Meneka Premkumar is living her values

Meneka and her daughter Indira at The Common Good Store                                  Photo by Robin Bowra

When Meneka Premkumar and her husband John Currey opened an organic grocery store around the corner from my house five years ago, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. I remember a neighbour saying to me, “That store won’t last.”

Five years on, The Common Good is an integral part of the local community. I love the fact I can wander in, pick something up, and Meneka will be able to tell me where it comes from and who makes or grows it. I also like the way the store and everything in it invites you to consider the impact of our consumption choices.

 Over a pot of tea, Meneka explained how her passion for ethical living turned from an interest into a way of life.

My journey – personally and professionally – is the intersection of the ethics in food, consumption, lifestyle and living. I don’t believe there are these perfect silos in our lives. I think it just becomes how you live and the conviction of what you believe in, more than a business idea or a passion.

It started when I was about 21 and I had my first experience with a naturopath.I used to suffer from eczema on my hands and had seen lots of GPs and tried different treatments. I thought, I’ll give the naturopath a go. She gave me a whole host of different creams and it stopped. I thought, there’s some validity in that. That experience started me on alternative medicine and from there, that’s where the interest in food began.

That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the correlation between food and health. With an inquiring mind, I started thinking, where am I getting my food? What’s in it? What is organic? I realised that making better food choices is about ethics and the willingness to understand how has your food got there? Who was hurt or not hurt in getting this food in front of me? That translates to the clothes I’m wearing, the car I’m driving, where I bank and my superannuation. But it’s not overnight, it’s a journey to arrive there.

When John and I decided to put our ethics where our mouth is, we had already started breaking up with supermarkets. We were procuring most of our food from farmers markets, independent stores or IGAs.  We lived in Richmond at the time and didn’t have any independent stores in our community, so I had to drive to other suburbs to shop. One day, I was driving to Fairfield, and Indira, who was only eight months old, was having a crying fit in the back. I was stressed, and I remember thinking, why can’t I walk to a shop and get what I need? It was a light bulb moment. I thought, I’m going to look into seeing why there’s no organic grocery store in my own community.

Our business and the nature of it is an extension of us, which is why it’s in our own community. It’s the least amount of money I have earned, but the most fulfilled we’ve been. It’s been a slow burn. There’s a generation of people who are used to supermarkets, these hyper maniac places with bright lights where there’s isles and isles of things, and you are made to believe it’s really cheap and you need more of the same thing because ten is cheaper. I think they influence people very negatively, and changing that trajectory is really challenging.

 When I opened my store, the people who first came in and really supported me were the university kids who lived across the road. My parents’ generation romanticised supermarkets, but people who are in their late teens, early 20s, don’t have those positive and romantic notions about supermarkets. There’s a lot that can be improved in young people who are 18 to 25, but what you can’t fault them on is their level of empathy and awareness, and that makes them different and far more mobilised to change things.

 I’ve learned having a business model isn’t enough. I think the authenticity of our store is why its lasted.  While 80% of what we sell can be got elsewhere, what you won’t get is the transparency of what I’m doing with the money you are giving me to buy those products, the back story and the genuine sense of community, because it’s my own neighbourhood.

One of the motivations of the store has been to inspire other people to open identical stores in their own communities. John and I would like to open another store, but we don’t want to franchise it or own many. I have always said to others, if this is something you want to do, come and talk to us and we will open whatever doors we can. I hope what the business says, more than anything else, is that it’s possible to replicate this and inject a sense of community into your own neighbourhood.

 To learn more, visit https://www.commongoodstore.com.au or Instragram thecommongoodstore.

© Matilda Bowra 2018

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