to each house. Voila!
Every member must contribute to the running of the collective. The work is done by roster: sorters must help out for a couple of hours every four to six weeks. Other people take on committee roles or organise the money, rosters and buying.
“It’s not a system that would work for everyone,” warns Nick Ray, from the Western Organic Collective. “You can only forget (to show up) so many times before you’re blacklisted!”
From experience, the collective has found that about 25 members is the right number. Any higher and the quantity of food required becomes too large to manage.
To make sorting and delivery as easy as possible, it’s best if members live close to one another.