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 to you 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 coordinator, I’m told that this little co-op begun when four-and-a-half years ago a handful of community members got together to think of ways to organise and finance a co-operative food option for Bathurst, and 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 their 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 forty thousand dollars in micro-credit to the co-op in a three month long fundraising drive. For Cathie, the generosity of the members and customers showed that “our community really believes in us.” The fundraising drive involved offering ‘Community Investment Notes’ for purchase at the rate of a hundred dollars 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-ops refrigeration and cashier systems, and it was also a unique way of getting people involved and interested in the running of the co-operative.
Asking why people are so enthusiastic about this little co-op, Cathie tells me that 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 seventy volunteers, each of them taking their turn to work the tills, stock the shelves and clean up the shop. Monty Giovenco – a seventeen 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 three hundred people following its Instagram page and well over a thousand on Facebook. “Do you want to stay in this kind of work in the future?” I ask him – “definitely” he replies, “beats flippin’ burgers!” Bright, confident, and social, during my visit Monty was handed the phone to participate in a radio interview, telling the presenter and the listeners what he told me about the co-op and its social media presence. Confidence, social-skills, and community-mindedness – you can’t learn those things flipping burgers.
Talking to Cathie and Monty, sitting amongst the barrels of lentils and oats, hearing the chatter float around the shop 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 – things hard to come by in our ever more corporate world where seemingly everything is mediated by the market – 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 here to pick up some bright, golden-yolked 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.
This piece was first published in The Western Advocate.