Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A local organic dry food co-op: How one group of Morelanders went about setting one up

I am very lucky to live in Newlands (Coburg East above Bell St) where there is an existing organic dry food Co-op of locals: they bulk buy direct from the wholesaler, full bags, boxes or slabs; put an order every 3-4 months; split between themselves the products as per their individual needs. The benefits are high quality organic products at wholesale price, less packaging, fewer supermarket trips and carting, less transport overall… And of course a local network of Co-op members. 

With a limit of 20 members (on practical grounds), I was on the waiting (non-moving) list and now without a car, a local delivery had much appeal. With the help of the first Co-op, we started our own; now is my turn to pass on the idea with information you may want to adapt to your own needs.

From the waiting list, 3 of us decided to make this happen. We did not know each other then but 2-3 friends or acquaintances could start this anywhere. We had the benefit of the first Co-op helping us with their experience and wisdom and sharing with us contacts, weighing equipment, trolley ...

We decided to start simple: one supplier only (Pure Harvest), only a few of their bulk products (that require weighing) and a few ‘stand alone’ items. (Their catalogue has 20 pages!). From word of mouth, we rather rapidly ended up with 12 willing people, so we were ready for our first ordering process. We very probably could have started with 5-6 people to reach the $200 minimum to put an order in Metropolitan Melbourne ($400 in rural areas). We felt we did not wanted to go to the full 20 people straight away as we learned our way and got to know each other; the more people the more the weighing and sorting can be cumbersome. We also agreed not to expect people to buy a lot or that people would have to place an order every time.

It all went very smoothly. We will likely add products and could very well be full house by our next order.

So, how does it work? 

1 - What we buy
We chose to start with the following products organic products from what was popular in the first Co-op and our members’ taste: Rolled Oats (definite stars for taste and $2.83/kg); Flours: Baker’s and wholemeal; Rice: Jasmine and Brown; Sugar; Sultanas; Cocoa Powder (that comes by the kilo so no need to gather interest for 20 or 25 kg bag!); corn chips (8 packets in a box); various long life Soy, Goats, Cow milks that come in 12 unit slabs.

All together we had 6 products to weigh out (none being liquid) and 6 lines of boxes to sort; quite manageable. If people wanted items (not requiring weighing) from the lengthy catalogue, they could provide us with codes, quantities and prices to cut and paste onto our order.

Each Co-op’s member needs to have large enough and easy-to-weigh-into food containers with good lids and space to store the products in between orders. The person with the largest amount for a product usually ends up with their product in the original bag.

It will take us a while to have an idea of how much we actually use over a 3 months period, store it suitably (some organic products benefit from a short trip in the freezer or fridge to prevent weevils), adjusting to paying for larger amounts, learn to cook around what is still in the pantry in the lead up to the next order.

2 –Jobs – each member must be willing to contribute – jobs can be rotated
One person does the admin (maintain the list of members details, compile the order, adjust amounts for full bags, deal with suppliers, communicate with the group the delivery details, produces the weighing record sheets), one person with reasonable Excel skills does the finances (manage the Excel worksheets, send what each person owes, collate payments, pay the suppliers), the remainder co-op members do the weighing and sorting after delivery. The full co-op of 20 has 3 sorting groups, organised around the days and times people are available, rotating their turn to do the sorting. They also do bulk oil and tamari.

3 – Order meeting
It seems easier to have an ordering meeting rather than dealing with lots of emails, particularly because each individual’s order may need to be rounded up or down to reach a full bag’s weight. If there is not enough demand to make up a full bag, the product does not get ordered that time.

It is also good to meet to know each other as all this is based on trust. Even with an ordering meeting, there are still quite a few emails going back and forth!

Later on we might choose to do like the first Co-op, where the people that cannot attend provide a list with their desired quantities. One person present “represents” one absent. The admin person enters amounts in the turn of names, adjust later the spreadsheet for full bags as they do not have time enough at the meeting and let people know before the order goes out.

We are also exploring the possibility to use google docs, and use the ordering meetings to adjust amounts and socialise. That is the beauty of small co-ops: fine-tuning easily to what works.

4 – Ordering and delivery
We place our compiled order by email; having the recommendation of the first Co-op we did not have to pay immediately. An order placed early enough in the week will be delivered before the weekend.

One member provided their house for delivery. It is important to select a place with no steps, steep slopes or obstructions for the delivery staff; protected from rain and sun; large enough for the activity hive of weighing and sorting as well as to hold the products for the few days between delivery and last pick up; easily accessible for weighing containers’ drop-offs and pick-ups without having to be there to open doors or locked gates.

5 – Weighing, sorting and pick up 
Every body bring their labelled containers to the sorting house before hand or when they come to help sorting.

Weighing sheets per product (names and quantities) are printed beforehand from the spreadsheet. They also act as signing off sheets as people pick up their items.

When the order is delivered, a sorting group comes and weighs the products into the labelled containers. Just like playing shop!

4-5 scales are needed, ideally at least one that can weight to 10 kg. In our case, we share a kit with the other co-op that has scales, clipboards, pens, labels and so on as well as a trolley. They raised the money for it via a cloth swap!

The boxes and slabs get sorted with the person’s name written on it.

Boxes and slabs to sort

Labelled containers before weighing

By the end of the sort, there is a pile for each person.

At collection time, each person checks their order against the products lists, signing off that they have collected that amount. Collecting shortly after sorting is highly valued by the hosts!

As with the other Co-op, people often pick up for their closest neighbours, or houses they will drive past.

In case a product is not delivered (it happens we are told), the Excel spreadsheet will have to be adjusted. Sometimes the prices are also slightly different from the catalogue. So we asked that people pay only after the order has been sent off, not after the order meeting.

People pay via direct banking to the finance person that settles the account with the supplier.

We ask that each member send an email to the finance person as they pay; in the email title: the amount, bank and receipt number. In our amazing digital age, still allow at least 2 days for some banks to do a “direct” banking transfer so an email prevents unnecessary reminders and is easier to track.

$1 per order and per person is kept in a kitty to cover incidental costs like pens, new scales, possible errors in weighing that cannot be traced back or spills. We actually found out that some products had more weigh in the bag; we were not ready for what to do with that!

Overall it has been an interesting process. I have met some lovely locals which is great for adding to a sense of community. Many are also gardeners, are you surprised?

It took time initially; I can see it will get easier as we progress. The willingness of others to share the workload is inspiring.

I am glad we started with simplicity in mind. The first Co-op now often orders beyond the 2 tonnes the delivery truck can accommodate to the point that they are probably going to have a separate and more frequent time for the milks, which will also help with home storage. We are still at the stage where we are scratching our head about where to put the stuff – great opportunity to declutter non essential stuff and get priorities right!

The whole food co-op process makes me think more about where the food comes from and its sustainability. With less trips to the shops, I am less tempted to buy products I may just waste. I also have more time for food gardening. We had discussions about the organic brown rice, produced in Australia, and found out that the flooding required is also used by the farmer for ecological practice: regenerate some River Red Gum country.

I even started, with another Co-oper, a “Feed for Food” Co-op that orders from Andrew’s on High St, straws, manures and chook/rabbit food. No weighing involved. We have some similar arrangements: one admin, one finance person, direct banking and emails, spreadsheet and signing sheet, delivery to one house, once a term, no delivery fee for amounts above $200. Because there are no issues like pulling together for a full bag amount, order is by email to the admin person. Individuals may organise privately to share a bag of feed with another. Two of us only have a bike so we love to get things locally with a trolley or a wheelbarrow. It also creates a ready local forum for gardening questions, finding someone to water the garden or feed the chooks if you are away.

We are now in the International Decade of the Co-operative, so, are you inspired?

(from Pascale)
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