The Food Co-op Shop & Cafe in Canberra showcases the cuisine of migrant and refugee women

‘Food for people, not for profit’ is the motto at The Food Co-op Shop & Cafe in Canberra. This community-run organization celebrates the diversity of the Canberra community and creates work opportunities for local migrants and refugees.

The co-op opened in 1976 and began serving the ACT public from the Union Building at the Australian National University. Fast forward to today, it is a thriving community hub with a bulk grocery store and cafe that serves lunch to 80-150 customers per day.

On Saturdays, the cooks offer unique, delicious and healthy meals that are also vegetarian. These dishes are made using locally sourced, organic ingredients from the shop, or produce from their volunteer-run rooftop garden. Six chefs from diverse cultural backgrounds are currently employed to cook these lunches, and they include refugees and migrant women from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone.

“All of the women are away from their homes and their extended families,” says Amie Illfield, the co-op’s communications and community development coordinator, who has been a member since 2008. “Often in their homes, they experience different crises, different violence or climatic events.”

One of the co-op’s volunteer members, Kayla, worked with Canberra’s Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services to facilitate their employment. She not only wanted to help the women find work but provide an opportunity for them to showcase their culinary heritage.

These talented women cook on a rotating roster during the week, but are encouraged to share the cuisine of their homeland on the co-op’s menu.

“Our Saturday lunch program is about showcasing cuisine by migrant and refugee women,” says Illfield. “Saturday is when the cooks can be a bit more flamboyant with their food… Because we’re only having to cook for [around] 50 people, there’s a bit more space to be creative.”

Saba Giday, one of the co-op’s beloved chefs, has been employed as a cook for almost five years. Giday was born in Ethiopia and migrated to Australia with her husband dela in 2009. As the eldest of five siblings, she was responsible for helping her mum dela prepare family meals and has always enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen.

“I like cooking because I grew up cooking,” Giday says. “I like being creative. I put my love and everything about me into my cooking.”

Injera bread, green lentil and mixed vegetable curry, chickpea flour cakes (shimbra asa wot), and potato and lentil sambusa are some of the Ethiopian specialties Giday has made for past Saturday lunches. She values ​​the ability to create these dishes from local and organic ingredients, as this is the way she grew up cooking.

“The Ethiopian food is all organic,” Giday says. “We bought from farmers because there were farms everywhere.”

The Food Co-op Shop & Cafe has become a second home to Giday, and she loves the welcoming and flexible workplace it provides. Giday did not know anyone in Australia when she migrated here, but she over time she has developed a wonderful community of friends who appreciate her cooking.

“It’s like my house,” she says. “Everyone’s beautiful: good people [with] good hearts.”

The Food Co-op Shop & Cafe not only provides a nurturing environment for refugees and migrant women to showcase their passions and home cuisines, but is also teaching them a more inclusive side to Australia’s work culture.

“I like being creative. I put my love and everything about me into my cooking.”

“We want to provide the cooks with… a warm and welcoming environment where their food is appreciated and valued and they are valued,” Illfield says. “We also want to provide training and development opportunities … For example, if they want their food safety certificate or something like that, then we would support it.”

All the women have gained confidence since working at the co-op, and Illfield has also seen improvements in their English-speaking skills. However, this partnership has been mutually beneficial for all.

Since starting the Saturday lunches, The Food Co-op Shop & Cafe has experienced an increase in community engagement with more people interested in trying new cuisines. Illfield hopes to continue growing this celebration of diversity, which is something the co-op has valued and supported for more than 45 years.

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