Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food Co-ops

When I was in high school, I would visit a shop with my friends called Kent Natural Foods. They had interesting drinks in their cooler- kiwi flavored sodas, and rootbeer made with natural ingredients. We would head to the shop on warm saturday afternoons to look at the bins full of grains and granola and dried fruits, buy our drinks, and then head to the river to waste the day in ways that only teenagers can do.

Years before this, when I was in elementary school, my parents had told me that this was a special store. It was a co-op, and that meant that you had to join a membership to get lower prices, and you had to take turns working there. As I got older, my friends and I enjoyed taking in the smells and seeing the unique organic foods they had there. This was before Giant Eagle carried organic brands, and stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes were non-existent. I made friends with a lot of the families who were co-owners, and I really grew to like the idea of a cooperative business. Whenever I'd ask my parents why we weren't members, they'd always tell me "because it's for hippies!"

Well now I am an adult, and I can say with quite a bit of pride that I AM a hippie. And the idea of a cooperative business still appeals to me. There are a lot of different co-op designs, but the one that appeals to me the most is this:
Everyone buys a share of the store for a pre-determined fee. That fee covers the working cost of the store (rent, bills, etc) The owners take turns volunteering work hours to the store, and in return can trade these work hours for a percentage off of their groceries, or for a share in the company. In addition, the company buys locally produced and manufactured goods whenever possible, and only carries "real" food, or food with no preservatives or chemicals.

This is the way that Kent Natural Foods works. This is how I grew up knowing co-ops. This cooperative business initiative really appeals to me, because I think it's important to work within the community to provide the best nutritious food possible for my family. Everyone has a vested interest in the company, because they are all share owners, and so they really care about the ethics of the business and the kinds of foods that are promoted. Theoretically, costs to the members should also be less because the co-op does not need to pay employees to run the store.

I suppose that part of me has always wanted to live on a sustainable commune, and a food co-op such as this is one way to get a step closer while still keeping both feet planted in "the real world." Now that we are setting up roots here in the Toledo area, I thought I'd look into joining a food co-op so that I could get locally grown foods at a lesser cost to my family. I am highly dissappointed in what I have found so far.

There is one co-op that runs the same way that I described above. However, the owners share is not $45, but is $200. Quite a difference. There is no option to trade work hours for the share, but it is possible to volunteer four hours a month to get an extra 5% off of bulk food purchases. Without the four hours a month, an owner gets 5% off of regular food purchases and 10% off of bulk. If we bought a share, we would have to spend $4,000 on groceries to get our $200 return. Since we barely spend $3600 a year on groceries as it is, this is hardly appealing. The co-op is open to the community, which means that the general public, not just co-owners, can shop in the store. This is good, because we can test drive it for a little while before deciding. But as it stands, the only thing that is appealing to me about it is that it supports small local farms and local businesses. I am not seeing, up front, the benefits that I said appeal to me earlier.

There are other co-ops, where you buy a small share of a farm, and get a percentage of each month's harvest. I have a friend who belongs to a co op where she pays a yearly fee and each month she gets a sack full of local organic produce. The problem with these kinds of co-ops, is that you don't know what you will be getting until it is delivered to you. One week you may get a pound of carrots and a few pounds of potatoes, and the next week maybe no carrots and three pounds of celery. Also, in Ohio this means that these kinds of co-ops only work summer-fall. There is a co-op run by nuns in the Tiffin area that works like this, and they have a delivery point in our town. So this is definitely an option for us once spring arrives.

If any readers have any suggestions or tips about food co-ops, please leave a comment! I am really just beginning to delve into all of the details of such businesses.

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