When we began eating traditional foods, locating good sources was very challenging and I found it hard to wrap my head around. I was used to getting everything I needed at the grocery store and didn’t even know where to start to find better sources. Many blogs and books I read discussed food co-ops, which I had never heard of before, much less knew how to go about finding one. Do you have the same questions? Let’s get them answered today!
What is a food co-op?
Food co-ops, or food cooperatives, are groups of people or workers that buy food together. There are food co-ops for overstocked or bulk items at steep discounts, traditional grocery store items — as well as organic and natural foods, which is where our focus will be.
Each co-op has their own policies but generally speaking, you place an order with the co-op (usually online) of items you want to purchase and then pick it up directly from the co-op or it is delivered to your house or somewhere near you. Often there are drop offs at one co-op member’s home and others nearby pick up their orders from the hosting house. You can find out the address of your pickup location usually when you place your first order, but it may be possible to find the general location out beforehand, or you can sign up to be a host home yourself!
What can I get?
It really depends on the co-op! Need food? There’s a co-op for that! 🙂 I use mine for organic and sustainable dried beans, grains, and baking supplies (including spices we use in large quantities, like cinnamon and ginger — my favorites!). Occasionally if I find a good deal on something else I’ll place an order through my co-op, too.
Meat, dairy products, even “healthy” convenience foods can be found in a co-op. Keep in mind that co-ops often have a minimum amount you need to spend per order, though, so that can often influence your purchases. I don’t place an order every month because I buy such large quantities, so when I do place one, meeting the minimum amount is usually not a problem.
How can I find one?
You can find a food co-op by a simple internet search of your city or region with “organic food co-op” as your search terms. While many westerners and midwesterners use the popular Azure Standard, other regions don’t have that option. When I was just starting out, I had heard so much about Azure that I went to the website all excited to find what I needed, only to discover it didn’t reach anywhere near me. Learning how to find a local co-op took some time, but it was well worth the effort!
I recommend using Local Harvest and searching for a co-op by your city or zip code on their website. However, if you do have trouble locating one that contains what you need, I would increase your search to your entire state (or even nearby states if you’re near a border! I live in northern Virginia, so Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia are all potential locations for a co-op).
Before you start thinking that you can’t drive hours every month to pick up a co-op order, hear me out. It turned out that I found the co-op we use regularly by increasing my search terms to a statewide search of Virginia. Even though it didn’t show up in the search terms for my city, there was a drop off location 3 miles from my house. The search terms don’t always show the delivery distance range, just where the headquarters are, so there may be closer drop offs than you realize! It does take time to make the phone calls, but finding the variety of items I wanted, raised and grown with healthy practices, was worth the effort.
Finally, if you are budget-conscious, it is helpful to keep an eye on your co-op's prices. While food co-ops often have prices that are exceptionally lower, especially when purchased in bulk, not all items may be a great deal. At least for my co-op, produce and meat are much more expensive than the health food store or farmer’s market. While I could order items we use a lot of like Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar or Real Salt at our co-op, I have found better prices nearby at our local health food store or Amazon. The beans, grains, and baking supplies are significantly cheaper through the co-op, where I might get a 20 or 50 pound bag.
Do you use a food co-op to purchase items? What do you like to buy at yours? What have you discovered is or is not a good deal?
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