The Food Co-op began its life as the ANU Nutrition Society back in 1976. Since then it has morphed over into the much loved Food Co-op which we know today. The Food Co-op owes everything to the many dedicated members and volunteers who have nurtured and developed it over the last 40 year. Below is a flavour of its history…
…Written by Fiona Game, based on a conversation with founding member, ANU Nutrition Society (“Food Co-op”), 1976, Greg Carman.
It was a spring day and an irritating wind was blowing, as is wont to happen on spring days in Canberra. An economics/law student called Greg Carman was walking through the ANU Union and was attempting to shield his face from the fluffy, yellow pollen which was being flung around the courtyard, when he noticed a poster which read: “SAVE THE UNION HEALTH FOOD SHOP”. Greg had been at the ANU for about two and half years, but he had not had much interaction with the Uni’s health food nuts.
He knew the ‘Shop’ to be comprised of a small number of people, who were predisposed to handing out fruit and oats in nice, environmentally-friendly paper bags. Their shop, which was known as the Union Health Food Shop (or some such name) had paid students to help to dispense food, but it was a not-for-profit enterprise. Unfortunately, it looked like it was now on the skids.
Fortunately, another student had put up these distressed SOS posters, and his name was John Talent. John was to be the hero of the moment because he had a new vision for this Shop.
John’s vision was to form the ANU Nutrition Society to take over the shop and staff it with volunteers. No money was to be wasted on wages: they would become a co-operative! They wouldn’t use packaging, but instead, food would be kept in bulk, in big plastic garbage bins, which students could come and help themselves to if they brought their own containers and bags to put it in. Affiliation with the Students Association would bring access to free phones and photocopiers and cash grants for bins. Donations of equipment were made: a set of weighing scales, a cash register and timber for shelving. Thus, the philosophy of the modern Food Co-operative was born!
With this new momentum taking hold, a year or so later the shop, now known as the Food Co-op, was moved next-door, to a larger location, where the Union Newsagent currently sits. Our old pal, Greg Carman, had become heavily involved in the administration by this time. He had good reasons for being involved: nutrition was a subject close to his own heart, having dismally watched his diet over the past few years dwindle from hearty-home cooked meals to stodgy, quick, pasta meals so typical of most students.
With this large, new, news-agent sized location, the Co-op was able to expand their product line, especially since they now had access to the loading dock behind them. Importantly, deliveries could be made directly to a storeroom from the loading dock. Business started to boom and they tripled in size. The golden days of the 70s were upon them. Until the wicked hand of fate stepped in at the end of the decade…
It had always been mooted that the ANU Union would wish to renovate the area that the Co-operative occupied. Despite the fact that the Co-op were bitterly opposed to this, there was not much they could do despite getting Greg elected as the Chairman of the Union Planning Committee. But the gods smiled, and in 1979 the members of the Food Co-operative were able to move their operations to the west wing of what is now the Drill Hall Gallery.
One could be tempted to believe that it was the beginning of the end. Away from the heart of campus, the Drill Hall Gallery wing was in a derelict state. Not to be beaten by a small issue such as shitty accommodation, the co-op members got together to do some renovations, such as sanding and sealing the floor. One of the upsides of this new location was that they now got their own phone! Previously, the administrator of the Students Association had been supporting them by providing a switchboard-like service for the co-op. Her support and ‘protective-like shield’ had been pivotal in their previous location because they couldn’t afford their own phone in the Union building. However, they had always tried to make as many phone calls as they could from the SA phone without stretching the friendship.
Another, important, upside of the Co-op being moved to the left wing of the Drill Hall Gallery was that Radio 2XX was located in the other wing. Yes, the former Radio ANU had taken up residence there as part of morphing into beloved community radio station 2XX (FM 98.3). Nobody could have predicted how successful the resulting synergy would be. As a result of these two active community/student groups being placed in the same building, the Drill Hall Gallery became a great community hang-out space.
One must remember that this was a special era for students. Students could be ‘full-time activists and part-time students’ by virtue of the quaint philosophy of free education which still lingered from the Whitlam years. Students were able to receive living expenses from the Tertiary Education Allowance Scheme. (The amount of money wasn’t too exorbitant however; students used to joke about dropping out of uni and going on the dole, ‘Whoopee! I’m getting a payrise!’). As a result of this kind of freedom from financial pressures, there was a kind of community spirit on campus which today’s students can only dream about. Students were more optimistic about what they could do to save the world – that there could be a system that was not based on greed. They were fired by a kind of energy and activism that grew out of a rosy-eyed vision about what they could achieve as a community. La revolution was still alive.
The Food Co-operative thrived in these times. One day a man came to visit who had travelled the world conducting research on food co-operatives for his PhD thesis at The University of Texas at Austin (which now boasts a Food Co-op which covers four floors of a multi-storey building). He was amazed at what he found here in Canberra. What had grown from a small, student body had now grown, he believed, to become the largest retail purveyor of health foods in the southern hemisphere.
However, all golden times must come to an end. The Food Co-operative had grown in fact, too large, and it had become much more difficult to track finances. The kind of casual approach which had allowed people to hang around the premises, socializing and ‘snacking’ on the food was just one example of the incompetent management practices, which eventually resulted in a large and unmanageable debt. Once again, the Food Co-operative was in crisis.
Many people were shocked by this and became disillusioned. People have since commented that the danger of having such a wealth of energy and optimism – such as they had had in the ‘golden years’ – is that it can easily be punctured, and if people are not prepared for it they can fall hard.
One of the biggest losses of this era was the loss of the proximity between the Food Co-op and 2XX. Both organizations were moved to more marginalized locations, and both suffered for it. Sadly, both these institutions were gravely threatened by financial crises, factors such as rent rises and a slowly-dwindling support base took their toll on community organizations in the 21st century.
Skipping forward to today, located in its current premises the Food Co-op is back on a even keel. The current premises has allowed for the opening of a cafe which regularly serves 150 affordable hot vegan lunches Monday to Friday – and we are still offering minimally-processed food, often grown without anything artificial, and supplied in bulk to shoppers who bring their own containers (if not their own produce). Still food for people, not for profit. And still pretty cheap. The Food Co-op now employs two part time co-managers and a number of casual staff in the cafe, but much of the work is still carried out by a dedicated team of members and volunteers.
The Food Cooperative services a broad and diverse range of the community. It has a large student representation; including many who are not members but use the Cooperative to purchase healthy snacks on regular basis. Many ANU staff drop in to the Cooperative to purchase healthy snacks and lunches. A number of workers employed in offices in City West also purchase lunches or ingredients for their lunches from the Cooperative.