Co-op on a Budget: Eastside Food Co-op vs. Rainbow

This is the third post in our Co-op on a Budget series, which explores the different ways that we can shop co-op effectively and affordably. Also check out the first post, on shopping bulk and the second post, on the Wedge Co-op vs. Cub Foods.


I shop almost exclusively at the Eastside Food Co-op for my family of four, but some of my friends and neighbors shop elsewhere. They say they feel the co-op is too expensive, or that its selection is limited. Other stores they shop at include Target, Rainbow, Byerly's, Cub, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. I wanted to put the price and selection prejudices to the test. Is EFC really more expensive for a weekly shopping trip? Can a family find everything it needs in one store?

I chose Rainbow Foods, the closest grocery store, as my comparison. I made a sample grocery list of 14 basic items, and then shopped each store. Still, making an apples to apples comparison is hard. I favored local, organic items, but I was only able to compare the exact same item in one case. Rainbow does have organic sections throughout the store, so I compared a few of these organic items – lettuce, milk, mac and cheese, and frozen blueberries. For other items, like bread and eggs, I chose the least expensive conventional item at Rainbow, to see if buying conventional eggs and bread resulted in savings that were significant enough to justify the difference in quality. While I admit a bias in favor of EFC*, I did not fiddle with the numbers to get the result I wanted. I shopped both stores, noted prices, entered them in the spreadsheet, hit total, and these are the results:










Cheddar Cheese 












Mac and Cheese 



Roast Chicken 












Diced tomatoes 



Frozen blueberries 



Frozen peas 






Of the 14 items on my list, EFC had all available in organic or local options; Rainbow did not. Additionally, because EFC focuses on local, organic options, their prices on these items were often lower then the organic or even conventional option at Rainbow. Here are the details behind the numbers.

Lettuce: EFC had organic bright green, crisp heads of romaine for $1.99 apiece. In Rainbow's organic section, they had a very wilted head of green leaf lettuce for $3.49. 

The lettuce at Eastside is so happy to see you it almost leaps into your cartThe lettuce at Eastside is so happy to see you it almost leaps into your cartThe sad, sad organic greens at RainbowThe sad, sad organic greens at Rainbow 
















Fruit: a pound of organic cuties (seedless mandarin oranges) at EFC was $1.99. At Rainbow, non-organic cuties were $1.59 a pound.

Cheddar cheese: both EFC and Rainbow carry Bongard's, a local cheese company. EFC's price was $.40 more for the same item.

Eggs: EFC had Larry Schultz's free-range, cage-free, certified organic Grade A large eggs for $3.39/dozen. Rainbow had their house brand Roundy's dozen large Grade A conventional eggs for $1.99.

Milk: At EFC, I chose milk that is not certified organic, though there are several certified organic to choose from. Instead, I chose a gallon from Valley View Farms, a local milk co-operative, most of whose farmers use sustainable, organic practices, at $4.59. Rainbow's Roundy's organic milk was $5.99 a gallon.

Crackers: At EFC, Kashi crackers were on sale for $2.79 a box. At Rainbow, Cheez-Its were on sale for $4.19 a box.

Mac and Cheese: At EFC, Back to Nature's local, organic mac and cheese was $1.59 a box. At Rainbow, the least expensive organic option was $1.79.

Roast chicken: On Sundays EFC offers a whole local chicken for $7.99. At Rainbow, a whole roast chicken is $5.99 but not labeled as local or organic.

There is no comparable product to this at the co-opThere is no comparable product to this at the co-opBread: At EFC, Rudi's organic whole-wheat bread was $3.99. At Rainbow, there was a big endcap advertising bread at $1.99 a loaf, but only if you bought ten. Sara Lee's is not local or organic, and the per-loaf price was $2.49.

Cereal: At EFC, a 20-ounce box of Mom's Naturals Toasty O's was $3.89. At Rainbow, a 21.6-ounce box of Cheerio's Honey Nut O's was 5.29.

Spaghetti: At EFC, I chose nearby Dakota Growers for $2.59. Rainbow had conventional Creamette on sale for $1.73.

Diced Tomatoes: EFC had organic Muir Glen tomatoes on sale for $1.19 a can. Roundy's non-organic were $1.39.

Frozen Blueberries: EFC has Cascadian Farms Organics on sale at $2.99 a bag, while Roundy's organic were $4.99.

Frozen Peas: EFC had organic peas for $2.89 a bag. Roundy's non-organic peas were $2.19 a bag.

The Rainbow store is huge, so it takes more time to shopThe Rainbow store is huge, so it takes more time to shopBoth stores had all items on my list, but Rainbow is a larger store, so it took longer to shop (don’t forget time as a factor in cost). I took advantage of sale items, which made a significant difference, especially at EFC. With this comparison, I found that EFC is competitive in its prices, with a superior selection of organic, local options. It's small but well stocked. I only have to go to one store, which saves time and gas. I can find everything I need in a small space, so shopping is a quick event. And if my energetic boys run off, they can't go too far. If you've avoided shopping entirely at your local co-op because you think it's too expensive, or that you can't find everything you need, you might want to reconsider. Take another look at the prices, shop items on sale, and consider the local, organic advantage.

(Prices compared January 5-7, 2013)

*Disclosure: I am a member of Eastside Food Co-op, I write for its newsletter, and my husband is the president of its Board of Directors. It's theoretically possible that if many people went to EFC as a result of this article, and spent many, many dollars, I might, as a member, gain an increased dividend down the line. This small, growing co-op has yet to declare a dividend, though, and I can't imagine it would make more than a few cents difference. So while I am biased toward the co-op, it's because of its conscientious business practices, not any potential benefit to myself.




Kristin Boldon is an occasional contributor for Simple, Good, and Tasty. She also writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter, Minnesota Monthly's food blog TC Taste , and her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for us was L.C. Finns Local Extracts: Spice Up Your Holiday Baking.