Dear Food Co-op Members,
I am writing to report to you that after ten years, I have decided to step down and retire from being the Benalla Food Co-op Coordinator. I thought it would be fitting to also give a little history of the developments over the years as to how the food co-op evolved.
It has been over ten years (2010) since I had the first thought to start a food co-op in Benalla. I flagged the idea at a forum on sustainability organised by the then, Benalla District Environment Group (now BSFG). Nothing came of it for a while and I didn’t want to take this on alone. But one by one a few others gave expressions of support.
They were Kathy Murphy, Lynne Seaman (relocated to Brisbane) and Tanya Walker. We met together over a period of 9 months to discuss a plan of action. Venue, freight, supplier, food health and safety were just a few major considerations that had to be worked through.
Initially, without any finance, we relied on setting up costs coming from a membership fee of $10 and members volunteering seed money. This was paramount to getting started and significant as it demonstrated the willingness of the small number of interested people wanting to make it work. Along with the seed money, we were also supported by the Brunswick Uniting Church who donated $500 to our cause (they had been running a successful food co-op for some years).
I hunted around for a venue, the most difficult aspect of us being able to function, and wrote to the Benalla Uniting Church Council. Not only were they happy for us to use the old kindergarten hall, but also allowed us to store our products permanently, whilst only having to pay hire costs on an hourly basis. We are most grateful to the Uniting Church for the ongoing use of this space.
Our initial set-up was pretty basic with an array of coloured recycled food tubs we collected from hotels and restaurants, and Peter and I sourced old rickety wardrobes in which to store our products.
Finally we were up and running as an 'action group' under the banner of the Benalla Sustainable Future Group.
We had our first open day on 3rd May in 2011 and although we only had 12 members, we felt we were off to a good start and were able to purchase 28 different products. We opened one morning per month.
In 2012, we were successful in receiving some funding from Benalla Rural City Community Grants Program, and able to purchase three lockable metal cupboards and a computer. In no time our membership expanded and the number of products increased. With the small mark up to cover costs, we were soon able to repay members for their investment of seed money.
We believed it was important to keep the prices affordable, whilst offering highest quality of products.
In 2013 The Food Co-op was featured on Channel 10 Shepparton Weeknights TV program.
From our small working group, we established a committee of six members in October 2014, with Sonia Bourke and Judy Schwarzman coming on board.
By 2015, with membership increasing to 70, a demand for more products and food sales doubling, we extended the open days from one day per month to two. Two of the original committee members resigned (Kathy and Lynne) and so we were back to a committee of four plus Peter Holmes as BSFG/food co-op treasurer.
We celebrated five years of operation in 2016. As time went on, other interested members joined the committee - Loren Atkinson (2016), followed by Rhona Rose, Rosalie Thomas and Julie McPherson.
We have tried a few different activities over the years. Earlier on, we occasionally had a general meeting with a guest speaker. We contributed and shared recipes using predominately food co-op products, now in a folder at the food co-op. Peter liked to have a lucky shopper surprise when we reached a particular milestone eg. the 1000th shopper.
You are all well familiar with the aims of the group. But it soon became apparent there was an underlying appreciation at the food coop for the friendly atmosphere when shopping, and the empowerment of an independent group running it. It has enabled friendships to develop and provides an opportunity for like minded people to share company and commitment.
I have particularly enjoyed researching products and discovering new suppliers, and have built up a rapport with the suppliers over the ten years. There has always been opportunity to introduce new products and discontinue others not so popular. In all we have twelve product suppliers, keeping me on my toes to make sure we are well stocked. Apart from our valued local producers, one of my favourite suppliers is Tradewinds. I started supporting Tradewinds tea and coffee as a distributer about 25 years ago and then continued through the food co-op. Tanya and her family discovered Tabletop Grapes (many years ago) when visiting Mildura.
I have taken every opportunity to source products such as honey, olive oil, nuts and seeds from local or regional suppliers, whenever possible. NSM, our main wholesale supplier has been a very reliable distributer for the ten years.
Our drastic changes to our operational procedures required to comply with COVID restrictions in 2020, became a serious focal point. It was interesting that during this time, whilst we had a few members who refrained from participating, we had 14 new members join the food co-op. It was a particularly busy time for me consulting with BRC Public Health Officer and liaising with committee members, who discussed and considered all the options, fine-tuning the procedures for the Food Co-op, to continue serving our members. The prompt implementation of COVID 19 safe procedures meant we were able to keep operating throughout this disturbing time of uncertainty and lockdowns.
Earlier on, I think we might have been the only place in Victoria that never ran out of toilet paper!
When performing a trial run with our COVID procedures in place, one of our members suggested a short video could be helpful. That happened on the spot, featuring Eleanor Sadler, with Sonia doing a great job putting it together.
During this time it became a priority to purchase and encourage the preferred digital method of online payment. Tanya and Peter enabled its smooth transition.
Members come and go for various reasons. Currently we have 72 members and 113 different products.
I would like to thank all the duty managers and computer operators who do a wonderful job carrying out extra responsibilities.
I feel indebted to our dedicated committee members, who are committed to the well being of the food co-op and for me personally, are a wonderful group of people who are prepared to work through any arising issues. We would not be operating today if it wasn’t for your encouragement, suggestions and support. I am profoundly grateful to have worked with you all. Peter supported my idea from the beginning and has made an integral contribution in managing our finances and solving glitches in the payment system.
To all the members, thank you for your participation and willingness to be part of the food coop and spreading the word. I have spoken to, or emailed you all at some stage, and it has always been a pleasure to put a face to those conversations.
For a short while I will continue with all product related aspects of the food co-op and perhaps for a longer while, will continue with the roster.
Susanne Bennett, I am so very appreciative, happy and relieved to be handing over to such a delightful and competent person as yourself. The food co-op will continue to function well and I have no doubt you will bring a refreshing presence to the helm.
I look forward to just being one of the gang in my retirement, but always readily available for a chat. I wish you well and enjoyment as the new Benalla Food Co-op Coordinator.
On behalf of all members, I would like to pass on to Julie McPherson, our thoughts and well wishes for a full recovery after recent surgery.
From here on, Susanne can be contacted by phone 0408286307, or email - firstname.lastname@example.org
To all members
Yours in appreciation