A consumer AND worker cooperative

Beanstalk Organic Food Co-operative is based in Newcastle, Australia, and is dear to our hearts (especially Jenny’s, given that she is currently Chair of the Board of Directors). We wrote about Beanstalk in a blog on 18 September 2013, and noted the differences between Beanstalk and Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn–at Beanstalk members volunteer their work and at Park Slope members have to work as part of their membership requirement.

An interesting thing happened as a result of that blog, a version of which was published in the Beanstalk newsletter. It turns out that members at Beanstalk support the idea of having to contribute their work. So a small working group is in the midst of developing procedures for a work requirement at Beanstalk with the aim of introducing the work requirement in January 2015.

When a conference for New South Wales food cooperatives was announced, Beanstalk members were keen to attend, especially the working group looking at the work requirement. On the last Saturday in July 2014, five Beanstalk members (including Jenny) travelled to Sydney for the conference. It started on Saturday afternoon with visits to four food coops–Manly Food Cooperative, Thoughtful Foods, Broadway Food Co-operative and Alfalfa House. Thanks to the sponsors for the event (including the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals), there was a conference dinner at The Hive in Erskineville. On Sunday around fifty participants got down to the serious business of presentations and workshops–and hearing from the other participating food coops in NSW, including Bathurst Wholefood Co-operative, Blue Mountains Food Co-op, Candelo Bulk Wholefoods Cooperative in Bega, FIG (Food Integrity Group) on the Central Coast, Flame Tree Community Food Co-op in Thirroul, Green Box Regional Food Co-op on the Illawarra, Nourishing Source Food Cooperative in Lane Cove, Rhubarb Food Co-op in Randwick.

One thing that stood out was the difference between the coops. There are coops that are stores and open six or seven days a week. Anyone can shop in these stores but there are discounts for members and even bigger discounts for members who volunteer. There are also coops that are similar to Beanstalk in that they are based on box schemes and as someone said, they “pop-up” once a week.

However, two things distinguished Beanstalk. First, the close relationship that Beanstalk has with farmers. Most of the other coops were sourcing organic fruit and veges via the Sydney markets; whereas the produce in Beanstalk boxes is sourced almost exclusively from local growers. Fruit and veges sold “on-the-side” (to supplement the boxes) come from the Sydney markets. Other produce, such as bread, milk, eggs and meat, is also sourced directly from local producers. Second, the work requirement for all members. A big issue that everyone talked about was getting enough volunteers to do the work that keeps the coops going, so there is a lot of interest to see how Beanstalk goes with “compulsory volunteering”.

One way to think about the introduction of a work requirement is that Beanstalk will be not just a consumer cooperative but a worker cooperative as well. As a consumer cooperative Beanstalk has tried to work against the individualisation that tends to go with being a consumer by emphasising the interdependencies between urban consumer and rural producers. Reframing Beanstalk as a worker cooperative also works against this individualisation by making it explicit that the cooperative simply cannot exist without its worker-owners. Although the work at Beanstalk will not be paid, worker-owners benefit through access to cheap local organic produce and through being able to cooperate with other worker-owners to help run a cooperative that aims to produce a fairer food system.

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