A Food Cooperative Has Some Benefits, but Not Always Financial Benefits
Everyone wants to eat better these days so the idea of local and organic food is quite popular. In some parts of the country your food may travel thousands of miles before it reaches your table, so it only makes sense that if you could get your food a little closer to home it would be fresher, and probably cost less since it didn’t have to travel as far. So, how do you go about getting local food? One option is to join a local food co-op or cooperative that brings local farmers together to sell their meat and produce locally. Since we had a new co-op start up right by us I figured I would give it a try. After a few weeks I’ve learned quite a bit about the process. Some things were as expected, but there were many surprises as well.
How it Works
The concept of a food cooperative is pretty simple. They are typically member-owned volunteer organizations. Members may be required to pay an annual fee to be part of the co-op, and it is often expected that members will try to help volunteer in some say if possible. The co-op itself is made up of two key groups: the producers, and the consumers. The producers are the local farmers who make the food available and the members are the consumers who purchase the goods.
Some co-ops make their food only available to members, whereas others may be open to the public with members receiving a discounted price on the goods. Regardless, the co-op is set up as a group-owned marketplace that brings together local food and local consumers.
Why I Joined
When I heard about the new cooperative opening up by me I was intrigued by the ability to buy local food. We live in a very rural area that’s full of farms as it is so I figured it would be great to support my neighbors. Literally. Plus, we do almost all of our eating at home. Since I cook every day it can make a big difference when you have really fresh ingredients.
In addition, this co-op had a very nice internet feature. I could go online each week and see what was available, place my order from the comfort of my home, and then pick up my order once a week. I love when I can get things done online so this was a nice benefit.
It’s probably pretty obvious, but if you value organic food and supporting your local community, a co-op is a great thing. You can be sure to get produce or meat that was produced locally, organically, and get the freshest possible ingredients.
You can also volunteer and get involved so that you can give something back to your community. If you’ve always wanted to help out but didn’t know how, a food cooperative can give you a chance to work directly with your neighbors.
In addition, you will probably make some new friends and meet new people. The first week at my co-op I ordered some beef and when I went to pick up my order I got to meet one the farmer personally. Have you ever been to the grocery store and met the person who personally grew or cared for your food? Exactly. That was really nice and we struck up an interesting conversation. The best part is I learned his farm is literally less than 2 miles from my house. He even gave me his number and said I could call in personally and request food at any time and pick it up from him directly. How cool is that?
Of course, there are two sides to every coin. With the many benefits outlined above there are also some downsides. In my case, virtually all of the downsides are financial. If you sign up for a food co-op and expect to save money, you might want to think again.
The first financial issue that stuck out was the membership fee. I had to pay $35 just to become a member. Of course I realize it’s going to a good cause so it didn’t bother me too much, but still, shelling out almost a week’s worth of groceries toward a membership fee just for the privilege of buying this food was a bit tough.
Second, raise your hand if you think that food will be cheaper if it’s sold to you directly by the farmer, cutting out the middle man, and not having to be shipped halfway across the country. Yep, that’s what I thought too. Common sense would tell you that if a local farmer can sell food directly to the consumer without needing to wholesale to a grocery store and ship up their product that it would be cheaper than the store. Wrong. I know that depending on the size of the co-op, your location, and the membership size that this may differ, but I was in for quite a shock when I went shopping for the first time.
A dozen eggs were $4.00. A pound of bacon was $8.50. A head of iceberg lettuce was a shocking $3.00. To give you an idea, I can get the those at the supermarket for $1.49, $3.00, and $0.99 respectively. I know, I know, but you’re supporting local farmers and this stuff is probably organic, right? That’s true, but I can actually still get the organic equivalents of those items for less than the co-op right at the grocery store.
Finally, our co-op only has one pickup time and a small ordering window. You have to place your order on just Saturday or Sunday. Then your order can only be picked up on Wednesday in a narrow window of 5:15 pm – 7 pm. This makes it tough because you have to plan on the weekend what you’re going to need, realize you can’t even get it for three more days, and then make sure you’re available in that 2 hour window on Wednesday to pick it up. It’s certainly doable, but it isn’t the most convenient thing in the world.
I think deciding whether a co-op is right for you will depend on a number of things. Do you value the local aspect of it while that may put a premium on the food? It is probably still worth it. If you’re more casual in that approach and are a little more budget conscious, you may find it isn’t as worthwhile. While I’d love to put money directly in my neighbor’s pocket, I’m not going to buy hamburger for $5.00/lb. If I were to do most of my shopping through the co-op my weekly grocery bill would easily increase by 200-300%. So for me, I think I’ll stick to just getting the occasional seasonal fruits and vegetables as they become available while still doing the bulk of the grocery shopping at the store.
So, it’s certainly worth checking out. You can look for a listing of local cooperatives in your area on this site. As long as you know what to expect, how much it will cost you, and who you’ll actually be supporting, you can decide if it’s something that’s worthwhile.
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About the Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle is a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor® and spent a few years working as a financial planner. Today, he helps people make the most of their money by writing about personal finance here and elsewhere on the web. Jeremy is also Coach at Adaptu and a regular contributor for other publications such as Intuit, and American Express. Be sure to follow Jeremy on Twitter or Google+.