Community Enterprises in the Food Sector

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Report: Thinking and Practising Values: Community Enterprises in the Food Sector. By Jenny Cameron et al. Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. The University of Newcastle, 2008



"What is clear from the workshop is that community enterprises are addressing contemporary social, economic and environmental issues with considerable creativity and innovation. To do this, the enterprises have developed an array of economic practices, and these practices reflect their values. For example, the two Community Supported Agriculture initiatives—The Beanstalk Organic Food and Food Connect—share a commitment to food affordability and to strong farmer-consumer relationships.

Yet, they have distinctive commitments—Beanstalk values participation as a form of community development, and Food Connect values social and economic equity and justice. As a result they use very different economic practices— Beanstalk is predominantly based on volunteer labour, and Food Connect is based on paid labour. As discussed in Section 3.2 neither of these approaches is better than the other or more true to the ideal of Community Supported Agriculture. Rather, these differences are indicative of the ethical economic decision making that characterises community enterprises. Divergent economic approaches reflect each enterprise’s distinctive values.

The values of the enterprises shape not just economic practices. All aspects of the enterprises are shaped by their values and commitments. As discussed in Section 3, this ranges from the organisational structure and governance arrangements through to how the enterprises manage issues like growth and planning. What clearly emerges is that there is no one pathway for community enterprises to follow. Each enterprise has its own way of approaching these matters, and the approach reflects its values. So ethical decision making occurs not just in the economic arena, but in all areas of operation. If any one thing characterises these community enterprises it is that they are engaged in an ongoing process of thinking through and practicing their values.

Another key theme to emerge from the workshop is the importance of telling stories about the diversity of approaches. Telling stories is certainly a means for individual community enterprises to learn about what others are up to and to reflect on their own values and practices (and through reflection, enterprises might clarify and affirm some values and practices, and re-evaluate and reconsider others). It is also important to tell stories collectively as a means of building up a shared knowledge of community enterprises (or perhaps something we might want to start calling “the community enterprise sector”). This collective story telling is important for amplifying what community enterprises are doing, particularly so they might be replicated. It is also important to tell collective stories to better understand the characteristics of community enterprises, the challenges faced and the ways that challenges are being handled (or might be handled). This is particularly important in the current context in Australia, where some governments and community-based organisations are developing programs to support the start-up and ongoing operations of community enterprises. What might be learnt from the community enterprises that already exist? How might the values and practices of existing enterprises be incorporated into the programs that are being developed? If what characterises the community enterprises at this workshop is their diversity, how might the different approaches to economic practices, legal structures, governance arrangements, planning and growth be incorporated into programs, so that no one single development pathway becomes the accepted route for community enterprises, but so community enterprises are able to make the choices and decisions that best reflect their values and commitments?


Typology of Transactions

There are a variety of alternative and non-market transactions.

For example, Beanstalk and Food Connect are Community Supported Agriculture initiatives, which means they develop direct relationships with farmers, rather than indirect relationships that are mediated through the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets (see Row 2). As will be discussed in other parts of this document, this direct connection means that the enterprises recognise their interdependence with the farmers and actively seek to build relationships that reflect this interdependence. Imago Forest is based on a Community Supporting Agriculture model, which again is based on building a direct relationship between farm producer and consumers.

There are also a range of non-market transactions. Fig Tree is characterised by various forms of gift-giving. For example, neighbours and local restaurants gift their waste to the chickens and the worm farm, a local mowing service gifts their grass clippings to the compost piles. The garden itself is a gift for people to use—people drop by to pick the evening’s salad, a home school group uses the site for educational activities, the beekeeper who monitors the port keeps his hives on the site, people turn up every second Friday evening or the last Sunday in the month for pizza cooked in the pizza oven (and for the pizza, people bring gifts of food and the garden itself contributes its produce). There is also self-provisioning with participants in the Sustaining our Suburbs project growing fruit and vegetables for their own consumption.

Typology of Labour Arrangements

In terms of labour arrangements, people are “paid” for their labour in a variety of ways. For example, City Cousins who are the distribution centres for Food Connect are remunerated through discounted produce. At Beanstalk people who volunteer (on tasks such as cleaning up, setting up, working on the newsletter) receive free produce (usually 1 free box for each month of volunteering). At Fig Tree people who are on the weekly roster looking after the chooks (chickens) are remunerated in the eggs they collect. At Sustaining our Suburbs volunteers receive a cash payment of either $30 a day or $15 for ½ day, not enough to constitute a wage but a sum of money that recognises the contribution of volunteers. Most of the enterprises also use volunteer labour, ranging from the actual labour of running the enterprise (e.g. Organic Buyers Group and Food for the Future) through to behind the scenes organisational work on committees of management (e.g. Fig Tree and Beanstalk).

In terms of the structures of the enterprises, Imago Forest and Food Connect can be characterised as alternative capitalist enterprises. Food Connect has a company structure, but with not for profit articles. So unlike other capitalist enterprises it is not driven by profit-maximisation (and as will be discussed throughout this document, there are other concerns that drive Food Connect).

Similarly Imago Forest operates as a social business guided by a social ethic: Julian Lee (Imago Forest):

- For me a social business would only charge the True Price for goods and services. This is calculated by working out the actual costs of production, including labour and any overheads to keep the business running now and in the future. Not more. Not less. On books, the company may show a small profit but this is just to ensure its future stability. Its purpose is not to make money but to have demonstrable social outcomes."

As an incorporated association with a strong emphasis on communal and selfdirected work, Fig Tree is a non-capitalist enterprise. And Beanstalk and the Organic Buyers Group are also non-capitalist forms of enterprise with a focus on communal and cooperative principles.

Diverse Economic Practices Shaped by Values

The diverse economic practices that characterise these community enterprises are shaped by the enterprises’ values, particularly their social and environmental values. Indeed, this is a defining characteristic of community enterprises— economic practices serve social and environmental goals.

To take one example, The Beanstalk Organic Food uses volunteering as its primary form of labour, and has only one paid worker. For Beanstalk, the economic practice of volunteering serves a number of social goals.

As one member of Beanstalk explains, organic food is only one element of the enterprise:

- Rhyall Gordon (Beanstalk): [I]t’s not just about individual health reasons, it’s about healthy communities and people participating.

For Beanstalk volunteering is a way of building healthy communities and encouraging people to participate:

Rhyall Gordon (Beanstalk): [W]e’re mostly volunteer based and that in itself is an ethic and something we want to promote from a kind of community development point of view.

But volunteering also enables Beanstalk to achieve another goal—providing affordable organic food:

- Rhyall Gordon (Beanstalk). The idea of participation, in terms of Beanstalk, it’s a big issue for us, and the purpose of participation, because essentially the fact that we have volunteering is the reason why we have affordable organic food.

So in Beanstalk volunteering is an economic practice that serves multiple goals— participation, community building and affordability.

Like Beanstalk, the other Community Supported Agriculture initiative, Food Connect, also has affordability as one of its goals, but it uses a very different economic mechanism to achieve this. In Food Connect consumers have to purchase a minimum of four weeks boxes in advance, as this guarantees markets and an income for farmers, even if crops fail. So unlike Beanstalk where consumers can pay on the day (or a week in advance), Food Connect has to find a different strategy to incorporate low income households. Through a scheme developed in conjunction with Foresters ANA Friendly Society, low income earners can pay weekly but over four months they pay an extra $2 a week. By the end of the four months they have accumulated enough to start buying a month’s subscription in advance. So this Food for All scheme gives low income households a chance to catch up with other households and buy advance subscriptions.

For Food Connect the advance purchase of produce is a way of enacting the Community Supported Agriculture goal of building strong relationships between consumers and producers.

Because Beanstalk has a pay on the day (or a week in advance) system, it uses different economic practices to build relationships with farmers, for example:

- Rhyall Gordon (Beanstalk): We’re very keen on the idea of Community Supported Agriculture … and for us it’s just that idea of building better relationships with the farmers. We’ve done quite few things already, quite small, but I guess they’re first steps for us. Just this winter there was one of our farmers who suffered quite a bit with the rains and we on average were paying him about $400 a week. What he could supply to us dropped and what we did was just to continue to pay the $400 so it was our way of trying to support him through difficult times. And he returns that favour, or whatever you want to call it, in many ways. So there’s a very good relationship there and we want to try and develop that across the board. And there’s different things we do as well in terms of working bees for farmers. We go out and plant garlic and work in the farms and stuff like that. And one time we went to a struggling farmer where there was a bit of a crisis after floods and weeds and stuff like that. So as another form of Community Supported Agriculture there’s an opportunity for a group of labourers who can go out and support farmers, and that’s something we want to expand.

So Beanstalk has helped farmers who are in difficulty by gifting money and organising volunteer labour.

In these two examples, very different economic practices are being used to achieve the same outcomes of affordability and fostering strong relationships between consumers and producers. The one key difference is that Beanstalk has a community development emphasis and encourages civic participation via volunteerism. Whereas Food Connect has a social and economic justice emphasis and provides work opportunities for marginalised groups. As part of this social and economic justice focus, equity is a key value and this is reflected in the practice of having only two pay scales for all workers ($15 or $17 per hour) irrespective of people’s background and ability.

What is important here is not that one approach to Community Supported Agriculture is better than the other; rather, the two approaches are equally valid with each being shaped by the distinctive values of the enterprise (participation and volunteerism in the case of Beanstalk, and social and economic justice and equity in the case of Food Connect). These two enterprises therefore demonstrate ethical economic decision making. In other words, they demonstrate how choices, or decisions, about economic practices are shaped by the overriding values, or ethics, of the enterprise.

Each of the community enterprises represented at the workshop engages in ethical economic decision making. For example, in Imago Forest, the practice of True Pricing—of charging enough to cover all necessary costs plus a small amount of “profit” to sustain the enterprise into the future—is an ethical economic decision to foster a mutually beneficial and supporting relationship between farmer and consumer. In Sustaining our Suburbs, the practice of paying volunteers a small sum of money for a full or half day’s work is an ethical economic decision that reflects the values of social and economic justice.

Ethical economic decision making is not something that occurs only once in the life of a community enterprise; ethical economic decision making is an ongoing process. For example, Fig Tree Community Garden started with the intention of developing a place for people, where values could be nurtured and developed:

- Craig Manhood (Fig Tree): We actually started [Fig Tree] with no thoughts about money, it was more about the community involvement and what it gave to people in terms of values and what people learnt. An example of just a really basic outcome would be all the kids that just come and look at the chickens and go “Wow!” and that’s it.

The emphasis on fostering community, means that the enterprise is based on economic practices like gift giving, with garden plots being shared and people encouraged to take what they need (even neighbours and passer-bys who don’t contribute to the gardening). At times, however, Fig Tree has contemplated taking a more commercial and market oriented approach, such as selling more produce to raise revenue for materials and equipment. But the concern is that this will compromise the values and character of the garden:

Bill Robertson (Fig Tree): As soon as we start charging … does that kill the magic?

So far, the decision has been to steer away from a commercial focus. In so doing, the ethical economic decision has been to prioritise the social values associated with gifting even if it compromises other aspects of the enterprise’s operations (such as holding off on purchasing materials and equipment, or finding other ways to secure needed inputs). Nevertheless, Fig Tree may well return to this ethical economic decision and reconsider whether to develop more commercial activities, and if so, how such activities might be developed so they match the values of enterprise, or indeed, whether the values of the enterprise might need to be modified to accommodate a more commercial orientation. These types of considerations are the ethical economic decisions that community enterprises are always engaged in.

These ethical economic decisions mean that enterprises can end up with an array of economic practices—and not just practices like paid work, volunteering and gifting, that sit comfortably with ideas of community.

Ethical economic decision making can sometimes mean accommodating what might be described as economic misbehaviour, like theft:

Ann Hill (The Australian National University): What sort of values, like equity, and trust, how important are those for Fig Tree?

- Craig Manhood (Fig Tree): Oh, paramount. But then if people breach that, so what?

- Bill Robertson (Fig Tree): We deliberately haven’t had a problem if someone comes along and takes some vegetables then that’s good, isn’t it? That’s what it’s about. We had one instance where we found one person taking lots of pumpkins and selling them. But you know, so what. Robert Pekin (Food Connect): Yeah we have the same attitude. If someone’s broken in and stolen a lot of money well obviously they need the money. That’s a social problem not their problem.

Ethical economic decision making can also mean taking a more hard line stance and saying “No” to potential clients or negotiating relationships so they match the values of the community enterprise:

- Robert Pekin (Food Connect): Yeah, if you’re dealing with politicians or corporates, we won’t have anything to do with a corporate that doesn’t want to be judged at those higher levels. So you can go to the mission statement and look at the mission statement and point it out to them and say … “Unless you’re willing to deal with us at that level then we’ll go and talk to someone else”. So you’re always, all the time, being hard-nosed about those higher values. And then lots of discussion comes out of that, lots of learnings—even if nothing comes out of it in terms of a material contract or partnership or alliance, it’s always pushing. [For example,] we’re in a partnership with Connell Wager, a big engineering firm that deals with lots of mines. And they want us to supply fruit because we give them a tick in the Buying Local box, and also taking all their food scraps back, and it’s a great resource. It completes the cycle for us. It’s a fantastic win for us. But I’m not going anywhere with them until we can actually have an impact with all of their CEOs, all their management staff, about what real sustainability is, and a chance to speak. So they said “Righto, we want you to come in at these various times”. We want also to cater for them at the highest level. So we sort of look at that top line … we want to filter our values up ... [and] through that catering event they experience something different. That experience, whether it’s through osmosis or through verbal, is something - we won’t do anything with them until they’re open to saying “Yes you can do this and yes you can do that”.

This ethical economic decision making is by no means easy, particularly when an enterprise is reliant on external relationships, as one participant describes: Pablo Gimenez (The Brotherhood of St Laurence): [Y]ou have to have really good strong ethics and systems in place to be able to say “No, we’re not going to take your money because of x, y and z”.

Most agencies will take the money and not even think about who they are dealing with. And a lot of that is because of the pressure that they just want to continue or there’s a lot of paid staff involved.

This dilemma is particularly evident in the UK with the move away from community enterprises that are relatively autonomous to an emphasis on social enterprises as a means of delivering funded services for government:

- John Pearce: I think in the UK but perhaps not unique to the UK, when governments start seeing social enterprises as a useful tool to deliver services then it puts people into quite a difficult situation because it compromises the independence that they seek, or have sought in the past.

With community and social enterprises attracting more government attention in Australia ethical economic decisions about funding sources may well become more of a concern in the future (see also Barraket, 2008).1 What emerges from the discussion is an understanding of how the diverse economic practices that characterise the enterprises have been developed to reflect the enterprises’ values. Through this ongoing process of ethical economic decision making the enterprises are redefining what we usually imagine the economy as being.

They use regular paid work and market transactions, arrangements that sit in Row 1 of Figure 1, and they also use the diverse practices in Rows 2 and 3. They are innovating with this economic diversity in order to foster interconnections between people, sustain communities, address issues of social and economic inequity, and develop environmental practices.

Diverse Legal Structures Shaped by Values

As well as innovating with economic practices, community enterprises innovate with legal structures and governance arrangements as a means of reflecting values.

For example, Food Connect is a Proprietary Limited Company (Pty Ltd), but with not for profit articles:

- Robert Pekin: We’re a Proprietary Limited Company. And I’m the only shareholder or I was [as employees are in the process of becoming shareholders]. We wrote into the constitution that this business is not for sale and this business is not to benefit anyone individually from a profit point of view … And what we’ve created is a really unique little model. We don’t have to have a board. Not for profits have to have a board. So we have a Board of Concerned Elders who are then freed up to not think about legal and fiscal responsibility to the rest of the community; us as the employees all do that. So now we’ve got five people who are about to become shareholders and then the rest of Food Connect will become shareholders in that Pty Ltd with not for profit articles.

Some community enterprises like Fig Tree Community Garden operate as an incorporated association (which again means that the enterprise is not for profit). Like Food Connect with its Board of Concerned Elders, Fig Tree also innovates with the requirements for incorporated associations in order to reflect the values of the garden:

- Bill Robertson (Fig Tree): [W]e have the Annual General Eating rather than the Annual General Meeting, and Fun Raising Committees rather than Fund Raising Committees. That sort of language is really important.

The other community enterprises have no legal structure.

For example:

- Julian Lee (Organic Buyers Group): They’re just bunches of people who get together each fortnight.

This approach of informal governance is even supported by advisory groups:

- Rhyall Gordon (Beanstalk): And I spoke to the Association of Cooperatives and we had a great conversation and at the end they advised me that we probably don’t need to incorporate. There’s not any advantages and in many ways there’s more risks. We’re going to have to spend more money on insurance and so on.

So in each of these examples, the community enterprises are using their legal structure or governance arrangements to match their values." (


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Ethical Economic Decision-Making in Two Australian Community Enterprises‘, in Ash Amin (ed.) Plural Economy, Plural Provision: The Social Economy in International Perspective. London: Zed Press.

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