The governance of Wholefoods, the vegetarian and vegan student restaurant located in the campus centre, has recently been the subject of intense debate between the MSA Executive and student group Friends of Wholefoods (FoW). FoW is comprised of current Wholefoods staff, ex-volunteers, current and past Wholefoods Collective members and some customers. Wholefoods is for many an icon of the Monash student experience, providing not only a ‘home’ on campus through virtue of the community associated with it, but also, traditionally, food which students can afford. Tension between the two groups has escalated this semester, and the have as yet been unable to negotiate a compromise on not only who the managing body of the space should be, but the operational style that should be used. Lot’s Wife agreed to give both groups space to outline their contentions and explain recent events.
A number of misleading claims have been made about the future of Wholefoods that need to be addressed. Firstly, MSA has no intention of shutting down Wholefoods, or radically changing it. What we do want to do is ensure that Wholefoods remains viable in order to protect its future. We had hoped to achieve this by ensuring our processes and policies reflect legislative requirements, and by allocating funding to resolve the OH&S and functionality issues within the space.
It is important to note that Wholefoods is a part of the MSA. MSA funds and administers Wholefoods just like the MSA runs Clubs and Societies, Lot’s Wife and Activities. MSA rents the space for Wholefoods from the University. MSA hires and pays the staff at Wholefoods. MSA covers any losses the restaurant makes, and if anything untoward were to happen in that space, MSA carries the legal responsibility.
Although the Monash Student Council is the managerial body for Wholefoods, and the MSA is legally responsible for the operation of the restaurant, MSA recognises the right of a student collective to be involved in the running of the space, as per our constitution.
This year I gave a clear directive to MSA staff that the Wholefoods Collective must have the final say in everything that affects the ‘look, feel and culture’ of the space. This directive was given to honor the constitutional right for a collective to participate in the running of Wholefoods, while ensuring the MSA could meet its legal responsibilities.
To help contribute to the viability of Wholefoods I secured a significant amount of funding from Monash to renovate Wholefoods to ensue it met all OH&S requirements and modern food serving standards.
Aside from ensuring these requirements were met, as per my directive the collective had the right to decide on everything pertaining to the aesthetics of the restaurant. As such, the belief that MSA plans to turn Wholefoods into Meeting Point 2.0 without consultation is simply untrue.
Likewise, MSA has no intention of banning volunteering in Wholefoods. On the contrary, all we want to do is ensure we have clear volunteer policy and procedure that protects not only our patrons, but also our volunteers. Prior to this year MSA did not know who was volunteering in Wholefoods, or when they where volunteering. We did not know if they had food safety handling certificates, or if they had completed an OH&S induction. We also received legal advice that clearly stated we could not continue giving volunteers a meal for every hour they volunteered. Simply said, the changes made this year were to ensure we were compliant with volunteer legislation.
These changes are essential because as it stands, if anything were to happen to someone in Wholefoods, e.g. if there was an OH&S incident or a breach of industrial laws, the MSA is legally liable.
Some have argued that these changes have been formulated to turn Wholefoods into a profit driven business. This is not the case. Just as the collective have a constitutional right to participate in the running of the space, Wholefoods has a constitutional obligation to break even.
Unfortunately, Wholefoods hasn’t been breaking even for some time and has suffered significant financial losses.
These losses have a significant impact on the MSA budget and on the capacity of the MSA to deliver services across all of its departments, which support and assist students. These losses are unfair to the students who do not use Wholefoods but actively participate in other areas of the MSA. For example, last year Wholefoods lost $30,000, which prevented us from allocating $30,000 to areas like Clubs and Activities, and to representative departments that seek to lobby and campaign for a better quality university education.
The MSA is more than just Wholefoods, and it is important that we look holistically at what is best for the entirety of the organization, not just one area of it. As such, these losses need to be addressed immediately, to ensure we able to responsibly manage the MSA’s finances. The proposed changes and upgrades are an important part of this process.
We are not seeking to exclude students from being involved in the day to day running of Wholefoods, and we are not attempting to impose these changes on the Collective, however the MSA must brings its space, policies and procedures up-to-date with current legal obligations.
We have now invited the collective to initiate an independent mediation process with the MSA to resolve these issues. I hope that the collective engages in this process in a meaningful way, because as it stands, the way Wholefoods operates doesn’t just leave the MSA open to legal exposure, it is unfair to the students who use the space and also to those who don’t.
Friends Of Wholefoods
For most of its 35 years, Wholefoods has been run by a Collective, operating with consensus decision making. However, over the last six years, consecutive MSC Executives have undermined Collective, and hence Wholefoods’, core values. The group Friends of Wholefoods (FoW), also known as Save Wholefoods, was formed to challenge the (mis)management of this student space by Executive.
The MSA President wrote in the 2nd edition of Lot’s Wife this year that “…[if financial losses continue] we will have no choice but to close the doors on Wholefoods forever” adding urgency to this debate.
FoW are currently campaigning for the governance model of Wholefoods to be taken to a Student General Meeting, the highest decision-making body of the MSA.
Who are the Collective?
Collective is made up of Wholefoods staff, volunteers and other interested students. It uses consensus decision making as an alternative to hierarchical organising, or majority voting. In the past, it allowed all interested parties to participate directly in decision making, providing accountability and transparency and a common sense of ownership, and ensuring the best decisions were made by addressing all criticism. The Collective delegated more specific roles to paid Coordinators, including legal roles such as the Food Safety supervisor and OH&S Representative.
The MSA Executive’s actions in hiring full-time business managers (thus excluding student workers and volunteers) show that they believe that Wholefoods should be run according to a more conventional business structure.
FoW believes that Wholefoods provided the best possible services for students, and the best possible conditions for workers, when volunteers and workers were empowered and involved in the decision-making processes at all levels of operations. In exchange for an hour of volunteering, each volunteer could get a free, healthy meal. Students also developed free hospitality skills while working in a community environment.
In 2012, the MSA Executive dramatically restricted student participation in Wholefoods. They suggest that the past system of volunteering at Wholefoods, was “illegal”. The MSA Operations Manager informed the Collective in February this year that “volunteer roles must be restricted to non-essential work”. According to FoW’s understanding, legal advice obtained by the Executive did not support this, yet to date students are still unable to volunteers in Wholefoods.
The notions of inadequate OH&S and Food Safety protocols and volunteer training seem integral to the Executive’s justifications. However, under Collective, all volunteers were trained extensively, and were supervised by qualified cafe or kitchen hands. This was overseen by the Volunteer and other Coordinators. All Coordinator positions were made redundant by the 2009/10 Executive. If there are any issues today, the Executive’s management model has failed, not the Collective’s.
The Wholefoods Collective and FoW are keen to work with the Executive to overcome problems, but to date the Executive has failed to cite adequate, if any, specific legislation and how they think Wholefoods has been, or would be, in breach of this if run by Collective. As a result, we are left to assume they are simply using unspecified ‘legal matters’ as a smokescreen to justify their actions.
Responsibility for Financial Losses
FoW and the Executive agree that Wholefoods needs to be financially viable and that there is a constitutional obligation for the restaurant to aim to “break even”. Yet over recent years Wholefoods has made increasing financial losses.
The Executive blames the Wholefoods Collective for the losses. However, these losses have occurred subsequent to the Executive starting to assume control from Collective in 2006. In 2005, under Collective management, Wholefoods made a surplus of $21,011. Last year it made a loss of $30,955.
Decisions made by Executive which we believe have contributed to these losses include: increasing prices; casualisation of staff; replacement of multiple part-time student coordinators with a single full-time manager at a significantly higher salary; and reducing, then cutting, volunteers.
The Executive claims that the Collective still has control over the “look, feel and culture” of Wholefoods, yet the 29th of June was the first time Collective was even told, let alone consulted, about possible refurbishments (which we now know were discussed as far back as November last year). On June 29, MSA President Esther Hood wrote in an email to the Collective “… Exec will be able to present the Collective with two different choices in overall design.” We believe this was nothing more than an attempt to placate Collective by presenting an illusion of control, in light of the fact that this ‘choice’ was only offered after Collective found out about the proposed changes from another source.
Most recently, the President approved of the installation of security cameras without consulting the Wholefoods Collective. This is not only a violation of their own “good faith” policy (Collective and the Executive are currently undergoing mediation); it is a clear violation of the Collective’s ‘power’ in the “look, feel and culture” of Wholefoods.
What is to be done?
We believe that a Collective run Wholefoods, using consensus decision making and with involvement of student volunteers at all levels is best not only for Wholefoods – culturally, politically and financially – but also for the MSA, and Monash University at large. If you agree, or would like to find out more, visit www.savewholefoods.com, our Facebook page ‘Save Wholefoods’, or visit us in Wholefoods!