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Organic Produce at Bargain Prices
by Dan Chiras
The rising popularity of health food stores, farmers' markets, and community supported agriculture means that organic produce is more readily available than ever.There are still communities that are underserved in terms of access to fresh, healthy local fruits and veggies. Here's how one community solved its problem.
You recycle, conserve energy at home, drive an energy-efficient car, and take short showers. You vote green, and lately you've been even trying to curb your consumer tendencies. You even buy recycled-content toilet paper and write occasional letters to your congressional representatives to support the environment.
Despite your green lifestyle, there's one obstacle you've never been able to overcome: the high cost of organic produce at your local grocer. During the summer, providing your family with organic produce is no problem. You grow your own. In the winter, though, when snow covers your garden, like many other gardeners you purchase produce from a local grocer. While you prefer to buy pesticide-free lettuce, hormone-free milk, and eggs produced from free-range chickens, the cost can presents a road block.
In most stores, organic produce and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are light years apart in cost. Whereas a regular head of lettuce might run 99 cents, maybe $1.50, a head of organically grown lettuce costs over $3.95.
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The difference is hard to ignore; and for many, the price barrier is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
But there's a way around this economic barrier.
People of Organic Produce
In Evergreen, Colorado in the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains one energetic resident, Mary Denham, and four friends joined forces in 1999 to form a community-wide organic food buying co-op. "I started the co-op," says Denham, "out of frustration. It was hard to go into a regular grocery store and see the poor selection in the organic section. They never looked very fresh, and they were way too expensive."
Designed to reduce the cost of organic produce and make healthy fruits and vegetables more widely available in this small mountain community, the co-op is still running strong. In fact, it's never been stronger, despite some ups and downs along the road. Never short on good humor, they dubbed the group "People of Organic Produce" or The POOP Co-op. For political correctness, its title has been transformed to Lovers of Organic Produce, or LOOP. We're all lovingly referred to as "loopers" with its various connotations.
Here's how it works:
Each week one member of the co-op is volunteers to be in charge of the produce order. That individual places an order at Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers, a locally owned retailer thirty minutes away by car from our sleepy little town. Vitamin Cottage offers a potpourri of organic fruits and vegetables.
When the number of families that participated in the group was around a dozen, the person in charge each week simply got on the phone on Sunday and called each member of the co-op to see who was interested in a box. With answering machines to take messages, the process took only a half an hour or so.
Now that the co-op has grown to over 30 families, though, we're relying on participants to call the weekly coordinator if they're not interested in receiving a box of produce. That saves a lot of phone calling. If you don't call, you get a box. Plain and simple.
The order is phoned in to the produce manager at Vitamin Cottage on Monday morning. The affable, ever pleasant JP begins by rattling off a list of this week's specials, and then works with the coordinator to secure the best prices among his various suppliers.
The next day, the coordinator picks up the order, trucks it home, and divides the produce among the participants. Over the next few hours, participants show up, chat, and haul off their box of fresh produce. There's no store front, no overhead -- and once the boxes have been picked up there's little evidence of our tiny covert operation to make the world safe from pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
Saving Money, Saving the Earth
Vitamin Cottage sells organic produce to our co-op by the case, charging us cost plus 20 percent, saving each family a huge amount of money! I estimate that I receive $40 - $50 worth of organic fruits and vegetables each week for approximately $20 – plus or minus a little. Orders typically consist of 8 to 10 items, a mixture of organically fruit and vegetables. When asked if she felt she and her family were getting their money's worth, co-op member Karin Claus remarked, "Absolutely. If you try to buy $20 worth of organic produce on your own, the money just doesn't go very far."
Our coop also makes it possible for members to place special orders – for example, for a large order of carrots just for their family, say for making carrot juice. The coordinator will pick up the order and invoices that item separately.
The organic co-op is a fantastic way to feed a family. My kids and I, eat a much healthier diet -- that is, lots more fruits and vegetables -- since we joined the group. When asked what he liked most about the co-op, member Tony Stowe remarked, "Meeting the people, and being surprised by different fruits and vegetables that we have never tried before." Karin Claus echoed Tony's sentiments: "Receiving a variety of produce each week – instead of the usual stuff I buy." On a personal level, my children and I have been also introduced to produce we might otherwise not have even considered. In a sense, this forces us to experiment with new foods and widens our gustatory horizons.
Yet another benefit is that we're no longer ingesting pesticides in our food! Over the long run, this could reduce our chances of contracting cancer.
The organic coop also helps build community. Over the years, new friendships have been grown. The day of pick up is always a great opportunity to get caught up on the latest happenings in and around our mountain community. I personally look forward to visiting with several members of the co-op who have much in common with me. It's nice to know there are like- minded individuals around.
Ordering can a be fun, too. Claus remarked, "You have complete control to pick out whatever you want!"
Lest we forget, by participating in the organic co-op, we're helping to promote an important economic activity, one typically performed by small family-operated farmers. Compared to corporate farmers, the little guys are often better stewards of the land.
Finally, we're no longer contributing to the production of pesticides and artificial fertilizers and the systematic chemical drenching of America's cropland and all of the attendant effects of this systematic application of biocides and artificial fertilizers in the name of increasing agricultural production.
Not a Bowl of Cherries
This system does have some drawbacks, however. It is not all a bowl of cherries. For one, participants are never quite sure what they're going to receive from one week to the next. The order is completely up to the discretion of the coordinator. Those individuals who need to plan their meals ahead of time, find this system unacceptable, and usually drop out within a short time. (Be sure to warn prospective members of this potential downside!)
Another problem is that participants sometimes receive food they don't particularly like -- or don't know how to cook. For instance, I like onions, but they don't like me very much. When we receive a large order of onions, I typically give them away to neighbors. There was a time when we were receiving a lot of pomegranates, and I didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with them!
To solve this problem, you might ask members to write up a list of "undesirables" -- fruits and vegetables they detest. You may also want to set up your co-op so that individuals can call the weekly coordinator to make requests for specific food items. Members can also trade for produce they prefer. For example, one member's onions might be traded for another's broccoli. To help those who don't know what to do with unusual fruits and vegetables, members can share recipes or tips on cooking or preparing unusual food items. Recipes also help those who don't quite know what to do with four bunches of spinach. (Over the years, I've learned some great spinach recipes!)
Another minor problem is that some individuals may be unable to keep up with a weekly box of produce. To address this in our co-op, some members (myself included) order every other week – or order half boxes. For vegetarians, the program is a godsend. Co-op member Tony Stowe remarked, "There are times when we get small boxes of expensive produce. Other times we get big boxes of seasonal produce. Being vegetarians, we always eat everything, except the box they come in."
How to Get Started
Starting an organic co-op can be a challenge. When our group started, Mary and her friends just sat down and talked about it. They started with about ten families. "But we had no idea of how they were going to select produce each week, what it would cost, how to split it up or distribute it," noted Mary Denham. "We made lots of mistakes at the beginning. We weren't real clear about how much it was going to cost. And the price for each member shot way up when there weren't a lot of people participating some weeks. Sometimes we weren't sure how food came in a case. We got a case of ginger, for instance, to share among ten people, which was way too much!"
"Members came up with lots of cool ideas at first, too. Some of which we tried. We thought, for instance, that it would be neat if the person of the week could deliver produce to each member's doorstep," laughed Denham. "It was a cool idea, but it didn't work out...I remember driving around in the dark looking for one member's house."
Thankfully, readers can benefit from the experience of our little group.
If you're interested, I recommend that you start small and be patient. Contact a local organic grocer or, lacking that outlet, contact the produce manager at a conventional grocery store that sells organic produce to see if they'll work with you. If so, ask if they'll sell you produce by the case at a good price – hopefully no more than 10 - 20% above their cost.
Once you've established a supplier, you might ask a few neighbors and their friends to give it a whirl! You'll need ten people give or take a few to kick start this effort, and make it worthwhile.
At first, a small group of people can run the co-op. But as those people move on, you may need one leader to provide continuity. "In the beginning," Denham noted, "she wasn't the leader. The group that started it took on that task. But as the old timers dropped out, we needed one person to keep track of calendar, talk with new members, and recruit volunteers." Mary's taken on that role. Although it can be frustrating and time-consuming, it's well worth it. I'd suggest, if you have a leader, that that person receive his or her fruits and vegetables free at least once a month, maybe more often. It might cost members of the co-op an extra dollar or two per week, but it's well worth the work of a strong and dedicated leader.
One other bit of advice: "Keep it simple, so it can sustain itself," advises Denham. "Any idea that could make it more complicated or difficult we abandoned."
As you gain experience, you can recruit additional members by word of mouth or through ads or articles in a local newspaper. Our local newspaper ran a story on our co-op that tripled our membership almost overnight!
To reduce the workload of the organizer, you'll want to prepare a written description of the "program" and procedures. It can be handed out or e-mailed to all new members or people who are considering joining. This helps newcomers learn the "rules" and reduces the time required by the organizer/coordinator. Also, be honest and let all new or prospective members know the potential downsides as well as the many benefits.
In a co-op with a dozen members, each member will be in charge 4 or 5 times a year, which means they'll have to order, pick up, and distribute the produce four or five times a year. To ease the burden, members can also work in pairs. One person, for instance, can call members and place the order. Another can pick up and sort the produce.
People who want to belong but can't participate in the pickup of produce, for example, because of their employment, shouldn't be excluded. To compensate more active members, though, they could be charged a few extra dollars to make up for the fact that they can't do the pick up and sorting You might even consider giving the person of the week his or her produce that week for free, as a small financial incentive – and a token of your group's thanks.
Those who like to buy unusual foods for the co-op on their week might consider providing members with recipes, as noted earlier. Joe O'Leary, a member of our co-op says, "Some advance warning of what's being ordered might help, too. That way, I have a day to find out how to prepare chard or kale or green cabbage for the next week. Sometimes this stuff just sits in our fridge and wilts before I can figure out how to use it." Those in need of assistance can go online and ask members for recipe suggestions.
Speaking of online. Our group now uses the internet to coordinate our program and distribute the schedule and solicit volunteers. You might consider the same system. It really saves time!
Organic food co-ops take time and patience to get running, and will require a persistent leader or two who is willing to take up the slack and beat the bushes for volunteers from time to time. The benefits are so great, however, that it is well worth your time.
Adapted from Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Suburbs by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann.
Dan Chiras is author of numerous articles on a wide range of environmental topics, mostly sustainable building, and 20 books, including The Natural House, The Solar House, The New Ecological Home, and EcoKids (New Society Publishers). He recently published his first novel, Here Stands Marshall (The Public Press, 2006).
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