Illawarra food co-ops master art of business

It was only when Heidi Presland appeared at the doors of the warehouse and burst into tears, that volunteers at the Green Box Regional Food Co-operative knew they had reached a defining crisis.

Presland's volunteer job at the thriving co-op based in Gerringong had grown to more than 40 hours spread over seven days a week.

That was on top of running her own business and raising three children.

"I was co-ordinating the volunteers, helping to run the warehouse, and doing the accounting. It was just too much," she said.

"I was just so busy that I didn't actually have the time to say there's a problem. This was taking over a lot of my life."

Matters reached crisis point when her family went away, giving her the space to realise that - in a food co-op that was all about sustainability - the way it was organised was simply unsustainable.

It's a story that is common to many volunteer organisations and the reason why so many of them fold, so often in acrimonious circumstances.

If you go down to the Green Box warehouse on Thursday - the day when they pack up to 85 boxes for their members - you'll find a couple of dozen volunteers working and talking.

Things have changed since that day in April last year, the co-operative has pulled itself back from the brink and it has the appearance of stability.

Jessica Taylor founded Green Box as an outlet for her first love - farming. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

What changed was that the volunteers realised the work had to be shared around better to prevent burn out, and - crucially - that involved paying people.

So Barb Kahlifa, the current volunteer co-ordinator, took the first paid position for 14 hours a week, though she commonly works more than twice that amount.

"It was at the stage where it needed to have the foundation to grow and it needed to spread and stabilise.

"By building the foundations and getting in new and different kinds of 'plants' it brings in different talents.

"We are more settled now and I think it's moving along well.

"We are able to divide the jobs up instead of all of us trying to do everything in a rush."

Other key people in the 300-member co-operative were offered paid work, but said they would rather continue as if they were paid, without actually receiving any money.

It is ironic that an organisation that holds sustainability at its core - offering up to 1000 lines of locally produced vegetables, coffees, jams, pasta, breads, milk, meats and more - should have come so close to implosion.

The co-operative started after former nurse Jessica Taylor decided she wanted to become a farmer of organic vegetables.

She had always been a passionate vegetable gardener and her work in the health system fed her passion for healthy living.

But after her family moved from Sydney to Gerringong in 2004, she was disappointed to see that the only place to buy fruit and vegetables was the supermarket.

"I wanted to grow food, but I realised that first I would have to create an outlet to sell the food," Taylor said.

"A co-operative with a warehouse set-up was the logical choice."

Green Box Regional Food Co-operative offers up to 1000 lines.

Taylor knew that a retail set-up would be cost prohibitive where she lived and would present a huge strain trying to find volunteer staff.

Instead, she opted for a warehouse model, where an online shop is uploaded at midday on Friday each week for members to choose products from up to 1000 lines.

The shop closes on a Monday night, when orders are placed with producers. Then, on Wednesday nights and every Thursday, volunteers converge on a warehouse and pack boxes which are then collected (and paid for) through the day.

If all goes according to plan, the warehouse is empty by Thursday night. If anybody has forgotten their order, the membership is still small enough that they can be given a friendly reminder by telephone.

Taylor started the operation when her husband asked her on New Year's Day in 2010, what the year held for her.

"I am going to start a food co-op," she blurted out.

Taylor stepped down from the board after her two years were up, in October 2011, but is still a member and has strong views on what went wrong.

"People just want to be heard and they want to be valued," she said.

"If you don't create a space for people to be heard then you lose the volunteers.

"It's so easy to get caught up in the business of the day-to-day that you forget to take a breath."

Volunteers, she says, are not there to pack boxes, they are there to connect with people and feel like they are contributing.

"You need to make that process pleasurable and something they look forward to," Taylor said.

She argues that just because a co-operative is "not for profit", does not mean it should not make money.

"Not-for-profit organisations are about making lots of money. Do you think the Smith Family can pay all their overheads without making money?

"We have to make good money - we have to pay people, get a truck, buy a coolroom.

"There definitely is a mindset with volunteers who are very altruistic that money is bad," she said.

"You will fall over if you have that mindset.

"It's about making money for the right things, to put back into the organisation so it can reach its goals and objectives."

Lizzie Rose and Katrina Marshall say Flame Tree is lucky to have the right mix of people. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

Yet the experience of the Illawarra's other food co-operative, the Flame Tree Community Food Co-op, seems to suggest that success may depend as much on personalities as procedures.

Open for almost four years, the shop recently expanded from a small backroom reached down a small alleyway in Thirroul to a $600-per-week retail shopfront on Lawrence Hargrave Drive.

"I have worked for a lot of non-profits and community organisations," founder Lizzie Rose said.

"This is one of the only ones where it's been particularly harmonious and smooth-running. I am quite surprised.

"There is usually internal politics, things start getting heated, stuff starts getting heavy with who is doing what."

Rose can't explain the secret, except to say that Flame Tree had the luck to have the right mix of people, particularly the core group of half a dozen women.

Flame Tree had a turn-over of $160,000 last year, and has more than 400 members, but it still manages to staff a shop for five days a week with 60 volunteers.

That, however, may be about to change.

"There are definitely a handful of us who would like to employ people to staff the shop, but since this is a co-op you have to persuade the others," director and founder Katrina Marshall said.

"I think that turning us into a sustainable business is probably the way to go."

Until now, however, Flame Tree has thrived on the passion of educated, ethical women - many of them with young children - who were sick of travelling to Sydney for organic food sold without wasteful packaging.

"Originally, I thought I would get it going and then just be a shopper," Marshall said.

"But every time one of us came into shop, you'd end up spending an hour here before you started shopping.

"You'd never be able to stop doing that. You can't step away from it."

Barb Kahlifa is the first, and only, paid employee at Green Box. Pictures: SYLVIA LIBER

Barb Kahlifa is the first, and only, paid employee at Green Box. Pictures: SYLVIA LIBER

Green Box volunteer Heidi Presland.

Green Box volunteer Heidi Presland.

Green Box volunteers Carolyn Evans and Erinna Ford.

Green Box volunteers Carolyn Evans and Erinna Ford.

Green Box volunteer Carolyn Evans organises boxes for pick up.

Green Box volunteer Carolyn Evans organises boxes for pick up.