Food co-ops are a way of distributing food at the local level. They’re owned by a collective group of members, and typically offer organic food. Sometimes this is done exclusively, and sometimes you’ll still have to look for certification.
They can be a wonderful thing, and in some cases, they can even save you money. Before you join, though, there are some questions you should ask.
Can I only shop there if I’m a member?
Some food co-ops only allow you to shop if you are a member. Others are open to the public, but members get a discount on their purchases.
Membership does come with some responsibility, though. You’ll be expected to weigh in on major decisions, and you may even be required to volunteer your time.
Add up the numbers to see if membership will actually save you money. You’ll have to pay membership dues, which may or may not be more than your annual savings. Your time is valuable, too; while it’s great to give it to a good cause, if you don’t have any time to give then membership may not be a good option for you.
If your co-op is open to the public, you have some options. If it’s not, membership may be the deciding factor in whether you can shop there at all.
Is it really cheaper?
My food co-op is far cheaper for fresh, organic foods than if I purchased them at the grocery store. It’s only marginally more expensive than if I purchased non-organic foods. But packaged goods? Those I can find at my normal grocer’s for less.
Fresh food isn’t cheaper at every co-op, though. Just because you cut out the middle man doesn’t mean costs are magically lower. In fact, many of the practices that make food not organic also inherently make production cheap. If organic food costs more to raise and grow properly, those costs are going to be passed on to you, with or without a middleman. So you may find a big price gap if you’re switching from “normal” food to the organic variety. I’m very lucky in my area that the prices aren’t jaw-droppingly different, but that is not typically the case.
Prices are going to vary from co-op to co-op. Ask members about pricing, then compare with your grocery store before deciding on whether or not it’s actually cheaper.
Where can I find a food co-op?
If you don’t know where to find a food co-op near you, try using Organic Valley’s search tool, which shows many across the entire nation. Organic Valley is a co-op themselves, though they now distribute products nationwide. On their site, you can also search for grocers in your area who carry their products, giving you a good basis to price compare before purchasing that membership.
Is it worth it?
I love my food co-op. It’s open to the public, and prices are reasonable. It allows me to buy better food, and feed my family healthier while allowing me to stay within budget. If organic food or buying local is something that you value, it’s definitely an option worth checking out.