We recently noticed that big things were happening in the elementary school across the street. Every Wednesday afternoon, trucks arrive and a group sets up boxes of produce. Starting at about 7 PM, people start loading up their cars or shopping carts.
One day we asked about joining. It turned out there were no qualifications, or at least they decided that we met them. We had to provide two phone numbers and commit to pay for whatever we ordered through a computerized call-in system.
This particular system is unique to my area, but the challenges of buying as part of a group are universal.
- Quality. You can’t be sure in advance what quality you will get, but aside from a bag of soft clementines we’ve been pleased. The ripeness is something we can’t control—sometimes the avocadoes are ripe, sometimes hard.
- Variety. Most of the fruits and vegetables are the ones that are in season, but because this group is very strictly kosher, they don’t offer everything. If you want cauliflower or basil, you have to find it yourself.
- Quantity. You must buy in set quantities. Potatoes come in 4-kilogram packages. You’re fine if you want 4 or 8 kilos, but not if you need only two or six. And sometimes you end up with more of something than you are used to—we didn’t used to buy two kilograms of cucumbers or beets at a time.
- Timing. The order must be completed by Sunday evening, 4 days before the produce arrives. When you’re used to making your list at most a day before your shopping trip, it’s hard to adjust. Fortunately, we get two automatic phone reminders.
- Ordering Process. When you call the central number, a recording advises you on quantities and prices. The first few times, I had to listen to the options twice. Now I can get through the list in about five minutes.
- Cost. Most items are a bargain, but like with any regular you need to keep track of the competition from time to time.
- Extras. In addition to produce and eggs, from time to time the co-op offers frozen meat, dried legumes, wine, snack foods or whatever they feel will appeal to their clientele. I haven’t checked if they offer these things on any kind of rotation or printed schedule. For now I’ve stuck with the produce, but in theory I could condense some of my other grocery shopping.
- Convenience. This is where the co-op really wins for me. When I arrive with my cart, I get a printout of my order. Collecting the various items and paying (in cash) takes about 15 minutes. A responsible pre-teen could handle it easily. Since it’s right across the street I can even check to see when it’s crowded.
- Responsibilities. Some co-ops require you to contribute time collecting or packing orders. I guess the organizers are volunteers, or their time is included in the cost. We’re also under no obligation to order each week.
Joining a co-op forces you to plan your purchases better and make adjustments. Overall it has been a good system for me.
Have you ever been part of a cooperative food purchase? Please share your experience in the comments.
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