A Beginners Guide to Co-Ops

If there is one thread that connected my feelings about 2017, it was that being a bystander in my own life and community was no longer an option. In the category of “every cloud has a silver lining” I can say I have never been more aware of how my choices impact the world around me. Bring it on 2018.

It is no big secret that one of the best things you can do for your community and the environment is buying local. But in today’s economy, sometimes buying local can sound easier than it really is. Even the most socially conscious grocery store chains typically offer a couple of shelves – max – of locally produced foods. Which, if you live in farming country like we do, can be tough to swallow.

Of course, shopping a farmer’s market is a great way to source local foods and to get to know the families that produce them. However, farmers markets are typically seasonal. Enter the food co-op.

I have been shopping with the Oklahoma Food Co-Op for a few months now and have quickly become an evangelist. If you are interested in buying local year-round, supporting farmers more directly, and meeting neighbors who feel the same way, then buying from a co-op might just be your ‘bag’.

What is a food co-op?

A food co-op (cooperative) is a legal entity. It refers to a type of business that is co-owned by co-op “members”. Co-ops can span a variety of industries and can range in size from very small to massive (REI is a great example of a large-scale co-op; they bill themselves as “nation’s largest consumer cooperative”.) What makes co-ops unique is that the members are also the owners. A food co-op is a network of farmers, ranchers, producers, and buyers that work together to connect local food to local families.

How it works

Your local co-op processes may vary, but here are some basics about how our Oklahoma food co-op works:

  1. You purchase a membership on an annual, lifetime, or per-order basis. (In our case, a lifetime membership costs in the neighborhood of $50. Worth it.)
  2. You browse the co-op website for foods and products and build your order list. Expect a basic online shopping experience with one exception: you won’t pay when you check out. The reason is that a lot of products are priced by weight. For example, you may order a 5-6 lb roast at $6 per pound; the price of that roast will be different depending on whether it is 5.1 lbs or 6.0 lbs. You will see a price estimate on your order, but the actual price will be determined once the farmers fulfill your order. And that’s the next step…
  3. The co-op aggregates the month’s orders and sends them to the co-op farmers / producers for fulfilment.
  4. Producers deliver their orders to the co-op operations center.
  5. Volunteers (YAS!) sort the products to be delivered to one of the co-op pickup locations around the state. Oklahoma has more than 50 collection sites.
  6. You show up, with your grocery bags in hand, to pay your site volunteer and pick up your items.

Tips for newbies

  • Don’t forget your shopping bags for pickup. You’ll probably get a print out of your order, then you will walk from cooler to cooler, picking up the items from your order. This is very much a self-service situation, of course.
  • Meat products will probably be frozen. When you think about it, there are some really practical reasons for this, and I have zero complaints about the quality…but I think I was expecting non-frozen first time I shopped. Now ya know!
  • Shop around to find your favorites. Hot pork sausage is always going to be on our list, and the first time I shopped, I tried to read through every farm listing in the sausage category. Don’t. The fact is, you just have to try. If you aren’t walking in with a preference for a particular farm, I think the best thing to do is just pick one at random and go. (I did the same thing I do when picking my pony at the Kentucky Derby…fav name, of course!) The next month you can choose a similar product from another farm and just work your way through the list until you find your new go-to.
  • Mark your calendar. Pickup is one day per month, and the pickup window is probably no more than 2 hours. I know that life gets busy, but remember, pickup locations are staffed by volunteers…you NEED to respect the pickup window and not abuse their time and goodwill. Write down your pickup time in pen (metaphorically) and protect that time. Yes, sometimes that means your kids will be changing for their basketball game in the back of your car in a church parking lot while you pickup then stash your co-op order in the cooler in your trunk. It happens. No bigs.
  • Tell your friends. I have taken this one to heart (this post, case in point), but the health of any co-op depends on active members. The more the merrier!


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