At the Flametree Food Co-op, you can find oats, beans, nuts and dried fruit, but there are also the likes of goats feta, laksa paste and soba noodles.
“You can pretty much buy everything here, we even have toilet paper,” says Lizzie Rose, yoga teacher and one of Flametree’s main founders.
Located in Thirroul, a town of 6000 people one hour south of Sydney, Flametree is one of the newest food co-ops to emerge in Australia. After one year, its membership is at almost 400 people, eight times what it started with. It’s a great example of how co-ops can now offer a wide range of foods that fits their ethos (that products be organic, sustainable, local and unpackaged where possible) and also be a successful enterprise.
Rose believes internet-based ordering and product diversity are the main factors in making co-ops easier to operate, and shop in, respectively. “Earlier on in co-op days it was more your staples like rice and flour,” she says. “Now there are things like green cleaning products and dairy.”
For consumers wanting to buy more organic food, co-ops can be a less expensive option than buying organic in the supermarket. Oats, lentils and rice, for instance, are generally cheaper than their supermarket counterparts, because they’re bought in bulk by the co-op, with customers using their own containers to purchase them. With extra discounts available to co-op members and volunteers, the value increases.
Modern co-ops are also keen to show they’ve shaken off the “hippy” tag that dates back to when co-ops gained popularity in Australia during the 1970s. “Our co-op has a whole range of people, from high-school kids to a much older generation,” says Rose. “People shop there because of allergies, others come for the community feel or looking for new gourmet products.”
While there are only 40 co-ops currently in operation around the country (visit www.foe.org.au and search “food co-op” for a detailed list), the ones that do exist are designed to be accessible to all members of the local community. Rose encourages anyone who’s curious about co-ops to try it out. “It’s a loving environment but can be unfamiliar,” she admits. “Take the plunge and walk in. You’ll get nothing but friendly service and smiles.”