Food Co-ops Save Cash, Build Community

Bulk bins full of bulgar wheat, lentils and brown rice. Incense, tofu and long-haired shoppers donning Birkenstocks. Mention that you’re a member of a food co-op and these are some of the tired seventies stereotypes that may come up.

Today, food co-ops vary widely in the way they’re structured and in the products they sell, but the basic idea behind them - that access to healthy, wholesome food should not be limited by geography or income - has remained constant. They can also be a great way to save on your monthly grocery bill, especially if you’re committed to eating local and organic products.

Food co-ops offer customers the opportunity to own part of the business, and share in the profits, if there are any. This arrangement can take many different forms. At the Park Slope Food Co-op (foodcoop.com) in Brooklyn, N.Y. members buy a membership share for $100 and then commit to working one shift every four weeks. Jobs range from cleaning, to cashiering, to re-stocking to writing for the co-op newsletter, and every member must work; you cannot buy your way out. Since only members may shop at the Park Slope Co-op and labor costs remain minimal, prices are 20 to 40% lower than at nearby grocery stores. “We’re truly working together,” says Joe Holtz, general manager and co-op member since it opened in 1973. “That’s what we do here.”

In contrast, some co-ops determine levels of membership by the number of shares a member purchases. At Three Rivers Market in Knoxville, Tenn., anyone may shop in the store, but members receive a 10% discount off bulk purchases. A single share costs $25, and the purchase of eight shares makes you a Fair Share Owner, eligible for dividends if the co-op makes a profit in a given year. Three Rivers is also a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which combines the buying power of co-ops, and offers monthly specials on popular goods and brands like Amy’s Kitchen and Organic Valley.

Although they offer shoppers the best prices possible, unlike the Park Slope Co-op, Three Rivers does not focus as much as lowering the overall cost of fresh food for members. The bulk discount is a great way to lower you food costs, especially if your family eats a lot of dry staples like rice, beans and the ever-popular lentils. “If you know your family uses a lot of brown rice, for instance,” says Chris Buckner, Three Rivers’ education services manager, “then you can order a large bag for a reduced price.”

Buckner notes that shoppers also tend to save on produce at the market. “Obviously, buying local produce is often cheaper because of the reduced cost of transportation,” he notes. “Not to mention fresher.” And although there are still all vegetarian co-ops, both Three Rivers and Park Slope offer pastured meat from local animals.

Holtz explained that when he and his partners started the Park Slope co-op in 1973, their focus was, and has remained, on saving money for members. “There was no shortage of fresh food, even then,” he says. He explains that in many communities, especially rural areas without farmer’s markets or specialty stores, co-ops are the best place to locate local produce, fresh eggs and dairy and pastured meats.

The best way to figure out your options, and the potential co-op savings available in your community is to check out the various co-ops operating in the area. One great resource is the Co-op Directory, which has a state by state listing of co-operative markets. The website is fairly bare bones, but may lead you to a nearby store you didn’t know about.

Beyond saving on your food budget, co-ops can serve as a community touchstone, and an assurance of quality. As a partial owner, the market is there for you, not to make a profit for someone who lives in another city, state or country. “Even though these are hard times, people still rely on their co-ops because they are such trusted sources of healthy foods in our communities,” says Buckner. “It's a good feeling to have that when everything else is so chaotic.”

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