Solution 2: Buy Food Together

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Another way to share food is to purchase it together as a grocery coop­erative or buying club. By pooling your purchasing power, you can pay much less for food, which makes it easier to afford sustainable, local, organic, responsibly produced, or hard-to-find items. It also saves packaging, transportation, and waste. And, it's a fun way to get to know people.

Grocery Cooperatives

Grocery cooperatives (co-ops) are stores that are owned and run by the consumers. Some grocery co-ops look like typical grocery stores, at least on the surface. But a closer look reveals many differences in how things operate:

  • Co-ops are owned by their patrons. Any profit is either refunded to members, reinvested in the co-op to lower food prices, or invested in the community as members see fit.
  • Co-ops often have a mission that goes beyond providing food. Some co-ops provide health education to the community, hire people with special needs, pay a living wage to employees, support small businesses and food producers, and buy fair trade, organic, and other environmentally and socially responsible products.
  • Because the co-ops are operated for and by their members, food is kept cheap. While many grocery stores sell food for about 70% more than wholesale, some cooperatives can reduce prices to about 20% more than wholesale. Using volunteer hours helps keep costs low. According to the Cooperative Grocery of Berkeley, CA, typically grocery stores use 70% of their income to pay employees. Co-ops often require members to work a few hours a month at the register, stocking shelves, or doing whatever needs to be done.

Looking for a local grocery co-op? You may not have to start your own co-op; with at least 300 grocery co-ops in the United States, chances are good that you'll be able to find one to join near you, especially if you live in a metropolitan area. Appendix A includes co-op websites and directories.

While every co-op operates differently, many have these things in common:

  • New members typically make a one-time payment to become shareholders in the co-op. Typically, this payment is $100 to $200, refundable if you leave. You may also be asked to pay a non-refundable fee, usually about $50. And, you'll probably be asked to attend an orientation to learn how the co-op works.
  • You'll probably be asked to come in once a month or so for a work shift of two to four hours. Most co-op members report that they enjoy this, because they can get to know other members and learn how to run a grocery store.
  • The co-op may be open only to members, or may allow non-members to shop, too.
  • Once a year, you may get a refund check for your share of the store profits, based on how much you spent at the co-op. This is often called a "patronage refund."
  • The co-op may go beyond simply buying and selling food. Some co-ops host fun events, such as cooking and nutrition classes.

Buying Clubs

Buying clubs come in many sizes and forms, but the basic concept is the same: A group of people get together to purchase items in bulk at a lower cost than they would have to pay for smaller quantities. A buying club may be a simple, informal arrangement or it may be a large, well-oiled machine.

There are thousands of buying clubs throughout the United States, and there may be one in your area that you can join. One way to find a buying club is to contact food distributors who specialize in selling to buying clubs, such as United Buying Clubs (www.unitedbuyingclubs.com) or United Natural Foods (www.unfi.com).

Chapter 7 explains how to start a buying club for household goods and supplies. The steps to start a food buying club are largely the same. The two biggest challenges in operating a food buying club are (1) finding sources and distributors, and (2) timing orders to avoid wasting food.

Many buying clubs order everything from a single large distributor or warehouse, such as United Buying Clubs or United Natural Foods. You may also want to enter into a direct buying relationship with a handful of smaller food producers, like a local bakery or farm. Distributors have different policies about how they sell; some require very large minimum orders or frequent ordering. You'll need to call around to find out how each works. Also, talk to other buying clubs to find out what food distributors work well for them.

Large buying clubs have a fixed location where food is delivered, stored, divided, and distributed to members. Smaller clubs often have food delivered to members' homes or offices—either to one or two designated spots or rotating among the members—or distribute food as soon as it arrives.

Food buying clubs make more frequent orders than clubs that buy nonperishables, because food needs to be replenished regularly. This requires careful coordination and planning by members. But for many, the benefits of receiving fresh, healthy, and affordable foods make it worth the effort.

Are you interested in starting a small food business? Perhaps you want to sell your amazing sauces or cookies at a market, or start an occasional catering business. Consider sharing resources with other small food enterprises. For more information about sharing commercial kitchens, equipment, and purchasing with other food businesses, see Chapter 11.

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