Bonding over organic bulk buys

Clarissa Benton, Franziska von Hunerbein and Danielle Diamond sort goods for their food co-operative.
Clarissa Benton, Franziska von Hunerbein and Danielle Diamond sort goods for their food co-operative.

They sit at computers to shop, harnessing new technology for an old style, communal method. What they buy isn't frivolous and excessive but essential to keep a family alive.

These are grocery consumers involved in food co-operatives, groups of people banding together to buy fresh and dried food. Sourcing organic food is a key driver. The Taranaki Daily News spoke to representatives of five co- ops - two in New Plymouth, two in Oakura and one in central-south Taranaki. A spokesperson for Chantal Organics, one of the country's largest suppliers and producers of organic food, says the company's experience shows that food co-ops seem to be on the rise.

Mother-of-two Clarissa Benton cradles her baby in a sling across her shoulder as she explains the job she plays in the food co-op her family belongs to. Six families belong to the group, a relatively new one that "morphed" out of a bigger, older group based around the Glenpark Ave/Lower Huatoki area.

Benton is charged with co- ordinating food orders, which means operating the online spreadsheet that each member has access to. She'll send out reminders, place the orders and, once they've arrived, clear the sheet so people can start afresh next time.

Friend Franziska von Hunerbein, a mother of four, is group distributor. Food comes to her house in bulk. She'll divide it up on domestic scales and let others know that it's ready.

Originally from Germany, von Hunerbein and her family arrived in New Plymouth four years ago. Involvement in a food co-op is helping them build a community because their relatives remain in Europe. "Friends become so important here, they are like family. It's just lovely to share food with them as well."

She believes there's much less of a sense of community than there once was. "We all have nice houses on nice sections with nice cars out front of them but a lot of people are lonely, particularly with childcare."

Each family in the co-op has a separate job; sharing the load is a key philosophy but in a fun, communal way.

Benton says food co-op shopping is vastly different from the grind of a supermarket visit. "I resent going to the supermarket but I love going to von Hunerbein's for breakfast [to collect groceries]."

Having access to reasonably priced organic food spurs on these families. They buy in bulk lots, meaning they gain the advantages of economics of scale. Staples like rice, pasta and bread are within their budget - the same organic products from a supermarket or organic wholefood store would be more expensive.

Like all the co-op representatives spoken to, this group orders from Chantal Organics and Ceres, both Kiwi companies. Meat and honey come from Avonstour, a certified organic farm in east Taranaki run by John Earney and Ruth Healey.

The group enjoys breaking the dependency on supermarkets and the way it can reduce rubbish. The von Hunerbein family puts out one black rubbish bag once a fortnight with von Hunerbein expressing concern about the issue of growing landfills.

Supporting organic food production is another driver, says Benton. "The more I learn about the use of chemicals in the soil, the more I want to support organic farming and when I eat I don't want to only feed my body but also the soil it comes from."

The Lower Huatoki Food Co- operative involves 10 families, who live close to each other. Kama Burwell, who's a member with husband Peter Heard and their two children, estimates they're getting goods for half the price they would pay for them in a supermarket or speciality organic store.

"It's for our own health and also for the health of the land and water," she says in answer to what motivates them. The couple buy dry goods as well as fruit and veges through the co-op, although they also have their own garden and make a point of buying at the local farmers' market. "That's an important principle we hold to."

Growing their own gardens means co-op members can share excess produce, says Burwell, recalling a sauerkraut-making party dreamt up to deal with an abundance of cabbage.

There's give and take involved because the group buys in bulk. That means waiting, for example, till enough people need to restock up on flour before a whole sack is ordered.

"You don't always get exactly what you want but on the whole it works out very well."

It's a social group with small teams gathering to break large cartoons up into small boxes. There are rules and sometimes it's quite a lot of work, involving co- ordination and time.

Jen Harries reckons you'll never buy supermarket brands once you've eaten organic food. Take tinned peaches. She had been buying them from the supermarket before switching to an organic supplier. "The flavour is amazing," she says. Dried fruit is another taste sensation. "It's not all glued together. It definitely has a deeper, stronger flavour. Once you've eaten organic dried fruit you'll never go back. We buy in one kilogram bags and they keep for ages."

Her Oakura-based food co-op started about 18 months ago and has five families.

The group buys from Ceres and uses an online spreadsheet, but makes individual purchases for fruit and veges. Jen buys at the farmers' market or from Countdown supermarket, which stocks organic produce, but says that's not ideal because prices are higher and the packaging more excessive. "It's finding other channels that we can put our consumer dollar towards."

A second Oakura group of eight families operates a co-op, buying dry goods in bulk, says a member Sue Oldfield, a New Plymouth GP and mother of three. She has a specialist interest in nutritional medicine, operating her own clinic as well as working at Carefirst in Tukapa St.

In Stratford, Hannah Hales and her family are one of four families who kicked off a food co-op last month. She's long been an organic food advocate, but says major New Zealand suppliers like Ceres have a minimum order of $300, which was more than her family needed. She buys only dry goods, sourcing fresh produce from her garden. "We eat 100 per cent organic and this way we can keep our costs down but have the quality of food. That's our priority." Her group is scattered, with members living in Hawera, Eltham and Stratford. They're still working through issues like how to best share out the food when it arrives. In time she can see more a sense of community developing despite the distance. "I'm talking a lot more with the others and seeing them - I think that will be an offshoot."

Her group sought and received willing help from the New Plymouth group of which Benton and von Hunerbein are members, sourcing the same spreadsheet through Google documents.

"I have a feeling more people are becoming interested," says Benton, who's happy to give advice rather than see new groups "reinvent the wheel."

Amanda Poynter of Chantal Organics says there seems to be a lot more food co-ops about, predominantly ordering dry goods in bulk. The company was formed in the mid-1970s in Hawke's Bay from a food co-op. "They were old hippies from way back," jokes Amanda about Chantal's founders who had a vision of healthier food and a better life. These days, the company website says it's family owned, independent and employs 40 staff.

In Taranaki "co-operative" has been a word associated with the dairy industry. But other groups, motivated by healthy food and stewardship of the environment, are showing that the spirit of collaboration is alive and well in a different type of co-op.

Taranaki Daily News