Every food co-op is somewhat different, but I'm going to give you a run down based on what I know from my own experience, then I'd love to have other readers comment on their experiences. That way you'll have a broader picture of what it's like to order from groups such as these.
I'm a member Mountain High Co-op, a local group of ladies who order several times a year from United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) which distributes food all over the United States from different warehouses. Some items can be ordered as a single purchase, some as a case, and other items in bulk, such as grains. Each month they have some items that are on sale, but even the regular prices care usually lower than the health food store or grocery store. Ordering from a co-op isn't going to be "local", but it's great for supplying you with items that you just won't find locally no matter how hard you try. Here are a few items I often purchase via the co-op:
Cases of basics are great for adding to your food storage!
Can you have too much peanut butter with young children?
Finding organic nuts can be both a challenge and expensive! I split this with several co-op members. Actually, this is originated pretty close to home... almost local.
Finding a good deal on a basic is always a blessing. And when you hit a co-op sale, it's that much better!
I started buying my baking supplies in bulk and storing them in the freezer. The savings is HUGE! And Frontier Spices are about half the price of the grocery store! I buy both jars and one pound mylar bags of everything from cinnamon to chili powder (except for what I'm growing myself).
Co-ops can have dairy products, frozen items, supplements, household cleaners, pet food, and even beauty products. The selection is huge! We use to get a paper catalog twice a year, but the co-op has now gone to an on-line catalog. You just put in a search for the item you're looking for and it brings up a list of options.
Companies such as UNFI or Azure Standard (another popular supplier) always have a minimum order in order to bring a truck to your designated drop off spot. I believe ours has gone up from $500 to $1,000, which is why ordering with friends is necessary and thus the need to create a co-op. Some people could order once or twice a year to meet the minimum, but most won't reach the needed dollar amount. And companies want regular business; they are less apt to deal with once a year clients.
By joining forces with other households, you also can take advantage of sharing a case of something. Most items come in a case of 12 or 24 which can be a bit pricy. And some items might expire before you use the entire case, so splitting it with two or three friends keeps the cost down and allows for variety. Different groups handle these splits in different ways, but our group does it through a Google Group that sends out an email to everyone and whenever we respond to an item, it updates the whole group. One person is the "moderator" who keeps track of who is getting what. At some point, the splits are finished and everyone gets a final copy so they know what they ordered.
Because there are several things needed to keep a co-op running, everyone who joins is usually assigned a small job. One person collects orders, another submits it to the company, a different person deposits the cash and pays the bill, and several meet the truck to divide up the items. These are just a few jobs in our co-op, but depending how the group is organized will determine the jobs that they have to assign to group members. An average job takes about 1-2 hours for each ordering period. Not too bad to save some cash!
One of the main reasons I am a member of a co-op is because it's really the only place to get bulk grains without paying a shipping fee. If I were to order even one 50 pound bag of wheat for $20, it would cost me anywhere from $25 - $63 to ship it to the west coast. However, I can get the same 50 pound bag for around $30 with free shipping through UNFI. Add to that the fact that I can get other items as well and it makes the co-op very appealing.
You'll want to do your own homework, and I regularly check prices before I order each time, but if you're wanting to trim your budget, joining a food co-op could lead to some significant savings.
Where do I find a group in my area?
The best way is to start asking around. That's how I found out about the one I'm a member of, but you can also try Co-op Directory Service. I've not used them before, but they have UNFI listed as a distributor. However, they may not have smaller co-ops listed (ours isn't on the list).
How do I start a group if one doesn't exist in my area?
Start by finding about 7-10 reliable friends who are interested in working with you. Then contact a distributor from the Co-op Directory or one of the two I mentioned above. See what they require for purchasing and delivery. Then have a meeting to set some rules for your group and assign jobs. For more information, click here.
What can I purchase through a food co-op?
It would almost be easier to tell you what you can't purchase through a co-op! You name it, they have it. Perhaps not every brand, but by splitting items with friends, I've learned about some fabulous companies and products that I never knew existed. That's part of the fun of splitting items with others.
How time consuming is a food co-op?
The thought of working for the co-op is what prevents most people from joining a food group. They're afraid the work will be overwhelming and they don't need one more burden in their life. However, participating in a co-op isn't anymore time consuming than a big trip to the grocery store or cutting coupons on a weekly basis. Most jobs are only 1-2 hours worth of work for each ordering period. Our group only orders 4 times a year, so the trade off is well worth the effort! If you're just getting your co-op off the ground, you may have to invest a little more time up front, but eventually things should run fairly smoothly as everyone learns how it works and what their job requires.
If you live in the Tehachapi area and would like more info on joining the Mountain High Co-op, click my profile link and email me for more information.
Tell me about your own co-op experiences and if you'd like, give a contact for your group!