Our founder, Keelah Lam
Keelah Lam

A little while ago, Business Australia interviewed Manly Food Co-op Founder – Keelah Lam, here’s what she had to say.

Can you tell us how your passion for the environment started?

I grew up in an idyllic neighborhood with bush all around so I’ve always had a feeling of belonging to nature. 

After returning to Australia from Malaysia with four children I got involved with a local environment group and learned about waste and how recycling doesn’t work. 

When I was growing up in the 1940s there was no plastic. Then when I was in my twenties they started putting plastic bags around sliced bread. We used to wash them and hang them on the line as they were very precious. 

But in such a short time plastic was everywhere. That made me think about the value of things and how in that short time plastic had lost its value. 

And how did Manly Co-op come about? 

I took inspiration from Alfafa House, a Co-operative in Newton, and knew we could do something similar in Manly. 

I remember the first community meeting to engage local businesses and the Council. A man from the Council called to ask how many chairs we wanted. I said about 35. We had more than 100 people turn up and I thought, wow, we’re on to something. 

The first task was finding premises – that was difficult because we didn’t have any money! But we had such a tremendous amount of help from the community to get the founding shop ready to open. 

Alfalfa House helped us with what products were the most popular staples like oats and dynamic wheat flour. And from there we grew. 

Alfalfa House Newtown 2021

Of course over the years we had our ups and downs and we learned how to weather the ebb and flow. So many different people with so many different skills and interests have been part of the Co-op. That’s what makes it so beautiful and unique. 

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Well, I do have hope for the future even though things are pretty dire at the moment and pretty scary. I feel that there is an awakening happening. 

Bev Cowan, one of the early founding members of the Co-op, described organic food as supporting farmers that bring life back into the soil. So by supporting buying organic food, you’re supporting the farmers who are bringing life back to the land.

And of course the success of the Co-op has been my biggest joy. 

What sets the Co-op apart from other?

At the core of the Co-op’s mission is tackling the waste crisis and the impact it has on the environment. It’s about educating people on the value of things and changing their attitudes to consumerism. 

It’s also the community shopping experience – there is a personal element where you get to know people, talk to them and share ideas. It’s giving people the sense they can make a difference. 

Are there any particular lessons in your time of running the co-op that stand out?

One of the lessons is that we need to work really hard to encourage people to play a role in helping to keep the Co-op running. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Co-op.

What’s coming up next for the Co-op? 

Sarah Weate who heads up our Board is leading a really exciting project, a Co-op of Co-ops. This means we can buy in bulk and be more competitively priced. By working together we will be able to have more influence on government.  

Have you got any practical tips or advice that you’d give to someone that’s looking to live a more conscious sustainable lifestyle?

I suggest you start by making a list of 10 things that you think are fairly easy to change. Tick them off one by one and when you get to the end of the list, add more! 

Keep raising the bar, challenging yourself to do better all the time. Having a vision for change is the most important thing.