Secret Spaces: The University of Melbourne Food Co-Op8 December 2020
Union House is arguably the beating heart of campus. And while many of its spaces are well-known, there is one quiet spot nestled by the first-floor elevators that is home to an unexpected and impressive history. ‘The Food Co-op,’ a sign reads. ‘Since 1976. Under no management.’
A co-operative is defined as a ‘democratic organization controlled by its members for a common purpose’. The UniMelb Food Co-op(erative) was established in July 1976 by a student committee as a volunteer-run non-profit,* committed to selling healthy, minimally packaged foods and bulk goods at affordable prices. It soon became a thriving and profitable staple of campus life.
The co-op is a quirky, homey place that feels like the piece of history it is. The decor is eclectic, to say the least. The walls are half mint-green and half lemon-yellow, with one featuring a mural of a robot?…house? orbited by several dozen teapots. Another is papered with posters of various campaigns it has been linked to over the years. Yellowing and dog-eared, they stand as testament to the political and environmental activism that has been central to the co-op since its inception. An assortment of chalkboards announce such tidbits as the day’s menu, or that we have piping-hot pies. (This, reader, is a lie. We had pies—bestselling, beloved pies—until our supplier moved abruptly to Queensland. None of us are tall enough to clean the blackboard, so we must explain this daily to disappointed pie-seekers).
Though the hot plates on offer varied depending on the produce sourced from that week’s Farmers’ Market, the co-op chai—hot in the winter, iced in summer—always flowed freely. We also sold spices, tea, snacks (think gleaming pink Turkish delight, chocolate-covered hazelnuts and soy crisps) and a selection of bulk goods, including (to our delight during the first days of pandemic panic) toilet paper.
Tucked behind the dining and food prep areas is the back office. Tiny and impossibly cluttered, it comes equipped with a battered PC plodding along on Windows 2005. Back when campus was open, I would pretend to study there, while reading past records filed away in dusty binders. I liked knowing that someone had baked flapjacks there in May 2007 or ordered 5kg of cinnamon in June 2004. I found the sense of continuity that came from knowing people had cooked in and cared about this place long before I’d ever heard of it, and that they would do so long after I left, both bittersweet and comforting.
The co-op operates non-hierarchically: any volunteer, regardless of experience, can participate in the weekly collectives where decisions about its upkeep are made. Volunteers cook and clean, order produce, and manage repairs. You volunteer as little or much as you like ﹘ some students drop in between classes, others (i.e. me) linger there obsessively. Personally, this is what first drew me in. There is work to be done here, I remember thinking, and I can help do it.
For there is work to be done. Despite the hard work of a core group of vollies, the co-op only made a few sales per day before lockdown and was unable to open more than three times a week. It had also faded into obscurity. Though students agreed that the Union House provided overpriced and underwhelming fare, few were aware that an affordable alternative existed just above it.
I only volunteered at the co-op for a semester before the pandemic shut us down. I miss everything about it, from the people, to the spice grinder that only works if you stick a pen in it, to the mug that meows when flipped upside-down. And with many regular vollies in their final semesters, I wonder about the co-op’s future.
So, reader, if you find yourself on campus in 2021 (fingers crossed!), regardless of whether you’re a dazed first-year or weeks from graduating: drop by. Buy a hotplate, chop a zucchini. Remind yourself that students have been boiling chickpeas and listening to Fleetwood Mac in this space for nearly half a century. Building community and finding purpose on campus are integral to student well-being; it would be heartbreaking if the co-op, which has done exactly that for so long, were to fade away now when most desperately needed.
For updates about the co-op’s reopening, like and follow our Facebook page, or join our volunteer group!