Exploring the benefits of buying from the University of Sydney Food Co-Op

SEI talks to Cressida and Ellen from the Sydney University Food Co-Operative about the Co-Ops supply chains, sustainability and waste measures, and the environmental benefits of buying from the Co-Op.

The University of Sydney Food Co-Op sprang up in 1996 with the endorsement of other community groups such as The Greens, Student Animal Rights Activists, Stucco Co-Operative, and Enmore based Alfalfa House Community Food Co-Op. The Co-Op aims to provide people with access to organic, healthy and sustainable food at wholesale prices and increase food options on campus.

In an attempt to highlight the ways that individuals can make positive changes and consume more sustainably, Anastasia Mortimer, SEI’s Knowledge Translation Officer, talked to Cressida Rigney, President of the Food Co-Op, and Ellen Burke, Fruit and Vegetable Co-ordinator, about the Co-Op’s supply chains, sustainability and waste measures, and the environmental benefits of buying from the Co-Op.

The Environmental benefits of buying from the Food Co-Op

In general, buying produce from the Co-Op is a more sustainable way to purchase our groceries and members save 10% in store. The Co-Op offers weekly fruit and vege boxes that are ready for pick up at the store at midday on Wednesdays during semester.

The positive environmental impacts of this way to shop are evident. Ellen, who is responsible for ordering the fruit and veg, explained that she only orders fruits and vegetables that are in season. The produce is all grown organically, meaning there is less soil degradation and no harmful fertiliser use.

Cressida talked about how being supplied with a set amount of seasonal fruit and vegetables contributed to effective meal prepping, reduced food waste and encouraged flexible, creative cooking.

The challenges of buying local

The food and groceries sold at the Co-Op are sourced from local, organic wholesale businesses in Sydney. Those suppliers source organic foods made and produced all over Australia. In the week that this interview was conducted, the vegetables that went into the fruit and veggie boxes included potatoes from South Australia and locally grown lettuce. Both Cressida and Ellen make the point that although the Co-Op would love to stock only locally grown organic produce, it is difficult for a number of reasons. Ellen explains that when ordering ‘I try to buy as local as possible, but price, demand and availability means I need to order from other states.’ This points to bigger issues surrounding food cultivation in the Sydney area.

The Co-Op’s initiatives against waste

An aim of the Co-Op is to avoid products packaged with plastic and promote the use of recycled glass containers, calico and paper bags.  The familiar issue of avoiding plastic food packaging is a problem that many of us struggle to navigate; when asked about the Co-Op’s waste reduction initiatives, Cressida and Ellen noted that buying large quantities results in less plastic packaging although it does not stop the issue altogether. Cressida explained that ‘we try to buy in bulk as much as possible, and many of our products come in cardboard packaging, but we haven’t quite got past plastic packaging yet.’

The difficulty of providing sustainable food that has less packaging, whilst reducing the chances of food waste, is hard to manage. Ellen explained that there is a delicate balance that needs to be made when ordering perishable products, because there is a risk of ordering too much and the food going bad or being damaged.

This issue is at the root of consuming sustainably. On the one hand buying in bulk means less plastic, but there is a risk of food waste in ordering larger quantities. Ellen and Cressida explained that the Co-Op strives to balance these issues.

On a personal note

I was interested in understanding how volunteering for the Co-Op has changed Ellen and Cressida’s food purchase and consumption habits:

Ellen explained Co-Op involvement sparked an interest in food supply systems, and opened her eyes to how environmentally damaging and alienating they can be. This led to her decision to become vegetarian (although most CoOp members are omnivores and the CoOp seeks to be inclusive of all diets). The Co-op, she says, also introduced her to most of her friends in Sydney, and has made her feel part of a community.

For Cressida, volunteering at the Co-Op allowed her to consume and eat the way she did growing up in Cambridge, England where her parents shopped at Co-Ops and allotment markets. She explained that ‘when we moved to Newcastle [Australia] access to organic and bulk options were limited and we slowly slipped away from that way of eating.’ As an adult, Cressida regained an interest in consuming ethically sourced and sustainable products.

Are you interested in getting involved?

The Co-Op is powered by a team of 40 volunteers who run the store, volunteering for a minimum two hours a week. Volunteer, executive members handle the finances, stock ordering, volunteer coordinating, organise events and try maintain a balance between being a cooperative as well as a campus society and navigating the compliance that comes with both. This is no small task alongside study and part-time work. They could always do with more help!

If you are interested in volunteering in second semester, you can send an enquiry to the Co-Op on Facebook, on their website or come to the store. A call out for volunteers happens at the beginning of each semester stay tuned on their Facebook page.

Membership is available in store, just chat to the friendly vollies and a comprehensive list of products is available on their website.

USYD Food CoOp is located on Level 4 Wentworth above the Commonwealth Bank.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Knowledge Translation Officer & Communications Coordinator at The Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours in Sociology at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours.  Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power between the State Government and Kimberly First Australians in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.

Cressida Rigney is the Food Co-Op President, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Sydney, researching food ethics in Australia, looking at the growing use of Indigenous foods in the Australian food system and the resurgence of interest in various ethical food movements. Cressida grew up in Cambridge, England and moved to Australia aged 15. Cressida was a 2015 Honours Research Fellow at SEI and her Honours research examined Food and Religion.

Ellen Burke is a Food Co-Op Executive Member and Fruit and Vegetable Co-ordinator. Ellen grew up in Nowra, NSW, and moved to Sydney to study a Bachelor of Science/Arts. Her majors are Geography and English, and next year, Ellen hopes to do Honours research on food systems.

Image: Supplied by Cressida Rigney