The Pros and Cons of Joining a Local Food Co-op

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.

The Pros

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?

The Cons

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.

The Verdict

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.

Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle

My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.

16 comments
Save Money Hound
Save Money Hound

I joined a CSA recently and find that it works well. It provides the benefit of a weekly box of fresh organic certified vegetables at a reasonable price. I like the weekly surprise of seeing what is in your box depending on the season and also the challenge of deciding what to cook!

kelligirl
kelligirl

Just wanted to say that we joined a CSA here in Kansas City area this year. We paid a $25 fee to register which came with 2 large reusable grocery bags, your choice of an apron or T-Shirt and a very thick cookbook. I choose whether to pick up my order on Mon. pm or Sat. am and I must let them know ahead of time if I will not be picking up my order. It is convenient--however, not really cheaper than buying organic in the store. Ours is not just veggies but has included milk, cheese, tofu, sausage, bacon, steak, honey, zum soap,etc. While I have enjoyed it and I like the surprise aspect of what I get each week (some things I simply would never have purchased) and there is a table where we can trade in items for other similar point value items, I do not think that we will participate next year despite my desire to help local farmers. I think that it is a shame that the pricing is not comparable to the supermarket, but as we pick up at a high end grocer it could be that there is a mark up for the grocer--don't know this for a fact.

emily edmonds
emily edmonds

I joined a co-op in my town recently and signed up for the seasonal basket, it was about $1,200.00 (do the math that is $100/month for produce). The fees to join the co-op are about $35.00 a year. I think if you're going to volunteer, that fee should be waived, but they don't at mine. I don't think I'll ever be doing it again, their claims that it will save you money are completely bogus. The food at the co-op is not always local either, sometimes it's brought in from nearby California and they call it local. It is a huge hassle to get to the co-op during their narrow pick-up window (when the rest of us have real jobs), and if you miss it you don't get your money back instead they give your food to charity. I thought it was a good idea but I really don't think co-ops are all that they're cracked up to be, honestly I think it is just a bunch of hype on the next grocer trend. There are of course some really good co-ops in Portland and San Francisco that are better than mine, but this is the last year I'll ever do it.

I would recommend farmers markets instead. The prices there are expensive for organic, but they are still cheaper than a co-op and a lot more accessible/convenient. Unlike co-ops, you don't have to pay a fee to go to the farmers market. They also have more local produce available and you get to talk to the farmers directly.

Finally, if you have your own garden, I would recommend growing your own food. I frequently go to my boyfriend's house to get herbs for my kitchen, so I don't have to spend $4.00/herb packet at the store.

Savings Accounts Girl
Savings Accounts Girl

You can always grow some easy growing vegetables in your garden. My parents grow most of their vegetables in the garden.

Sometimes if you can bargain - you can get a good deal on produce from local farmers. But usually it's pricey. Everyone these days are buying into the "go green" movement and it actually costs a bit more than they realize.

The Happy Rock
The Happy Rock

We recently just ended our stint in a coop for the winter. We paid $32 a week for a box of organic fresh veggies and fruits that varied each week. We did get a little choice each week, although some things could not be subbed. The price was pretty much the same as the grocery store, although the more you bought the cheaper it got.

We are now in a organic CSA for the third straight year and the cost savings there is extremely good. We get a box of crop each week and they have two 4 our pick up slots each week. We are paying about $10-15 a week if my math is correct. The variety is awesome, although it takes some work to use it all, especially the wide varieties of leafy greens.

At this point we are hooked. The cost, healthy, and interest factors are all huge benefits.

Finally the local farmer's market is around every Saturday and some stands are much cheaper than the store, and some stands are much higher priced.

Cash Back Rewards
Cash Back Rewards

Jeremy it sounds like you just only have access to a very small co-op. In your circumstances it probably doesn't make sense to shop there. At the co-ops I have been, they were just like regular grocery stores and I think their prices were comparable.

pays to live green
pays to live green

I actually joined a local CSA and paid an initial amount of money to get produce for the entire year. The prices I pay for all the produce I receive is far cheaper than I could possibly spend at the grocery store. That's a little different that a co-op, but I think it's a great investment as long as you eat lots of produce. In general, some farmer's charge similar prices to what you would find in grocery stores, but usually local produce is organic and tastes way better.

Rosa
Rosa

Jimmy, when I was on a super-tight budget (mostly dumpster diving, plus brown rice & cheese) was when I joined a coop. They do fill up the store with high-margin stuff, to stay in business - I've belonged to a coop that catered to the frugal and health conscious, and it is now no more.

The benefits, if these apply to you:

Being able to buy exactly as many of something as you want - one carrot instead of a bag, four potatos, half an ounce of a spice you only use rarely. (one time, we bought 3 bay leaves for 5 cents - they didn't even register on the scale so the checker said "a nickel?")

Bulk. Rice, dry beans, oatmeal, barley, flour - if you base your diet on whole grains, you're going to be eating cheap, but the variety & quality at the coop are going to be better, unless you have good ethnic grocers near you.

Scratch & dent - most coops are more careful about waste than mainstream grocery stores, and have a discount bin of produce that's getting imperfect. It's the best source of fruit for drying or saucing, and if you're willing to say "dinner is whatever we can make out of what's in the scratch & dent" you can eat healthy, fresh food for very cheap.

Volunteering - for a while when I was super broke, I did my volunteer shift in the deli, and got to take home a *lot* of food at the end of shift. That's going to vary by coop, of course.

Now, none of these may apply to you - if you're feeding several people or don't cook from scratch or eat a lot of animal products.

(Diana - New Pioneer? I have a special place in my heart for New Pioneer, and they refunded my membership when I moved away, which was nice 'cause I was broke.)

Diana
Diana

The co-op here we have (Wisconsin) is more like a regular grocery store, anyone can shop there, but certain items only members get a discount. Membership fee can be paid at $25/yr for 8yrs, or one time fee of $200 for just one card.

I have joined other co-ops for $60 (Iowa) and $80 (Seattle) that get me two cards. When I left the Iowa one, I got my membership fee back...not sure if it works the same everywhere, but just something to keep in mind.

Since $200 is a lot more than other co-ops I've joined, I never joined this one but simply shop there when I need fresh vegetables or organic meat.

Jen
Jen

It's possible that the food in the grocery store comes from large, corporate farms that can sell at a bulk discount. At least, that's what popped into my head when you detailed the price difference.

Jimmy
Jimmy

Jeremy,
Thanks for the response. Yea, I see the dilemma. It doesn't really make sense when you think about it. I guess it comes down to if you value it enough to deal with the steep prices.

I've thought about looking into a CSA. I believe you also get locally grown. But I wonder what the breakdown is for that also for what you pay and what you get out of it. Is it cheaper than the grocery store? Again, I guess it comes down to how much value you place on locally grown. For me right now with a tight budget it looks like a coop would not be a feasible option. Poosibly in the future.

Time to do some research.

Jeremy
Jeremy

Jimmy, a CSA is a bit different. With those you typically purchase a "share" in the CSA and then receive a basket, box, or something else that gets filled with a variety of local produce each week. You might not get a say in what you receive from week to week and just get what happens to be offered. A co-op is more like a community owned market where you can buy specific items as you see fit.

I'm just really pretty bummed out by the situation. I really would like to buy local and help support those in the community, but I just can't get past the very steep premium on prices.

Just today I bought a package of bacon from the grocery store and I always buy this brand called Troyer. It's produced locally only about 30 miles away, yet I only paid $3. Compare that to the co-op bacon that might be from a farm a few miles closer, but for $8. Does getting my bacon from a farm 5 miles away instead of 30 miles warrant a 160% price premium?

Maybe I am missing something about the whole process, but you'd think that local farmer A that could sell directly to the consumer without distributing to a supermarket could sell it for less than local farmer B who has to pay transportation costs and sell it to a supermarket who then just has to mark it up more so they can also make a profit.

I'm just hoping that as we get closer to the harvest season this fall maybe I'll see some better savings as more seasonable crops start coming in.

Mel Turley
Mel Turley

I have heard of food Co-ops, but I never really paid attention to how they worked. There are none in my area, but there are several local farmers' markets that have reasonable prices. I know the food is not necessarily organic in a farmer's market, but IMO it is better (and better for you) than what we can buy at the local grocery store. I am very surprised at the inflated prices for the co-op food. If there was a co-op near me, I would not be able to afford to buy much there even though I would like to support local farmers.

Jimmy
Jimmy

Is this the same thing or different than a CSA? If it is different then what are the pros and cons of the CSA?

Sadie
Sadie

Though subject is Co-ops food pricing for a more healthy diet & savings, I wish to make readers aware these "ORGANICS" sold in grocery stores may not be as healthy as we expect.

Normally I will not pay more for an organically grown tomato; however last week of March 2009, as a promotion, the pricing per pound of tomato was less for organic than regular tomatoes, plus the tomatoes were so much prettier with green stems, etc.

Interesting to note: Today, 3 months later & never refrigerated in my home, I still have a single tomatoe with stem continuing to lie out on the countertop. Weird in that it has not completely deteriorated; just appears a tad wrinkled on top only???

And this was supposed to be ORGANIC?? A truly fresh tomatoe, 3 months later, would only be "a smelly mush"!

I would never consider eating this tomatoe; more or less now I am just waiting to see just how long it will take for deterioration to occur.

As to future purchase of organic tomatoes, I will never opt to purchasing an organic tomatoe again.

Rosa
Rosa

Our coops here are retail stores - members get a discount, but anyone can shop there.

The real cost savings come from the bulk area, if there is one - buying beans, rice, pasta, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, etc. in bulk is way cheaper (assuming what you buy is even available at a regular grocery store.) The cost savings on spices is just unbelievable.