I've lived here in Atlanta for more than three years, but one of the things I still keenly miss from my previous home in Brooklyn, New York is the food co-op. In the big city, it offered a sense of community. But more importantly, it gave me access to fresh, locally grown, organic produce, nutritious and environmentally conscious packaged food brands, and responsibly raised meat and dairy items.
If you're looking for an affordable way to eat better, and more responsibly, joining a food co-op in your area might be a terrific option — but it's important to remember that no two co-ops are the same. Here are some questions you need to ask before signing up.
- What does membership entail? At the co-op I belonged to, the Park Slope Food Co-Op, you couldn't shop unless you were a member (or a guest of a member). Membership itself was quite a commitment — you paid a joining fee and an "investment fee" (which you got back when you left), and you were required to work a 2 hour 45 minute shift every four weeks. But many other co-ops don't require the same level of commitment; for some, it's only a financial investment, for others, there is a work obligation.
- What benefits do members get? At many co-ops, you don't need to be a member to shop, but being a member typically means that you get benefits and discounts that aren't available to the nonmember shopper who walks through the door. Co-ops might offer "member day" sales or a standard discount of as much as 15 or 20 percent. Some also give you an annual rebate check of a percentage of your purchase. And for most co-ops, being a member also means you get a say in how the business is run — after all, you are a part owner!
- What types of foods and products does the co-op carry? This is the most important question, because obviously if the co-op doesn't carry the type of foods you are interested in, there's no point in joining. Most co-ops, even those who don't allow nonmember shoppers, will give tours to prospective members and even may give you a one-time shopping pass. Take a look at the types of products and the prices, and compare them with the brands and prices you usually buy. In my experience with both the co-op I belonged to in Brooklyn, and the one I shop at now (of which I am not a member), the best deals were with bulk goods like grains, legumes and dried fruits and nuts; the dairy products like cheese and eggs; the organic produce and the bulk dried spices.
- What is the co-op's philosophy? Because co-ops are independent organizations run by their members, many of them have a very specific set of philosophies and goals. Do a little research on the co-op's web site or ask for a copy of its mission statement to see where the co-op stands on environmental issues (many have very strong recycling programs in place) and the types of products it will agree to stock. Because the selection is dictated by the mission statement of the co-op and the beliefs of the members, there might be a mission to carry all or mostly organic or locally grown produce, products from socially and environmentally responsible companies, or products that do not contain genetically modified or artificial ingredients. My current local co-op, for instance, does not carry any animal products or by-products for which the animal must be slaughtered, or personal care products that have been developed using inhumane animal testing.
- How convenient will it be to shop? Finally, make sure that the co-op is conveniently located so that you'll be able to shop there regularly. Check the store hours, too, to see if the evening and weekend hours are convenient.
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