Get Started Green: Shopping at a Co-op

cooperative grocery store, food buying club, organic produce

Just Food Co-op in Northfield, Minn. Photo: Flickr/alex_beeby

Looking for a way to purchase fresh, locally grown food without having to make a trip to the farmers market? Then consider joining a food cooperative – either a retail store or a buying club – to start getting deals on healthy food that is often organically or sustainably grown. Here’s what you need to know about food co-ops before you sign up.

Cooperative grocery stores

The cooperative grocery store combines the convenience of a regular supermarket with a food co-op’s emphasis on high-quality local fare.

The first type of storefront food cooperative – the consumer co-op – is owned and controlled by customers who sign up to be co-op members.

Why join a co-op? Co-op members receive exclusive discounts on the store’s products and are encouraged to have their say in the store’s operation, by voting on co-op policies and procedures or serving on the board of directors.

Most food co-ops make it a priority to sell organically or sustainably grown food, so by enrolling at your local food co-op, you can save money on eco-minded fare that is often more expensive than its conventionally produced counterparts. Plus, as a co-op member, you will be able to influence the types of food products the store sells and the vendors the store works with, so you can lobby for reasonably priced organic and local options.

To become a part of a co-op store, you can pay a one-time or monthly fee or, at some co-ops, you can sign up as working member and carry out duties like stocking shelves, pricing orders and cleaning up in exchange for membership benefits.

Keep in mind that some customer-owned co-ops only allow members to patronize their store – another great reason to join the co-op – while others permit the general public to make purchases but, of course, they do not receive member discounts.

The second type of cooperative grocery store is a worker-owned business; members of the public can’t join the co-op unless they work there.  Like consumer co-ops, these stores are run by their members – in this case, the employees – with the philosophy that workers who have a stake in the company will be more invested in the quality of their service and products.

To find a local food co-op store near you, search LocalHarvest’s  co-op directory by your city name or zip code.

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Food buying clubs

Cooperative buying clubs are another great source of high-quality, sustainable food that won’t break the bank.

In a buying club, a group of people come together to gain access to the wholesale marketplace, which is usually off-limits to individuals, and purchase food in bulk directly from wholesale distributors or farmers.

While some food buying clubs are run by one coordinator who oversees purchasing and distribution, cooperative buying clubs are operated by their members, who share such tasks as collecting money from other members, placing orders, unloading food from trucks and dividing up the orders.

Just like at a cooperative grocery store, club members are able to provide input on what food products the group buys and what vendors the club works with, so they can prioritize local family-owned farms that use sustainable agricultural methods.

If you’re familiar with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, you may be wondering what the difference between a CSA and food buying club is.

In a CSA, you sign up for an individual subscription to a farm or group of farms for the length of a growing season, and the farmers provide you with a bag or box of seasonal produce and other farm products each week. CSA members are limited to the types of produce and food products grown at one farm or a small group of farms, whereas buying clubs offer a wider selection of products because they source food from multiple vendors.

While some CSAs allow participants to choose the food products they receive each week, it is not uncommon for many CSA farms to simply distribute a uniform box of seasonally available produce to each member. Buying clubs, on the other hand, always give members a choice as to the kinds of produce and other food products they can purchase.

If you’re interested in joining a food buying club, use LocalHarvest’s co-op directory to locate a club near you.

No food buying club in your area? Gather a group of interested friends, neighbors or co-workers, and start your own club, using this eHow tutorial. For inspiration, read this post from the blog Small Footprint Family, which details how a group of environmentally conscious families in San Diego, Calif., set up their own purchasing co-op for eco-friendly products – from organic produce and grass-fed beef to cloth diapers and organic kids clothes.

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