Thoughts on Joining a Food Co-op

imageWe 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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Photo credit: infrogmation

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Comments

  1. Aviva_Hadas says:

    We belonged to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) once. You paid up front for a “share” (I think ours was 16 weeks.) Then you went to the farmer’s market & got what the farmer said you were entitled to… 1 tomato, 1 bunch of lettuce, a couple onions, etc. with each week being different.
    I thought it was o.k. – without it I never would have tried kale…

  2. Kale is one vegetable my kids eat reliably.

    Do they have CSA’s in Israel? I wondered about that. CSA’s are not coops, but are great institutions. I’d like to join one this year if I can find the cash to do it. You need a few hundred dollars to get started — kind of a lot of $$ to lay out for produce.

    I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a food coop, but because it was so large it operated as a store (anyone reading this blog hear of Weaver’s Way?). It was very convenient, with great, healthy products and great prices. There was a very small yearly work requirement that we fulfilled for my parents once we became teenages. Something like 12 hrs/per adult/year. It was stuff like packing the bulk trailmix (always a fun job!) and unloading the truck into the tiny warehouse.

    We occasionally got paid by neighbors to do their work hours, somewhat controversial I guess, but it worked for us.

    I heard about a food coop here in Baltimore, but it’s kind of a secret which I simply cannot get my head around. Because of a bad experience they don’t share the list. You have to know what you want, a case of Morningstar Grillers for example, and they tell you if they can get it for you. I love food coops and am in general a huge fan of “coops” (lived in one once, too. Whitehall Coop anyone?), but I have avoided participating in this one because I find the secretiveness of it really strange.

    In fact when I lived in Whitehall I helped run a food coop that several residential coops participated in.

    You are very lucky Hannah to have one of these right across the street.

    • tdr–I don’t know but after I read your comment I realized that this sale is not really a coop, more of a group buying arrangement. You mean they don’t tell you what you might purchase? THat’s bizarre.

  3. I think they used to share the list, but someone took the list to the local supermarket and asked if they would match prices. Since the “coop” and the supermarket shared the same distributor it compromised the distributor.

    Buying club is probably more accurate.

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