Wholefoods was founded by students in 1977 as a student-run, not-for-profit, vegetarian restaurant for students. The basic purpose of Wholefoods was to provide nutritious and affordable food for students and demonstrate the viability of a directly democratic, student-run enterprise, while cultivating and supporting a strong and inclusive sense of a people’s community at Monash University. “Food for people, not profit” became the special guiding philosophy of Wholefoods.
Until about 2007 Wholefoods was run directly and democratically by an open group of students (consisting of Wholefoods’ volunteers, staff, coordinators and even patrons) called “Wholefoods Collective” or “Collective” for short. Collective was integral to the meaning and purpose of Wholefoods in terms of demonstrating the viability and importance of students directly and democratically organising and self-governing a productive enterprise. The Collective was responsible for making all major and minor decisions about Wholefoods concerning everything from budgeting, pricing, staffing (in cooperation with the MSA), volunteer training and rostering, to decorating the space and organising cultural events. This ever-changing student group practiced consensus-based decision-making; challenging privileges and hierarchies by organising in a way that sought to overcome existing social disadvantages and break down discriminatory power structures typically instituted in conventional businesses. Collective meetings were at times, emotionally straining and arduous. They were never perfect, but always strove to be fair. The Collective represented within the microcosm of Wholefoods an endeavour towards a democratic disposition where people did not just elect or appoint their political decision makers, but were rather more substantially involved in the decision making process.
The Collective very successfully organised Wholefoods in accordance with its original purpose for nearly forty years, faithfully adhering to its guiding philosophy of “Food for people, not profit.” During this time the Wholefoods restaurant (and later café) championed ethical food production and choices, aiming to provide affordable vegetarian, vegan, fairly traded, organic and locally produced food wherever possible. In this way Wholefoods quickly became a place where the students and staff of Monash Clayton could get healthy, cheap vegetarian food. It maintained an open and informal environment in which to study, relax and socialise on the couches, and create ideas of social and environmental change: a true student space. Indeed it is worth emphasising that since its inception Wholefoods has always been both a hive of student political activity that encouraged and facilitated student involvement in all of its operations, as well as broader social activism, skill-sharing and social awareness – a place of relaxation or retreat.
Through an open, student-run collective model of self-governance, Wholefoods offers us a chance to take part in an organisational system that differs radically from typical management structures. It can make us more aware of our own capacity, privileges and advantages while teaching us the values of respect for others, cooperation and community over dominance, competition and hierarchy. Ultimately though, a directly democratic structure of student governance at Wholefoods empowers us to take control over an important part of our own lives and ensure that we continue to have a place that provides a nutritious and affordable feed, as well as a space to veg out in, free from the imperative to spend money.
What is the Wholefoods Collective?
Put simply, a collective is a group of individuals who act together to achieve a common aim. The underpinning philosophy is that those involved in an organisation should be the ones making the decisions on issues which affect them.
Until recently the Wholefoods Collective made decisions about the nature of the space and how the restaurant should run. This included decisions over finances, purchasing, publicity, organisational efficiency, menus, encouraging participation and making the space inviting for students.
The advantage of the Collective was that the people involved had a genuine affinity and concern for the restaurant and its space, as well as direct experience with all levels of Wholefoods’ operations.
Consensus-based decision making requires a commonality of aims, philosophies or interests amongst the participants. One of the requirements for being a member of the Wholefoods Collective is that members agree with the Wholefoods Constitution. Within the aims of the restaurant there was still plenty of room for healthy debate over the specifics of how the restaurant should be run.
Consensus Decision Making
You may be wondering what is meant by consensus. Consensus is a non-voting procedure for making group decisions. In consensus, decisions are not accepted until everyone involved in the Collective is comfortable with it.
The benefits of such a decision-making process are:
o The views of all members are treated with equal merit. If anyone in the group does not agree with a proposal their concerns need to be addressed. Being forced to give genuine consideration to all viewpoints ensures better decisions and cultivates an environment of respect, mutuality and responsibility within the Collective. This also means that when decisions are reached, all members of the group have a sense of ownership of decisions themselves, and empowerment through the decision-making process.
o It facilitates participation and involvement by a maximum number of people, since the views of all individuals in the group are incorporated into any decisions made.
o The absence of the formalities of tightly defined meeting procedure makes the process less daunting to those who wish to have a say and who want to become involved in decision-making processes.
o All participants are given an equal right to determine outcomes as nobody in the Collective has any privileges or positions of authority.
o Unlike with voting the majority cannot override minority concerns since any disputes or conflicting ideas are addressed through mutual compromise and rational debate. A requirement for consensus is that members listen carefully and accommodate others, whereas the voting process allows participants to ignore alternative viewpoints if they know they have the numbers to win the vote.
o Voting is still a last resort if repeated attempts to reach consensus fail.
 As it is clearly stated in the MSA Constitution (section 19), Wholefoods aims “to demonstrate that a Collective (operating by consensus decision-making) is a viable alternative to hierarchical organisation.”