I try to buy a lot of organic produce and I really believe in buying local when ever possible. This is just one of the many things we juggle as we balance coupons, sales, and trying to make our budget stretch as far as we can. But I have found that by shopping at my local co-op, I can save much more on organic products than if I shopped at the big box grocery store or a specialty health food store. (See a recent post I wrote, The Grocery Trips You Don’t See. . .)
Co-ops are popping up all over the country and I think they are especially popular here in the Pacific Northwest. I am not a co-op expert, but I will share my experiences based on shopping at my local co-op and a few others here in the Northwest.
HOW FOOD CO-OPS GENERALLY WORK
A co-op is a group of people or organizations that come together for the benefit of all. They are generally owned by the members, volunteer-based and are generally not in business to make a profit. They are usually run by volunteers (who earn credits or discounts for food and products) and managed by a volunteer board – this keeps prices down! As a member you can volunteer, but it’s not required (at least not at my co-op). The Olympia Food co-op has an open membership policy – which means ANYONE can be a member.
You generally pay a membership fee. First-time shoppers can usually shop without a membership, just to try it out. At the Olympia Co-op regular memberships consist of a one-time $5 fee (non-refundable), plus $24 in dues, which you can pay all at once or at $6 a year. The $24 in dues is fully refundable if you move or stop going to the co-op – what a deal! FREE memberships are available to seniors, people with disabilities and people with low incomes. A lot of times co-ops honor other food co-op memberships.
Check your local co-op to find out what your fees are.
Getting past the appearance
First thing first – don’t be intimidated. Co-ops aren’t your typical big-box stores. They are generally smaller buildings with much more humble appearances. If I’m going to be completely honest, they aren’t usually the shiniest, cleanest and fanciest of stores. The clientele and the volunteers are different than you’ll see at Winco, Safeway and even Whole Foods – but I’ve always felt welcome and I hope you do too.
My mom, who is a bleach-freak (she bleaches everything) and could care less about organic stuff, wasn’t so comfortable here. So it’s not for everyone. But every co-op is different! I’ve been to co-ops in Oregon that feel more like mini-grocery stores and less “organic”. I love the organic, rustic feeling of my local co-op.
This is the front entrance to the Westside Olympia Co-op store.
HOW TO SHOP AT CO-OPS
This tutorial is based on my experience. Every co-op could be different, it’s just to give you an idea of what you might expect.
- The specials/deals generally last a month (see Olympia Co-ops special online – PDF)
- Most co-ops accept manufacturer coupons
- Look for co-op issues coupon books
- Bring empty reusable containers for bulk goods or bags for produce
Probably the biggest difference you’ll find when shopping at a co-op, is you’ll need to grab a pencil/paper when you walk in the door because you’ll need to write down the PLU for any produce or bulk items that you buy. The volunteers don’t have all the PLUs memorized like you’ll find at the bigger box stores.
When you walk into the Westside Olympia Co-op this is what you’ll see near the entrance. I recommend grabbing one of each of the numbered items in the photograph:
1.) Specials for the month
2.) Co-op Deals coupon booklet
3.) Paper and pencils
4.) Clipboard to put your paper on
Once you have your paper/pencil/clipboard and your coupon book and specials – you’re ready to go! My store does have little carts and/or hand-held baskets.
Here’s what you’ll expect to see, as far as price tags go. It will generally tell you where the product is from, how much it is and what the PLU is. If you are buying Fuji apples, you’d write down the PLU listed on the tag. You don’t have to worry about weighing them, the cashier will do that.
MY FAVORITE CO-OP DEALS
So from a frugal perspective, you won’t want to do ALL your shopping at the co-op. I try to stick to in-season produce (it’s the best price, naturally) and the special offers for the month. If you stick to those, you’ll get the most bang for your buck. Not all prices are the best, don’t expect rock-bottom prices, but here are some of my favorite frugal areas of my co-op:
It doesn’t get any more frugal than bulk spices (unless you can get them free, of course)! You only buy what you need and it’s generally pennies instead of dollars. You can use the ziplock baggies at the store, but even better, just bring in your spice jars and fill ’em up! Weigh your reusable containers first, on the scales available at the store, to get a beginning weight or a “tare” weight for your reusable containers. This weight will be subtracted from your total weight – so you don’t end up paying for your container weight. Winco also has a great bulk spice section.
Bulk products galore! Both my local co-ops have lots of bulk products. Flour, granola, dried fruit, nuts, grains, beans, tahini, balsamic vinegar, shampoo, and even parmesan cheese – loads of bulk products available, you might be surprised! Bring reusable containers from home (or they have some extras in-store) or they have bags, if you need.
My local stores have reduced produce bins for perishable items that might have a bad spot and/or are nearing the end of their usable life. If you are going to be cooking them up the same day or soon, you can save a bundle! They are all priced at $0.50 cents a pound. Make sure and write down the PLU and tell the cashier they were from the reduced produce bin.
BONUS! FREE Store at Westside Olympia co-op store
The Westside Olympia Co-op has a FREE store. That’s right – everything is FREE. It’s all donation-based, so people drop off items they don’t need anymore and you can just take the things you need. It’s a great give-and-take, and I love the concept. It’s hit or miss if you’ll find a treasure, but it’s always worth a look. I have found some great books, a stainless steel garbage can (brand new) and some baby clothes in the past. It’s hours are volunteer-run, so check the posted sign to see when it will be open. And if you gently used items (not junk) it’s a great place to donate them – you know that nobody is profiting off of them, and they will end up in a good home.
OTHER OPTIONS FOR BUYING LOCAL
- Farmer’s Markets – Before too long, Farmer’s Markets will be full-swing for the summer. I seriously heart the Olympia Farmer’s Market, it’s actually one of my first experiences in Olympia and one of the reasons my husband and I chose to move here!
- CSA – You can join a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, where you basically pre-pay for a farm share. You can pay monthly or in a lump sum and you generally get a weekly box of produce! It’s a great way to get what’s truly in season, support local farmers and save on organic produce. Although the upfront cost is steep (especially for lump-sum plans) you generally end up paying $10-15 a week for a box of organic produce. It’s a great bargain and it’s a win-win that your money is going DIRECTLY to the people growing your food. Makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
- Other local options – Here in Olympia another great resource is Olympia Local Foods. They partner with local farmers and offer online ordering (which is super slick) and you just pick up your order on Thursdays. Run by a good friend (and couponer) Celia Husmann and her husband Tom, they are good people and they will take good care of you! (Tell them I sent you!)
SEARCH FOR LOCAL OPTIONS IN YOUR NECK OF THE WOODS
Not sure if you have options like this in your community? Google “co-op” and your “city name” and see if that brings up any results. You might be surprised!
- Tacoma is getting a local Food Co-op this summer! I’ll be interested to visit it when it does open
- Skagit Valley Food Co-op (Mount Vernon)
- Sno-Isle Natural Foods Co-op (Everett)
- Here’s a list of more than 100 retail co-ops nationwide that are part of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA).
Tell me, do you shop your local co-op store (if so, where is your store)? Will you be trying out a nearby co-op?
Do you have any tips for shopping local, at your local co-op or buying organic?