Bland, hard tomatoes; exploitative milk pricing wars; aisles and aisles of sugar and salt-filled foods; apples from Japan and nectarines from China – all of it chemical-laden and all of it sold from two or three supermarket giants.
That is what our food industry looks like today, and that is exactly what the Bathurst Wholefood Co-operative was founded to challenge.
Founded not to extract added value from consumers and producers for third party executives and shareholders, but to add value to the whole community, the whole food-chain even, the Bathurst Wholefood Co-op is an alternative choice for those looking for ‘local food for local people’.
Meeting Cathie Hale, artist and co-operative co-ordinator, I’m told this little co-op began when a handful of community members got together four-and-a-half years ago to think of ways to organise and finance a co-operative food option for Bathurst.
Four-and-a-half years on, business is booming: the four or five hundred-member strong co-operative has seen sales soar two years running and is now even having to consider a bigger space to sell all the produce.
And if in the early days the co-op directors wondered whether the community would support the idea, any doubts as to the desire for a local, organic alternative soon evaporated when the community contributed some $40,000 in micro-credit to the co-op in a three-month-long fundraising drive.
The fundraising drive involved offering ‘Community Investment Notes’ for purchase at the rate of $100 per note; an investment which would be paid back to each buyer over time, with interest.
The scheme was an original and highly successful way of funding an upgrade to the co-op’s refrigeration and cashier systems, and it was also a unique way to get people involved and interested in the running of the co-operative.
As to why people are so enthusiastic about this little co-op, Cathie says it’s not just about the discounts, and “almost not even about the food, but the people”.
The non-profit is held up by just three part-time workers and an army of 70 volunteers, each of them taking their turn to work the tills, stock the shelves and clean up the shop.
Monty Giovenco – a 17-year-old high school student – is one of them.
His job is to maintain the shop’s social media presence, and thanks to Monty the co-op now has over 300 people following its Instagram page and over 1000 on Facebook.
Talking to Cathie and Monty, sitting among the barrels of lentils and oats, hearing the chatter float around between the customers and volunteers, I see that this little co-op reflects a deep desire for a better way of growing, selling, buying and consuming not only food but any commodity.
People naturally search for community and for human connection, and in the Bathurst Wholefood Co-operative they have found those very things.
So when people volunteer here, when they become members or when they just stop by to pick up some free-range eggs, they aren’t just doing so because of the discounts offered to members and volunteers, but because of the social returns of that investment of their time and money.
The Bathurst Wholefood Co-operative is in Macquarie Plaza, 49 William Street. Contact the co-op on 6332 1545.