When it was announced the National Health Co-op went into voluntary administration earlier this year, the team at the member-owned and operated The Food Co-op Shop and Cafe in the Canberra CBD didn’t feel any jitters.
The Food Co-op is all about sustainable, organic food for a good price, and runs largely off volunteer support. In return for their time or membership fees, members receive discounts at the store, and the cycle continues.
However, that’s not to say things have always been this rosy.
In fact, according to The Food Co-op’s communications and community development coordinator, Amie Illfield, only three years ago things were looking decidedly different for the shop and cafe’s future.
At the time, Amie wasn’t working at The Food Co-op in any other role than as a member, but decided to get together with a working group to see what could be done to ‘fix’ some of the issues they were facing.
She says a couple of key learnings emerged. One was the lack of any investment in communications resources. The other, slightly more deep-seated issue was a loss of institutional and organisational knowledge over time.
The communications issue led to Amie’s current position being created, a website overhaul and a rebranding process.
But in regards to the other issue, Amie says it’s more about education.
She explains that as an inherently democratic organisation, any member is welcome to contribute to decisions made as a cooperative.
People who contribute as members, either working or paid, are technically and legally part of the owners of the business, and can vote at the annual general meeting (AGM) and can nominate to sit on the board, or contribute to strategic and operational decisions in other ways.
Amie says it’s important the big picture is always considered, and she believes this is something that was being forgotten only a few years ago.
She adds that often members come onboard with loads of energy and enthusiasm, but this can sometimes lead to burn out.
“It’s great that people have these big ideas, but without a large amount of understanding as to how it works and the complexities of the organisation, we can’t always do this,” says Amie.
“It’s important that at least some of our members have that really strong institutional and historical knowledge of the organisation, which leads us to going on beyond the immediate survival strategies.”
These days, with a focus on reconciling new ideas with tried-and-tested methods, The Food Co-op is doing better than ever, and is set to come up with a five-to-10-year financial plan.
Amie says profit margins remain minimal, but it’s heartening to see money in the bank to allow for projects such as a kitchen refit.
The Food Co-op, which is run mostly by volunteers, is also more than just a retail business – it’s a space for community and real connections where work and activity is not just connected to making a profit.
It provides a space for community groups and not-for-profits to gather, and Amie says The Food Co-op is also intended to fulfil an educational role about water usage, labour concerns and the origins of food.
It will soon commence member tours with the farmers it partners with so people can gain a better understanding of where their food comes from.
There’s a whole host of ways The Food Co-op members can get involved, such as volunteering, paying for membership, helping out with picking up goods or dropping off rubbish.
But at its heart, Amie says it’s the high-level of member engagement which ensures people have a sense of belonging to, and investment in, the The Food Co-op.
“We have hundreds of members who aren’t just members on paper and buy food, but who actually keep everything going and want to see it succeed,” she says.