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Food Together
Food Together’s nationwide food co-op services offers fruit and vegetables at cost price. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Archi Banal)

BusinessJune 6, 2022

Want cheaper vegetables? Try a food co-op (just don’t call it that)

Food Together
Food Together’s nationwide food co-op services offers fruit and vegetables at cost price. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Archi Banal)

It helped Christchurch residents access food after the 2011 quake. Now, Food Together is going nationwide to help with another kind of crisis.

The apples are crunchy, the kiwifruit are ripe, and the beetroot are bigger than your fist. But the truck driver forgot the pumpkins, and there’s a crate of kūmara left over, and extra mandarins too. “We’re working out how many veges go in each box,” says volunteer Haidee Stairmand, as she throws extra mandarins into orders. “We’re just missing the pumpkins.”

In front of Stairmand are boxes full of seasonal produce: mandarins with super-soft rind that peels off in seconds, lettuce dripping with overnight rain, and ready-to-eat bananas, apples and broccoli. If everything looks fresh, that’s because it is. “Everything’s picked, if not early this morning, then yesterday,” says Stairmand, a yoga instructor by trade. “It’s fun to look through and see what’s in there too.”

Food Together
Boxes are packed full of fresh fruit and vegetables ready for customers. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Soon, customers will begin arriving to pick up their orders, which were booked online earlier in the week, and cost between $15 to $50 depending on the size of their family. Each box is marked with a name, and a smiley face. As they arrive, hip-hop and R&B hits play through the foyer, and customers often stick around to chat. They may end up volunteering themselves. 

Here, on a drizzly Thursday morning in a former Avondale funeral home, an experiment is underway. It is – whisper it – the start of a food co-op, one of Auckland’s first. “With the cost of living, and the pandemic hangover, we’ve noticed a lot of working families can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Jaclyn Bonnici, the executive director of I Love Avondale, a not-for-profit community group. “There is a bit of a rebellion baked into it, an anti-duopoly part to it.”

I Love Avondale also runs the social supermarket Free Guys, and organises community dinners and food parcel deliveries for those in need. Lately, that need has been increasing. With the ongoing cost of living crisis, as petrol prices trend upwards and the supermarket duopoly continues unabated, Bonnici’s noticed lately that even families with two working parents are struggling. “So many families are on the margins,” she says. “These are working families, two jobs, decent incomes, feeling the rising cost of living, looking for savings.”

So, two months ago, Bonnici Googled “food co-op Auckland” out of desperation. Her search returned no hits. Co-ops, in which volunteers help staff a not-for-profit store in return for discounted groceries, are popular overseas, especially in the UK and US, but they’ve never taken off in Aotearoa. As urban sprawl continues, and the pace of life increases, Bonnici says it’s especially hard to get them going in a place like Tāmaki Makaurau.

But during her online search, Bonnici stumbled upon Christchurch-based co-op Food Together. Founded by an Anglican vicar more than 30 years ago, Food Together found itself becoming an essential service after the devastating 2011 earthquake, helping families access fresh, good quality produce from eight hubs around the devastated South Island city. 

Food Together
Food Together co-ops are already operating in Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Now, they’ve arrived in Auckland. (Photo: Supplied)

Since then, founder Craig Dixon says Food Together has been helping tackle a different kind of crisis. “It annoys the hell out of me just watching the great divide between those that have, and those that haven’t, get worse and worse,” he says. “It’s a whole model that’s working for business. It’s not working for people.”

These days, Food Together has hubs around the country, including in Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson and Dunedin, helping feed thousands every week. They operate out of churches and halls, and are staffed by volunteers, though the first Food Together store is scheduled to open this year. It will operate in the same way. “From the very beginning we said, ‘Anyone who wants to join, come and join’. We didn’t want to stigmatise anyone,” says Dixon.

The majority of people are there, he says, to help alleviate their food budget. Since Covid, seeing other people and being part of a group has become important too. “It’s the whole community coming together to solve a problem.”

When Bonnici got in touch with Dixon to ask if she could trial a co-op in Avondale, it took just weeks to get it up and running. Volunteers were found, and fresh produce was sourced. “It’s a pretty easy model to replicate,” says Dixon.

Now, it’s helping feed the community while raising a finger to the supermarket duopoly. “We’re sick of supermarkets. We want some alternatives,” says Bonnici. “This is a direct response and it’s us testing an idea to see if this is one solution.” So far, it appears to be working. “People love it. It’s super fresh, super good value, and they get to see their neighbours.”

No one is making any money from this. That may come as a surprise when everyone is so used to paying supermarket prices. What each box costs is what it costs to produce the food, with no middle-people taking a cut. “We’re not taking a profit,” says Bonnici. “No one is. The growers are getting paid. We know the truck drivers, we know the people picking it up at the market. It came an hour ago, and in an hour it’s packed.” 

food together
Food Together’s co-op model is helping feed thousands of families – and helping them avoid supermarket prices. (Photo: Supplied)

For their services, each volunteer receives a box of leftovers, but for Stairmand, it’s not even about that. “I’ll come and give you a couple of hours of my time to help people eat fresh,” she says. She enjoys seeing what’s in season, and sending out good food to nice people. For her, it’s about community. “It’s a nice way to be involved with other local people.”

This Avondale hub has only been operating for four weeks, but word is starting to spread. Already their boxes are feeding around 30 families. There’s capacity to feed many more, says Bonnici, her eyes twinkling as she says she wants to hit 100 as soon as possible. As we talk, someone texts her asking if there are any spare boxes. Luckily, she’s saved a few for this very occasion.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t live in Avondale. “All are welcome,” she says. Later, she’s dropping boxes to friends in Herne Bay and Mt Albert, and meeting representatives in Mt Roskill to advise them on how it works. Word appears to be spreading. It may be a co-op, but just don’t call it that. “People don’t know what it means,” says Bonnici. “We call it a ‘kai hub’.”

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