One of the things I looked forward to when having children was a better sense of connectedness to my community. After our son was born I relished the support of the “Yoga Mum’s” group we formed following our Yoga and Baby Massage course. So when one of these mothers suggested that the three families who lived close to each other might like to pool together to buy cheap, fresh, organic fruit and vegies, I jumped at the chance. I had been thinking about eating organic produce since my pregnancy and saw this as a chance to see how good it really was. I was also keen to build my connection with these women and what better way than through food!
It was October 1999 and we decided to call ourselves “Boys Fruit and Vegie Co-op” – we needed a name for the order form! As we had all given birth to boys, we couldn’t think of anything better! So in went our first order – bulk only of course. We had so many carrots and so many eggplants! We quickly realised that we needed more members to handle the amount of produce we had to purchase. We wanted to be able to choose what each family bought rather than having a standard box of produce for each family. So through our connections a few more enthusiastic people came on board. I remember having a strong group commitment to keeping the Co-op going. We loved our produce and the concept of working together to meet our individual needs. There was energy and vibrancy among the core group and a commitment to making it work, even though our connections to each other were loose.
We opened a “Boys account” with the bank, and we named specific jobs according to job time and frequency. This averaged out with each family contributing about one and a half hours per week. We allocated agent numbers so we could identify who was paying their account and required a “float” of payment in advance from each family. We developed an information sheet for new members that explained how the Co-op worked. We also aimed to have regular meetings every three months followed by a shared meal. At the same time, in my paid work as a Community Worker I was travelling a similar path with a group of residents in a Caravan Park who were developing a Micro-Finance Savings and Loans Co-op.(1) This was a wonderful group of people from whom I learnt plenty about working together for mutual benefit and the importance of having some formal structure to a Co-op.
Until May 2002 the Co-op on the whole worked well. Members did come and go for different reasons, including my two yoga mum friends. The Co-op was based on an honesty system of paying and some basic principles that we had developed early on:
Members of the Boys Coop are:
- Open to new ideas
We developed these principles because at times members raised issues about how the Co-op worked. Because we all had young families, it was important to remain flexible and maintain an understanding that each member would contribute as best they could. This commitment was one of the strengths that kept us all together. At times new members would chose not to stay as they were not comfortable with this way of working.
Until this time I had been carrying the administrative load of the Co-op and personally feeling some responsibility for its continuation. My life was busy and I was pregnant with our second child. The Co-op had one member who was in considerable debt and seemed unable or unwilling to pay. It was becoming difficult to monitor finances and our agent number system wasn’t working. The wholesaler then requested we pay on the day for the produce received. Suddenly the Co-op was in debt hundreds of dollars. We could no longer order and I had to call an emergency meeting. I felt bad – but we were a co-operative and we all had responsibility for how things were – our honesty system just wasn’t working!
There is nothing like a crisis to pull people together. Our collective energy and strength shone through. Solutions were developed and relationships enriched. This was a turning point for me. I felt I could let go and that the collective strength of the Co-op would pull us through. We had created a safe environment where we could be honest and trust each other. We developed a way of paying the debt that was agreed by all members. Using the accounting skills of one member we also implemented a tighter system of financial control and a buddy system for new members. We doubled the “float” and established a membership fee.
This October the Boys Fruit and Vege Co-op was six years old and still going well. Sometimes we can’t put an order in because there is not enough money in the bank or we have to call an emergency meeting. But that’s the life of a Co-op! Sometimes I get annoyed when the bottom falls out of a waxed box again because a new member hasn’t been told not to use them, or when it is a rush to drive across town to pick up our order. But then the kids get excitedly out of the car to play with their friends, I get to have a chat with someone I don’t see very often and of course we have all those great fruit and vegetables.
So in the words of a fellow co-op member – “I think it comes down to thinking globally and acting locally. This little bit of effort contributes to my family’s social and nutritional well being, my Co-op community’s social and nutritional well being and my wider community’s financial and environmental well being”.
(1) Micro finance is the provision of savings and/or credit facilities and processes to people living on low incomes who have difficulty accessing formal financial institutions. Micro finance provides access to no-interest credit and no-interest micro-enterprise and facilitates regular savings patterns. Find out more and how to start your own from the Foresters ANA website at http://www.forestersana.com.au/