By Julia Austin
If you’ve stopped by a farmer’s market recently you were probably handed a flyer or two for your local food cooperatives. “Aren’t I already doing the awesome, conscious consumer thing by shopping at the farmer’s market?!” you probably thought. Yes, absolutely! But farmers markets tend to only happen once a week per town or neighborhood, typically forcing you to stop at the mega-chain supermarket later in the week to get a few more things to hold you over.
Co-ops, however, make locally-sourced, organic food available to you seven days a week (maybe five, depending on the location, but that’s still much better than one day.) If you’ve been curious about joining a food co-op but have been shy to because your friends would tease you for being a “total hippie” or just aren’t sure if it’s worth it, let’s investigate. Here are the perks and pitfalls of joining a food cooperative.
Food is fresher
The food at your grocery store may have traveled hundreds of miles and passed through the not-so-welcoming environment of train crates and plane cargo before reaching the shelves. The food at a co-op came from as close a farm as possible. In all likelihood, it was picked that day or the day before. You’ll really notice the difference in freshness.
Quality and variety depends on nearby farms
Naturally, if you live in a particularly isolated area that is a good hour’s drive from the nearest farm then your food still has to travel to your coop. Furthermore, if there aren’t many farms nearby, then the selection at your co-op will be limited. Co-ops tend to be the best, with the most diversity and quality, in farm towns, or at least towns that are within 30 miles of major farming areas.
You’re supporting local
You try to support local shops by buying a nice dress from a local boutique from time to time, but most other local shops don’t sell things you need regularly. Food is, however, certainly something you need several times a day! So if you become a member of a co-op, you can be certain you’re supporting the local economy on a regular basis. You don’t need to purchase expensive earrings from that tiny shop on the boardwalk to do so.
You only get seasonal produce
Like at the farmer’s market, you’ll only find seasonal produce at the co-op. So you’ll have to get used to coming up with seasonal recipes. You can, of course, go to the supermarket if you must have off-season produce, but you’ll feel ashamed since then you’re paying those membership fees at the co-op for nothing.
You usually need to volunteer
In most co-ops, it is expected that the members will put in some volunteer hours. If you have the luxury of being retired, or just leading a slow life, maybe you’ll enjoy that. For the rest of us who barely have time to floss, this can be a bit of a pain. You can just pay fines if you don’t want to volunteer, but that makes you the “outsider” at the co-op.
There will be dues
We already mentioned dues, and there will be some. Every coop is different, but they could range from monthly to quarterly to annual. Buy-in fees could be as little as $25 or as high as $70.
Sometimes you can order online
Many co-ops allow you to get online, see what’s in stock, and reserve the items you like. If you plan well, you can reserve the prime, best crops for yourself. You can also have your basket of groceries ready to go when you get to the store—no strolling around with a cart.
Members will try to sell you on more
Your friends who call you a hippie for joining are judgmental!…and a little bit correct. Food co-ops tend to attract yoga teachers, healers, meditation gurus, crystal jewelry makers, raki healers and all walks of holistic/alternative characters. It’s hard to stop by the co-op and not have someone try to sell you on a meditation retreat or organic-themed poem open mic night.
Sometimes it’s exclusive
Some co-ops only allow members inside, which is amazing, because it means very short check out lines! It can also mean there’s always plenty food on the shelves for you. If the co-op is open to the public, it will offer its members discounts.