Ethical eating from farm to fair work
Ethical eating from farm to fair work Tucked on Currie Street opposite the TAFE, the Co-op Coffee Shop occupies the ground floor of a building that is fostering its own cultural significance. 129 Currie St already hosts Mad Mouse Alley (out the back) and the Co-West writing collective (upstairs). It’s a hive of creative minds, packed neatly behind an espresso machine. As well as good vegetarian food – with gluten-free and vegan options – tea and coffee, the Co-op plays host to a modest collection of books, which is building to become a lending library. There’s a narrow bookshelf filled with zines, too, and the space to use their walls as a gallery. There are, at present, 10 members in the co-operative body that governs the coffee shop; there are two further provisional members , who are undertaking a three-month review process to gauge how well everyone works together. Two full members are sitting at a neat, circular table: Ian Law and Nikki McDaid-Morgan.There’s late afternoon sun coming in the windows, forks being clattered onto the counter and a baby (one of the co-op babies, as the joke goes) babbling in the background. There are a few co-op members milling about, and writers trooping up and down from Co-West. A sign on the door says ‘Come inside, it’s warm!’ even though the café closed at three. Law has worked in the public service and McDaid-Morgan as a barista. They found out about the budding co-op through presentations at the South West Community Centre. For Law, the café’s appeal lay in an escape from hierarchical business models. “There’s a lot of literature that shows that people can be far more productive working in this kind of environment,” he says. McDaid-Morgan took an ethical stand at the last café she worked for, and was penalised for her trouble. “I was frustrated with the ethics at the places in which I worked, and my lack of being able to say anything about it in a constructive way,” she explains. “At one point, I had my shifts cut at one of my jobs because I suggested to the corporate body that they might try recycling and they might stop objectifying women – they had women wearing skimpy outfits on the side of the road holding signs, and they were bringing in really nasty customers. “So I came from that job to the co-op wanting to have a say and wanting to be heard. Also,” she continues, “I was pretty tired with activism – not that this isn’t activism, but this is a more positive type of activism, because instead of saying, ‘I don’t like the way things are going, I don’t like the way things are going’, I’m saying, ‘Here’s an option for something that we could do that might work better and be better for people and hopefully the environment, too’.” As part of their responsibility to help other co-operatives, as set out in the seven co-op principles, the coffee shop has been sharing resources and discussing options with other South Australian groups who may be looking to form a similar business. One such organisation is a market garden based out of Aldinga Arts Ecovillage. The group, who completed the Permaculture Design course at Gawler’s Food Forest, joined forces with Ecovillage landowner Claudia Peoples and Nat Wiseman from Wagtail Urban Farm. Their goal is to grow organic vegetables to sell to the village and surrounding community. Lucy Chan, a member of this group, explains that while the co-operative model was enticing, the complexities of the Cooperatives Act meant that they, ultimately, won’t be going ahead as a co-op. Instead, they are forming an incorporated association while upholding the co-operative principles. “The co-op model offers equal share and value amongst the members,” Chan says, “but unfortunately the Co-operatives Act is more focussed on large-scale agricultural enterprises and not smaller groups such as ourselves. “The Co-operatives Act also requires us to pay ourselves the minimum wage; as a start-up agricultural enterprise, that probably wasn’t going to happen for a while! We also found it difficult to discuss this model with accountants and other professionals we have consulted, who had little experience with the model.” The Co-op Coffee Shop is aware of the problems the Act can cause businesses – and the rarity of workers’ co-ops mean that even registering the organisation caused a bit of a headache. “The problem that [Consumer & Business Services and the Council] faced was, with this being new and them not working with it regularly, trying to get around how it works,” Law says. “So, it took probably longer than we would have liked, but they were good in assisting us and we got there.” The co-op members have broader goals than simply fair conditions for themselves on the shop floor. They want to know the provenance of their food, and source as much as they can from local and cooperative suppliers. “All of our coffee, all of the beans in our blend are from co-operative farms,” says McDaid-Morgan. “We also have a high level of food ethics in our group, which you don’t need to have to run a co-operative, but we do, so we try to do fair trade, organic or other standards like Rainforest Alliance wherever possible.” Local businesses like Patio Roasters for (delightfully nutty) coffee and Sweet Little Things for baked goods are already on the Co-op’s supplier list. “It’s a balancing thing,” says Law, “because while we’re not-for-profit, we need to be able to make enough money to cover expenses and pay ourselves wages, so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got top quality coffee, tea and produce so that people are prepared to pay a fair price for it. That needs to balance with all our principles.” If you like your coffee with a smooth finish and a clear conscience, drop past the co-op for a cup.