This is the first post in a new SGT series exploring the different ways that we can shop co-op effectively and affordably. Check out or other posts in this series here.
Co-op on a budget, you say...Ha! And exactly what budget would that be? It’s a good question, and I can't say for sure what will work for every individual person or family. However, I do believe that just about anyone can afford to shop at a food co-op if they have access to one nearby. The important question is not whether to shop co-op, but how? There is no doubt in my mind that if you went through any store, piling everything willy-nilly into your cart, that you will end up walking out with $500 worth of groceries. With something as important as the food we eat – and therefore, our health – we need to slow down and take a bit more time to be intentional about how we shop. Believe it or not, shopping for groceries is a skill, and like all skills, it takes time and practice to develop.
Because of the world we live in and all of the options around me, I don't limit myself to just one store for all of my food. I also don't make ten trips a week to many stores and waste time and gas. Again, shopping efficiently takes just a bit of thought and planning. I tend to explore all places that have food and grocery, making a note of what each one has to offer. Ethnic grocery stores often have items that I simply cannot get at my co-op, but they also have some of the same items for so much less money that I cannot resist. Often I simply wait until I am in the proper neighborhood or town and stock up on groceries while I'm there.
Trader Joe's does have its uses too, but I tend to use this store and others like it sparingly. While I cannot resist the savings on cereals, wine, cheese, oils, vinegars, olives, and perhaps some frozen fruit or veggies, I don't fully believe in supporting an organization that offers nothing locally produced.
That being said, you may wonder how often I shop at cooperatively run grocery stores? I guess that about 80% of my time and food budget goes to my local food cooperatives during the winter months and because of my prolific use of farmers markets, I bet the during the summer the number drops to 50%.
The first step of shopping smart is tailoring my grocery list to each store on my route. My list is very different depending on whether I’m stopping at, for example, the Co-op, a specialty grocery, or an ethnic purveyor such as Bill's Imported Foods or United Noodle. Each option has its strengths and weaknesses. Consider Trader Joe's, for instance, as a great example. Everyone who goes to TJ’s has his or her favorite deal or food item in the store. For many, the favorite deal is the discount wine, for some it is the selection of frozen goods, and for others it is simply the slight savings on the Trader Joe's branded goods. For an ethnic grocery, you might go to buy a gallon of olive oil, olives, rice noodles, or loose-leaf tea at a fraction of the price that you find them elsewhere without compromising quality.
I also pay attention to how I craft my list for my local co-op, Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis. I make my list knowing that I will spend almost all of my time in the bulk department and the dairy, meat, and produce sections, depending on the season. The bulk department is the most important section at any food co-op, especially when you throw bulk ordering into the mix. It is an opportunity not only to save lots of money, but also to save on tons of packaging, an intangible cost that I have to give credence to. When I make my grocery list, I also include how many bags and jars to bring with me from home to house all of the exciting options in a bulk department, from grains, flours and nuts, to spices, chocolates and treats. For example, I noticed the other day that the savings on bulk spices was amazing. Compare cinnamon: In the jar, it costs $4.49 or $1.83/oz. In bulk, it is $0.62/oz, meaning the same jar filled yourself would cost about $1.55. Tea is another fun comparison. Buy it bagged and boxed and you get about an ounce of tea for $5-7. Bulk, you can find a number of high quality teas for $1-$1.5 per ounce.
I also include bulk ordering when considering the benefits of a co-op. As a customer you actually have access to a huge catalogue of goods not necessarily even found on the shelves, which can be ordered in a variety of amounts. If you don't know about this benefit, simply ask someone at the customer service counter. At most Twin Cities co-ops, they buy from two large distributors, UNFI and Co-op Partners warehouse. Anything that these folks offer, you can order as long as you order the case or bulk weight minimum. My co-op has the catalogues at the counter. Last week, I stocked my pantry with a case of organic canned tomatoes (10% bulk discount for members, 5% for non-members) and a 25-pound# bag of organic brown rice. For me, this is an amazing way to shop. Consider the benefits of buying in bulk: Fewer trips to the store (saves on time and gas), less waste (saves on garbage and your time dealing with garbage), less actual cost, and less stress when you know that you have a back stock of staples to draw from when making a last-minute meal. When farmers markets are in season, I usually need to go to the store very little after I’ve stocked up my bulk supplies from the co-op. I simply pick up my veggies, eggs, dairy and meat at the market to supplement all of the staples I already have on hand.
Ironically, I don't think many people consider food co-ops to be anything but a more expensive and possibly, a healthier alternative to supermarkets and big box stores. Indeed, if you go in and only choose to see the $8 pineapple, the $32/lb artisan cheese, the fancy nuts for $15, and the milk that is $7/gallon, you would be scared to death to fill your cart, probably wondering if you will compromise your children's futures. However, you can choose to be smart about how you shop and discover the savings in bulk. Skip expensive and non-essential items. Buy the local cheddar for $6/lb and choose the locally produced milk that is around $4/gallon. Once you know how to use your favorite stores and refuse to be distracted from your list, you will shop with speed and purpose...and save.
For me, this process is not about taking the fun out of shopping, it’s more about balance – being mindful and also somewhat thrifty. if you ever see me at the co-op, you would know right away where I prefer to be. I usually "park" my cart in the bulk section and spend quite a bit of time there. Shopping in the bulk section is the most fun for me. Of course, I do allow myself to peruse the inner aisles of the coop and pick up some chips, salsa, beans, pasta and other staples found there, along with the occasional treat. But, overall, the inner aisles are more like a race, where I try hard to keep moving and not spend too much time being distracted by all of the fancy labels and appealing-looking boxes and cans.
When considering your budget, do you add the intangibles of shopping to the list? Doing so is an interesting exercise. Would you think differently about shopping if waste and impact to the environment was on the list? How about giving back to the community, an integral part of most all food co-ops? What about nutritional quality? As great as getting a good deal is, it usually comes at a cost, but the common human reaction is to think first about ourselves and our personal convenience.
I can't say that I know many people who might give up a personal comfort to improve the quality of their food and the lives of those who manufacture/grow it, but I challenge you to consider it. If an extra 50 cents is keeping you from buying a higher quality, local product, will you turn down your heat by a couple of degrees? If you could better serve your family or friends great food with an extra $100/month, would you consider giving up cable tv? Maybe not, but we need to begin thinking this way if we really want to make a change.
We can directly affect our food system simply by making the choice to invest in good, responsibly- made food, sold in locally-owned grocery markets. Or we can keep buying designer clothes and driving fancy cars only to fill our bellies with cheap, compromised, processed foods. Again, it’s our choice, and we have to stop putting the blame or responsibility on the co-ops or even worse, the hard working farmers and growers.
Here begins the newest series for Simple, Good and Tasty. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be hearing from many of our writers with strategies, comparisons, and sample menus. And, as always, we'd love to have comments from all of you if you have tips to share or questions you want answered. So, how do you shop co-op on a budget?
Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at Simple, Good, and Tasty. He has two kids and loves gardening, cooking and eating with them. He writes the regular Latin Tongue series, and his last article that wasn't about Latin food was Local food all year starts now! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.