Food co-ops: making us healthier together

15th June 2020 | Eativity editors

Diets low in fruit and vegies can increase the risk of health problems like heart disease and cancer. But only a very small proportion (we’re talking 5%) of the Australian population are eating the recommended two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables every day.

While most of us are lucky enough to have plenty of access to fresh fruit and veg, there are many Australians who find it more difficult to get their hands on fresh produce. Two of the most common barriers are cost and access. This is a particular issue in low income areas, where it’s usually easier (and cheaper) to find fast food than it is to find fresh food. People living in rural and remote communities can also find it difficult to access fruit and veg.

“Many people in Australia are fortunate to have a reliable and secure food supply,” says Dr Gabrielle O’Kane, the CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance. “But this often isn’t the case for people living in rural and remote communities. Recent bushfires and now COVID-19 have disrupted traditional supply chains and have made food security issues in some rural and remote communities even worse.”

It’s clear that something needs to be done to address the issue of access to affordable fresh produce for all Australians, and a group of Aussie researchers recently revealed a potential strategy: food-cooperatives.

Food co-ops are a great way to access affordable local produce.

Food cooperatives (or food co-ops, as most people call them) are a group of people who’ve decided to get together and form an organisation that buys food – usually fresh produce and dry goods. These groups can be community- or charity-based groups, are usually not-for-profit and allow their members to purchase fresh food in bulk, resulting in cheaper and fresher produce directly from farmers or wholesalers.

Researchers from the University of Sydney and Macquarie University studied 15 food co-ops in the Sydney region and found that the most common purpose among them was to provide cheaper and affordable produce to their members. The problem was, they found that most co-ops were located in high income areas.

Food co-ops in higher income areas also shared other goals such as promoting sustainable living, avoiding waste and packaging and providing a source of organic/pesticide-free or non-genetically modified fruit and vegetables. However, the few co-ops the researchers studied that were in low socioeconomic areas were more likely to be focused purely on affordability, and many had been set up through schools or school-based groups.  

Want to eat more veg? Join a food co-op.

The researchers then studied members of food co-ops to see whether they had different intakes of fruit and vegetable compared to non-members. They found that members had higher vegetable intakes (approximately half a serve daily) and were also four times more likely to meet the recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake.  

These findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, suggest that if food co-ops could be implemented on a wider scale, they could hold potential for improving fruit and vegetable intakes on a population-wide level.

“We recommend a targeted approach, establishing co-ops in areas of low socioeconomic status, where people have a greater likelihood of having lower intakes of fruit and vegetables,” the researchers write. “It was clear from our research that co-ops located in areas of disadvantage had a focus on affordability, a very important barrier to fruit and vegetable intake.”

To find a food co-op near you, head to Local Harvest. This site is also a great resource for finding community gardens, organic retailers and food box systems.