A small food cooperative in Sydney, Australia, is leading the way in affordable, sustainable and local food. Madeline Park reports.
Tucked on the corner of Phillip Street and Enmore Road in Newtown, Sydney, Alfalfa House, a non-profit cooperative offering low-cost, ethically-produced whole foods, may be a future model for local grocers as well as an inviting initiative for sustainable farmers.
Founded in 1981, the house was originally named “The Community Food Store,” relaying its other main goal: to foster communal involvement.
The objectives of Alfalfa House go beyond those of competing natural food supply stores. According to Alfalfa House’s website, as an established cooperative, it is “owned by its members who directly run the organization, make decisions democratically, and use capital for mutual rather than individual benefit.”
Carly Woods is the produce coordinator of Alfalfa House. “It not only aims to bring about ethical organic awareness to people through the products, but also works to gather community by providing a space where communal groups can come in and meet each other, learn about sustainable food production, and hold workshops,” she says.
The website also provides an outline of written objectives and proves no less in tune with the consumers’ health and their involvement. It states firstly, “to provide a retail source of whole foods so that members may have some control over their food supply.”
Among others, the House “aims to provide minimally packaged and minimally processed, affordable, wholesome, organic food to its members.”
Shopper Jennifer Hamilton and visiting fellow of Environmental Humanities at the University of New South Wales is a member at the Alfalfa House – and loves turning up with her own receptacles.
“The no packaging policy is one of the many reasons I shop at the Alfalfa House,” Hamilton says. “Having to bring my own containers teaches me a different way to shop and is sustainable for the system as a whole.”
Hamilton is also a co-founder of Earlwood Farm, a start-up share house situated on a quarter-acre block of land in Sydney. “So far we have enough garden space to farm our own food so that we’re self-sufficient, but our goal is to ultimately produce enough to supply places such as the Alfalfa House or a local farmer’s market,” she says.
Hamilton thinks there’s a real need for places like Alfalfa House and her own urban farmlet.
“We need to be able to implement cities as agricultural space. We can use urban farming as a method to produce food for the future, and I think more councils and governments are realizing it’s a necessary plan of action,” she says. “In farming for our own food locally, we take pressure off the supply chain for food around the entire country.”
The produce at Alfalfa House is sourced “as close as we can get it,” says Woods. “I don’t get anything from overseas.” When it comes to determining just where and what to get, the staff of the House looks to its consumers.
“We took a poll last year, on what people preferred, on what they wanted in here,” she said.
“The choices were organic food, chemical-free, or local, and it came out that they wanted both local and chemical-free, but they weren’t as concerned if it was organic or not; they just wanted to make sure we were supporting small, local farmers.”
Of the census Woods says, “We have to do what the members want. We don’t make all the decisions as a staff, because we stay guided by the membership of the cooperative, and those who want to be involved.”
She says, “We exist to serve the needs of the members which, in the end, is really the foundation of the co-op.”
The website also describes it as “a means of organizing activity, not the activity of itself.”
One of the advantages to shopping at Alfalfa House is that as a result, members do receive their produce from small farms just hours outside of Sydney.
“I’m using a lot of local farmers now,” says Woods. “One guy in particular is up in Durrell, about an hour away. I’m trying to phase out the big warehouse people, such as Eco-farms and Back toEden, and get as much of the ‘little guys’ as possible.”
The co-op offers a wide range of sustainably-grown fruits and vegetables relating to season, which are delivered fresh to the door every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A promise is made on the website, stating, “Alfalfa House has visited each of the farms from whom we buy directly and is satisfied that each un-certified farmer is farming organically.”
When asked to compare the prices of the produce at the co-op to the prices of produce at a conventional grocery store, Woods laughs, “It’s been so long since I’ve been into a grocery store!”
She continues, “It’s obviously more expensive, because with organic produce you don’t have a giant agricultural scale to pick your zucchinis from, and the farmers can’t use chemicals. But that being said, among every other health food shop I’ve been to, our prices are phenomenally less.”
The cooperative offers a 10 per cent discount to members, and a 25 per cent discount to volunteers. “People come in from all over. We have a sister co-op deal set up with all of the other co-ops in New South Wales, so if you’re a member here, you receive a discount at all of them as well,” says Woods.
The main difference is Alfalfa House is not out to make a profit, whereas surrounding health food stores are.
In describing the method the co-op uses to keep prices manageable for members, Woods says, “We buy in bulk, we buy local, and we buy cheapest within reason. And to accommodate for the people who come in and can afford whatever they want, I do buy a few specialty items weekly.”
Members benefit by the overwhelming communal outreach by the cooperative.
“As a co-op we do an annual fundraiser that is sustainably-focused, and in terms of workshops, we focus on getting members in who want to use the space,” says Woods. “We host vegan cooking workshops, I hold health sessions that are catered by a vegan tea house, and we have a local practitioner come talk about proper health. It’s always a really low charge, which enables people to come in to learn how to better their lives.”
Similarly, Jennifer Hamilton of Earlwood Farm finds the assembled community to be one of the most important benefits of urban farming. “Urban life can be so alienating,” she says.
Woods agrees, “We’re a shop that sells organic food, that’s our front, but behind that is a team of people that works communally to educate people about sustainable awareness.”
Want to start thinking globally and acting locally? Alfalfa House is located at 113 Enmore Road, Newtown, NSW 2042. If you are interested in getting involved, volunteering is highly encouraged and appreciated, as the cooperative is run on primarily a volunteer-basis. You may also become a member for $AU20. For further information and inquiries, please visit www.alfalfatest.org or call (02) 9519 3374.
Madeline Park is a student from New York University. She is currently studying in Sydney.