9 tips for start­ing a lo­cal food co-op

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS & IMAGES DIANA NOO­NAN

The River­ton Or­ganic Food Co-op share what it has learned about shar­ing good food over the past 25 years.

South­land's River­ton Or­ganic Food Co-op en­joys a prom­i­nent po­si­tion in its small town's busy main street.

But it started in a small garage back in 1988. That's when Robyn and Robert Guy­ton sent out an in­vi­ta­tion to any­one in­ter­ested in or­gan­ics and grow­ing their own food to meet up. They set out 12 chairs in their garage, not hope­ful of at­tract­ing a lot of peo­ple.

Sixty peo­ple turned up, from older folk who had grown or­gan­i­cally all their lives, to young fam­i­lies more re­cently ar­rived who wanted to learn how to do the same.

“It was a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship,” says Robyn Guy­ton. “The older peo­ple knew how to grow and they al­ready had the seeds and the berry bushes and fruit trees which they were happy to share cut­tings from. They also knew how to com­post and were keen to teach oth­ers.”

Two years later, the younger mem­bers of the group – many of whom were by then grow­ing their own food – felt they would like to in­cor­po­rate or­ganic foods that couldn't be grown in South­land, like or­anges and ku­mara. To make this af­ford­able, they de­cided to start a food shar­ing group, or­der­ing in bulk, taking turns to divvy up the sup­plies, and jointly meet­ing the cost of freight.

The Guy­ton's vol­un­teered their garage again. It was req­ui­si­tioned as a col­lec­tion point for the in­com­ing goods, and get­ting to­gether to sort out the sup­plies made for a lot of fun times, es­pe­cially for Robyn and Robert Guy­ton's young chil­dren, Hol­lie, Terry and Adam.

Notes in the old ex­er­cise books used at the time for record-keep­ing show the amaz­ing amount of or­gan­i­sa­tion and hard work in­volved, says Robyn.

“There was a tele­phone tree to man­age, or­ders to be col­lected and placed, goods to be un­loaded, stored and weighed, com­post scraps to be dis­posed of… the list was quite long. Af­ter a time, it be­came clear it was the same group of peo­ple that were do­ing all the work. So, af­ter sev­eral years in the garage on the old model, we de­cided to take a new ap­proach and to form a not-for-profit shop run by vol­un­teers.”

Three premises and 26 years later, the op­er­a­tion runs quite dif­fer­ently. To­day, each per­son who works at the food co-op re­ceives a dis­count of 2% per hour (up to a max­i­mum of 15%) in re­turn for their labour. In a sense, the premises acts more as a shop than an ac­tual food co-op, although the name is re­tained in recog­ni­tion of the orig­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion's aims. Around 25 helpers work each

month at the co-op, some com­ing in once a month, oth­ers once a week.

The added ad­van­tage of the co-op’s present-day premises is that the shop is set up in the town’s En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre, en­abling an af­ford­able space-shar­ing op­tion while keep­ing the cen­tre open longer than would other­wise be pos­si­ble. The co-op has a nat­u­ral kin­ship with the var­i­ous groups that make use of the cen­tre, in­clud­ing South­land Seed Savers (first es­tab­lished in 1999 to de­velop a net­work of non-hy­brid seed shar­ing), and the Open Or­chard project which aims to es­tab­lish a di­verse range of old va­ri­eties of healthy her­itage fruit trees in South­land com­mu­ni­ties.

Its spot in the lo­cal En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre is cur­rently sur­rounded by craft shops, an art gallery, a state-of-the-art mu­seum, a su­per­mar­ket, and thriv­ing cafes serv­ing lo­cals and tourists alike.

On the day of NZ Life­style Block’s visit, the busy lit­tle sea­side town of River­ton (pop­u­la­tion 1200) is pos­i­tively buzzing. It’s only when you open the door of the food co-op and go in­side that you feel you’re leav­ing the hus­tle and bus­tle be­hind and en­ter­ing a space that looks, smells and feels more like the gen­tle gen­eral stores of a 1950s child­hood. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of the kind of places that once sold ev­ery­thing from jelly beans to boot laces, where pass­ing the time of day was as im­por­tant as mak­ing a pur­chase.

Com­fort­able so­fas and soft chairs are drawn up around a log burner, ban­ners hang from the ceil­ing, and pho­tos, posters and in­for­ma­tion pan­els adorn the homely brick walls. In one cor­ner, a help-your­self li­brary is gen­er­ously stocked with books. Wicker laun­dry bas­kets and boxes spill over with veg­eta­bles, fruit and gar­lic, neatly dis­played on the pol­ished wooden floor. Sturdy pa­per sacks with rolled down tops are filled with dried peas and beans. Wooden shelves are filled with nat­u­rally per­fumed soaps, balms and lo­tions, adding to the sense of peace the place ex­udes.

Robyn Guy­ton still spear-heads the

nat­u­rally per­fumed soaps, balms and lo­tions add to the sense of peace

op­er­a­tion of this not-for-profit or­ganic sup­plier, work­ing hard since its in­cep­tion 26 years ago. She is sit­ting on one of the so­fas, sur­rounded by screen-printed green t-shirts. Daugh­ter Hol­lie (now 21 and home from Otago Univer­sity for the hol­i­days) is busy tidy­ing in the back­ground.

Hol­lie was just two years old when she first be­gan help­ing with the or­ganic food sup­ply. In those days of the garage, the or­gan­i­sa­tion was less for­mal, more a food buy­ing club than a co-op.

“We moved to River­ton for Robert's teach­ing job and so I could be nearer my mum who lived in South­land," says Robyn. "Af­ter two years, we re­alised we'd fallen in love with the place and didn't want to leave. But there was a prob­lem.

"We weren't con­ser­va­tive by na­ture, yet we felt we'd moved to a part of the coun­try that was more white bread sand­wiches and Corona­tion Street than we were com­fort­able with, and that if we wanted to stay, we'd have to in­sti­gate some changes.”

Those changes have re­sulted in a valu­able com­mu­nity ser­vice, en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be more self-suf­fi­cient in food, and teach­ing them vi­tal skills through sem­i­nars, work­shops and other pro­grammes.

Early this year the build­ing that houses the co-op store came up for sale. The group had just weeks to raise the pur­chase price of $75,000. No prob­lem. They raised $20,000 on­line in a month, help­ing to se­cure them the build­ing, and when we last checked in, they had just a few thou­sand dol­lars left to raise to buy the build­ing out­right.

Ask Robyn what her own skills are, and her co-work­ers are quick to an­swer for her, la­belling her ‘in­spir­ing' and ‘vi­sion­ary'. Lis­ten­ing to Robyn talk about the co-op, you can also add calm, an at­tribute she no doubt re­quires when deal­ing with the var­i­ous chal­lenges which she says have, over the years, come in waves. The lat­est chal­lenge is how the co-op is to find time to an­swer the many emails it re­ceives from me­dia, and help­ing other groups to be­gin their own sim­i­lar en­ter­prise.

“Once, we could an­swer cor­re­spon­dence within two days. But now, es­pe­cially since the co-op was fea­tured in Coun­try Cal­en­dar (in 2015) we've be­come in­un­dated with re­quests for in­for­ma­tion, men­tor­ing, and also to be avail­able to me­dia. It's not easy to an­swer ev­ery en­quiry so quickly any more. Some­how, we have to work out how to find the time to do ev­ery­thing else be­ing asked of us. But we'll find a so­lu­tion. This is just another ex­am­ple of a chal­leng­ing ‘wave'.”

The co-op sells thou­sands of dol­lars of goods a year and can main­tain a sat­is­fy­ing level of stock on its shelves at any one time. It still man­ages to main­tain friendly re­la­tions with lo­cal busi­ness op­er­a­tors.

“( They) don't re­gard us as com­pe­ti­tion be­cause we serve a com­pletely dif­fer­ent group of buy­ers,” says Robyn. “That's a good thing but even­tu­ally I would like to see a com­plete re­ver­sal in the way we buy and sell food in this coun­try – ev­ery­where, in fact. There has only been a short pe­riod in his­tory when our food hasn't been grown or­gan­i­cally – per­haps a pe­riod of no more than a hun­dred years. I'd like to see the sit­u­a­tion change to a point where non-or­ganic food car­ries the la­bel ‘chem­i­cally grown' and or­ganic food is taken for granted and con­sti­tutes the bulk of what is avail­able to the pub­lic. If peo­ple want to buy chem­i­cally-grown food, I'd like to see them hav­ing to set up a food-co-op in or­der to af­ford this.”

Un­til that day ar­rives, or­ganic food is likely to be dis­trib­uted in al­ter­na­tive ways, and Robyn has a few point­ers if you'd like to see this hap­pen in your town.

The co-op sells a lot of food, but main­tains friendly re­la­tions with lo­cal busi­nesses

Early this year the build­ing that houses the co-op came up for sale, so the mem­bers fundraised to buy it. The Guy­ton's hum­ble garage was the start­ing point, along with hand-writ­ten records (right).

Left to right: vol­un­teers Hol­lie Guy­ton, Rose­mary Todd, Karla Evans, Lynore Mccabe and Robin Guy­ton. The shop is much big­ger in 2017 than it was back in the mid-90s (pic­tured right), but the fresh, mostly lo­cally-grown food is still the draw­card,

Robyn Guy­ton.

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