You've probably got your grocery shopping routine down to a science. You pick up pantry staples at your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly, Safeway, Hannaford, or Whole Foods. You try to get fruits and vegetables from your local CSA, farmers' market, or roadside stand. Finally, maybe you grab some specialty items every now and then from Trader Joe's or a gourmet store. Sounds pretty good, but there may still be some options for buying local, sustainable, and green groceries that you haven't explored yet.
Co-ops: Grocery Stores That Break the Mold
Cooperative grocery stores (more commonly called co-ops) have come a long way from their days of selling textured vegetable protein and soy everything in the '60s. Most co-ops are now wonderlands of well-priced fresh produce, local items, and organic and natural foods. Because members own the co-op together, the store exists to serve their members, not a national corporation.
Co-ops can be found in towns big and small. Before joining, make sure you fully understand all the membership details. Every co-op works differently: Some allow anyone to shop, some require that you pay dues and be a member, and some require that you put in your time working a shift. To find a co-op near you, try The Co-Op Directory Service or Local Harvest. Here, after the jump, we take a look at three well-known co-ops in different parts of the U.S. and how each functions.
The Wedge Natural Foods Co-op, Minneapolis
Minneapolis' The Wedge Natural Foods Co-op feels like a large grocery store with its outstanding deli, meat counter, and fish counter. The Wedge has its own charitable-giving organization, WedgeShare, and also owns its own farm, which supplies the store with fresh produce. Anyone can shop here, no membership card needed. But members receive special discounts and receive a percentage of annual store profit.
The Park Slope Food Co-op, Brooklyn
Brooklyn's infamous Park Slope Food Co-op is the largest member-owned and -operated cooperative grocery store in the U.S. The co-op requires membership and a regular work shift to shop its aisles, no buying your way in here. In exchange for rock-bottom prices on artisanal cheese and lots of local, organic produce, all of the 14,000-plus members must do a two-hour-45-minute work shift once every four weeks. Duties range from childcare to restocking.
Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
San Francisco's beloved Rainbow Grocery is 25,000 square feet of incredible products. Rainbow's bulk-food section boasts more than 30 types of flour alone. The store is run by its 275 committed members. To be a member here you must work at least 25 hours a week, but you don't need to be a member to shop.
Buying Clubs: Power in Numbers
If you want all the benefits of a traditional co-op but there isn't one near you, a buying club may be the perfect solution. Buying clubs buy directly from cooperative food warehouse distributors. A buying club is typically made up of at least five people or five families. Any group of people—friends, members of a church, colleagues, or students — can form a buying group.
Buying in bulk reduces packaging and lots of extra plastic, plus you'll receive those low wholesale prices on your orders. Just make sure to buy only what your family can eat and store. Families within a buying club can split cases of items that seem too enormous to conquer by themselves. Although once you start buying in bulk and paying attention to how much you are buying, you may be shocked to see the true quantity of food one family can eat.
I belonged to a buying club in college with four girls I lived with. Many careful nights of studying the buying catalog revealed more groceries, bulk food, produce, dairy, frozen food, supplements, and personal-care products than we ever knew existed. Once you figure out how to read the thick catalogs, ordering becomes a snap. Like things are cataloged together, so it's easy to compare brands, pricing, flavors, etc. Also, we were often surprised at how few of something we were required to order. This made for an easy and cheap way to try out new things.
Buying clubs function much like a brick-and-mortar co-op; the members do their own research, purchasing, and distribution of goods at one central drop-off site. However, buying clubs preorder and purchase just what the group wants, and they can be run out of someone's home. Buying clubs can be started anywhere there is a warehouse that serves the area. Beyond that, all you need is a little can-do effort, a group of friends, and a living room to meet in.
For a list of cooperative warehouses that serve almost every state, visit coopdirectory.org.