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2004

This is an article written by Fiona Game for the November 2004 edition of the ANU student newspaper Woroni. Fiona was at the time on the Marketing Working Group of the Food Co-op, and she interviewed me over the phone for the article. She later excused the occasional factual errors as artistic license! When Kus Pandey took over as editor of the Chickpea Chronicle (I was its inaugural editor in 1977) she asked me about the history of the Co-op, and I could think of no better summary than Fi’s, but I went through it to correct all those errors, sending Kus an MS Word version marked up with my changes. I have had to de-Microsoft the marked-up version for this webpage (by accepting the changes and then copying the changed version into a text editor before recopying to this page – if anyone knows a way of preserving all the red lettering, crossing out etc please let me know!) but apart from indisputably historical facts like names and dates I’ve left Fi’s wordsmithery untouched, occasionally resorting to putting my alternative view of the history in italic type within square brackets. Greg Carman (May 2007)


THE BEST DIET AROUND TOWN by Fiona Game

Long before the Dr Atkins diet or the Zone diet allowed countless Canberrans to lose unwanted kilos, there was another diet. A diet which not only supported local organic producers and promoted healthy, balanced meals, but was also affordable for students. Its shopfront was located right inside the ANU Union building. Imagine the novelty of being able to have healthy, unprocessed, affordable food at your fingertips. This institution was known as NUTS, or the ANU Nutrition Society, and was established around 1976.

[Actually, NUTS was, and still is, the National University Theatre Society.]

Today, this institution still exists, however it has morphed over time. It is the ANU Food Co-op. A small, but much-loved institution, located in a far-flung corner of the ANU behind Toad Hall, on the way to Civic.

The story of its modern location begins back in 1976…

It was a spring day and an irritating wind was blowing, as is wont to happen on spring days in Canberra. An economics/law student called Greg Carman was walking through the ANU Union and was attempting to shield his face from the fluffy, yellow pollen which was being flung around the courtyard, when he noticed a poster which read: “SAVE THE UNION HEALTH FOOD SHOP”. Greg had been at the ANU for about two and half years, but he had not had much interaction with the Uni’s health food nuts.

He knew the ‘Shop’ to be comprised of a small number of people, who were predisposed to handing out fruit and oats in nice, environmentally-friendly paper bags. Their shop, which was known as the Union Health Food Shop (or some such name) had paid students to help to dispense food, but it was a not-for-profit enterprise. It was located in the small space where the ANU Cycle shop now exists. Unfortunately, it looked like it was now on the skids.

Fortunately, another student had put up these distressed SOS posters, and his name was John Talent. John was to be the hero of the moment because he had a new vision for this Shop. (Sadly, women are conspicuously absent from this story. It was 1976, after all).

[Actually, more than half the people on the original Management Collective were women.]

John’s vision was to form the ANU Nutrition Society to take over the shop and staff it with volunteers. No money was to be wasted on wages: they would become a co-operative! They wouldn’t use packaging, but instead, food would be kept in bulk, in big plastic garbage bins, which students could come and help themselves to if they brought their own containers and bags to put it in. Affiliation with the Students Association would bring access to free phones and photocopiers and cash grants for bins. Donations of equipment were made: a set of weighing scales, a cash register and timber for shelving. Thus, the philosophy of the modern Food Co-operative was born!

With this new momentum taking hold, a year or so later the shop, now known as the Food Co-op (see Box 1), was moved next-door, to a larger location, where the Union Newsagent currently sits. Our old pal, Greg Carman, had become heavily involved in the administration by this time. He had two good reasons for being involved. One, nutrition was a subject close to his own heart, having dismally watched his diet over the past few years dwindle from hearty-home cooked meals to stodgy, quick, pasta meals so typical of most students. Two, the Food Cooperative had become a hub of grassroots, 70s-type activity and Greg was a happenin’ cat who wanted in on the action.

[Actually, my involvement with campus-based anti-apartheid and Vietnam Moratorium groups dated from my school days – ditto my status as a greenie -- and my then current involvement with anti-nuclear activism predated the co-op and continued almost entirely outside it, but we won’t let the facts get in the way of a good line!]

With its large, new, newsagent-sized location, the Co-op was able to expand their product line, especially since they now had access to the loading dock behind them. Importantly, deliveries could be made directly to a storeroom from the loading dock. Business started to boom and they tripled in size. The golden days of the 70s were upon them. Until the wicked hand of fate stepped in at the end of the decade...

It had always been mooted that the ANU Union would wish to renovate the area that the Co-operative occupied. Despite the fact that the Co-op were bitterly opposed to this, there was not much they could do despite getting Greg elected as the Chairman of the Union Planning Committee. But the gods smiled, and in 1979 the members of the Food Co-operative were able to move their operations to the west wing of what is now the Drill Hall Gallery.

One could be tempted to believe that it was the beginning of the end. Away from the heart of campus, the Drill Hall Gallery wing was in a derelict state. Not to be beaten by a small issue such as shitty accommodation, the co-op members got together to do some renovations, such as sanding and sealing the floor. One of the upsides of this new location was that they now got their own phone! Previously, the administrator of the Students Association had been supporting them by providing a switchboard-like service for the co-op. Her support and ‘protective-like shield’ had been pivotal in their previous location because they couldn’t afford their own phone in the Union building. However, they had always tried to make as many phone calls as they could from the SA phone without stretching the friendship.

Another, important, upside of the Co-op being moved to the left wing of the Drill Hall Gallery was that Radio 2XX was located in the other wing. Yes, the former Radio ANU had taken up residence there as part of morphing into beloved community radio station 2XX (FM 98.3). Nobody could have predicted how successful the resulting synergy would be. As a result of these two active community/student groups being placed in the same building, the Drill Hall Gallery became a great community hang-out space.

One must remember that this was a special era for students. Students could be ‘full-time activists and part-time students’ by virtue of the quaint philosophy of free education which still lingered from the Whitlam years. Students were able to receive living expenses from the Tertiary Education Allowance Scheme. (The amount of money wasn’t too exorbitant however; students used to joke about dropping out of uni and going on the dole, ‘Whoopee! I’m getting a payrise!’). As a result of this kind of freedom from financial pressures, there was a kind of community spirit on campus which today’s students can only dream about. Students were more optimistic about what they could do to save the world – that there could be a system that was not based on greed. They were fired by a kind of energy and activism that grew out of a rosy-eyed vision about what they could achieve as a community. La revolution was still alive.

One other interesting fact about this bygone era is that, apparently, the scent of home-grown dope was about as common around campus as mobile phones are now. Indeed, the ‘Bridge’ above Sullivans Creek - which now smells as though the socks of fifty engineering students have been left on the heater to dry – apparently used to be a thick fog of dope smoke. (Rumour has it that there was also a roaring trade in LSD which was manufactured in the ANU Chemistry Labs). There was even a Club on campus called ‘Marijuana Liberation Society’ who met regularly to discuss legalisation of dope (see Box 2).

The Food Co-operative thrived in these times. One day a man came to visit who had traveled the world conducting research on food co-operatives [for his PhD thesis at The University of Texas at Austin, which now boasts a Food Co-op which covers four floors of a multi-storey building]. He was amazed at what he found here in Canberra. What had grown from a small, student body had now grown, he believed, to become the largest retail purveyor of health foods in the southern hemisphere.

However, all golden times must come to an end. The Food Co-operative had grown in fact, too large, and it had become much more difficult to track finances. The kind of casual approach which had allowed people to hang around the premises, socializing and ‘snacking’ on the food was just one example of the incompetent management practices, which eventually resulted in a large and unmanageable debt. Once again, the Food Co-operative was in crisis.

Many people were shocked by this and became disillusioned. People have since commented that the danger of having such a wealth of energy and optimism – such as they had had in the ‘golden years’ – is that it can easily be punctured, and if people are not prepared for it they can fall hard.

One of the biggest losses of this era is the loss of the proximity between the Food Co-op and 2XX. Both organizations have been moved to even more marginalized locations, and both have suffered for it. Today, 2XX is located on the bottom level of Bunda St, opposite Academy nightclub (formerly the Centre Cinema). [Electric Shadows Cinema, part of the Ronin group, survived until December 2006 in its original twin-cinema location on the other side of Civic. The Centre Cinema, Canberra’s first arthouse cinema and the genesis of the Ronin group, was closed by the Ronin founders in 2003.] The ANU Food Co-Op is located in the far corner of campus behind Toad Hall. Sadly, both these institutions have been gravely threatened this year by financial crises. Factors such as rent rises and a slowly-dwindling support base have taken their toll on community organizations in the 21st century.

While the philosophy of providing cheap, healthy food to the Canberra population is instantly appealing in our tight-arsed and somewhat health-conscious community, it is exceedingly difficult for the Food Co-op to attract the student body when it is located in the antipodes of the campus. Fortunately for the Food Co-op, there are plans underfoot for a complete redevelopment of the ‘Rocks’ precinct, so that it may again become a kind of community hub.

However, in the intervening years before this redevelopment happens, the Co-op is desperately in need of student support. If you have ever accused Canberra of being a soulless, boring city, then please consider throwing your own hat into the ring and becoming a part of the historical community institutions that still remain in Canberra.

If the historical angle doesn’t appeal to you, then perhaps the romanticism of the ‘slow food’ lifestyle does. The ANU Food Co-op is part of an international movement called The Slow Food Movement. Founded in France and Italy, its stated aim is the ‘protection of the pleasures of the table from homogenization of modern fast food and life.’ ([1]). While initially founded as a gastronomical movement (dedicated to the social pleasures of long, delicious meals and philosophical discussions) the movement has since come to embrace the virtues of sustainable development, and now defines itself as an ‘eco-gastronomic’ organization.

In summary, by becoming a member of the Food Co-op you are supporting your personal health and the cultural heritage of your community, not to mention local, sustainable agriculture. If you are prepared to take the time to walk or cycle down to the Food Co-operative you may discover, if not a new lifestyle, certainly a world of delicious low-carb, low-fat, unpackaged snacks.

  • Based on a conversation with former ANU student, [former] journalist and long-term Food Co-operative member, Greg Carman. However, artistic license has been exercised.


SUGGESTED VISUALS

Box 1: Article from 1977 Woroni ‘SA Food Co-op’ (in orange folder)

Box 2: Article from 1997 Woroni. When I was in the office on Friday and leafing through the ‘1977’ file, I saw heaps of hilarious articles by the Marijuana Liberation Club (you may need to check that title). UNFORTUNATELY, I didn’t photocopy any of these, but if you were so inclined, for humour value, you may wish to include one of these articles … (there was even a hilarious ‘Stoned Crossword!!’ in one issue I came across. Solid gold!)

Box 3: photo of kitchen with neatly lined up containers. Of course, only if it is possible to scan this photo and if it looks OK – completely up to your discretion of course.. Suggested caption accompanying photo… “the philosophy of ‘little or no packaging’ may require something of a culture change in your kitchen – get a good collection of large reuseable jars and containers” alternatively…I have a colour photo of the Co-op itself which I can email to you. The caption could read: ‘the small, cosy Food Co-op building’

Box 4: At very end of article:

Recipe and snack tips from the ANU Food Co-op

• Organic hummus, delicious on dark rye bread (trimming tip from ‘Australia’s own’ Princess Mary of Denmark!)

• Fresh organic carrots, which can be dipped in hummus for quick snack between lectures

• Dried bananas – filling and delicious

• Dates – super cheap, delicious, nutritious

2007

This article was originally written for the 2006 Orientation Week Woroni, but was not used due to lack of space, an excuse that wore very thin through the year as successive editions of Woroni failed to feature it. New editors, elected for 2007 at the end of 2006, proved more supportive, and with minor changes it appeared on page 20 of the 2007 O-Week edition. By the way, “Food for Thought” was the name of a 15-minute spot I had with Robbie Swan on Monday Mornings on Radio 2XX in the late 1970s and early 1980s, talking about health foods and the Co-op. Greg Carman (May 2007)


FOOD FOR THOUGHT by Greg Carman

I began an article for the 1977 O-Week Woroni with the words: “In between falling asleep in the library and bonking in the shrubbery, the fresher may well discover the Food Co-op”.

God, how last millennium is that?!

Mind you, the Co-op was a little easier to find back then, occupying the space on the ground floor of the Students Union now occupied by the bike shop.

And in a more activist age, the combination of alternatives it represented, alternatives to conventional diet, to conventional commercial practices and to conventional disregard for environmental consequences hit all the right buttons for many new students.

Those were the years we grew to be the largest retail purveyor of health foods in the southern hemisphere, and we did that without the organic fresh fruit and veg section which accounts for most of our sales today.

And entirely on volunteer labour. Nobody got paid a cent (or a point or a voucher or a discount). Nobody.

Today we may pay a few people a pittance, but we’ve survived to turn 31 this year, and still the ANU’s best-kept secret. Still offering minimally-processed food, often grown without anything artificial, and supplied in bulk to shoppers who bring their own containers (if not their own produce). Still food for people, not for profit. And still pretty cheap.

And still more than just a working example of a sustainable way for a community to feed itself. For the last two years we have been at the centre of concern over the redevelopment of the City West precinct (which we now call home and which is now called ANU Exchange), several blocks of commercial buildings-to-be on land owned by the ACT but developed by the ANU. Concern that the redevelopment will not only leave us out in the cold, but also leave out true sustainability principles.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us to see a working example of a commercial precinct planned and built for minimal environmental impact, six-green-star from one side to the other, with permaculture gardens in between the buildings and populated by people committed to making the changes we have to make before environmental collapse forces us to make them, if we then still can. And at the heart of the precinct should be the ANU Food Co-op.

But that’s another story. You can read it on the Co-op’s web page at [2]

But don’t just visit us on the web. Come and see us in person (map below). Snack on something good for the inner environment as well as the outer one. See how much better organically-grown fruit tastes.

You don’t have to be a member to shop, it’s just cheaper if you are. And even cheaper if you’re a working member.

Come and co-operate in feeding yourself and your (new?) community. Orient yourself for a sustainable future. It may be the only alternative.

Greg Carman

Founding member, ANU Nutrition Society ("Food Co-op"), 1976

Member, Management Collective, 1977-1980, 2004 to present

Treasurer, ANU Food Cooperative Limited, 2005 to present

President, ROCKS (Residents Of Childers and Kingsley Streets), 2006 to present

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