4 Reasons to Consider Joining a Food Co-op

Get ready to save money, eat healthier, and support your local economy.

If we didn't realize it before, the small business closures throughout the COVID-19 pandemic taught us all the importance of supporting local communities and shopping at the small businesses that make our hometowns and cities unique. While there are many different ways that we can go about supporting local, we might as well start with one of the things we shop for most often—our food. As it turns out, there's a way to buy food that not only has a positive economic and environmental impact, but could also save you money and help you develop healthier eating habits. What is this miracle option, you ask? A food co-op. Keep reading to learn all about how food co-ops can be a game changer in the way we buy our groceries and beyond.

What Is a Food Co-op?

A food cooperative (or co-op, for short) is a grocery store where the shoppers have the opportunity to purchase shares in the co-op and become member-owners. These member-owners then have a say in how the cooperative is run, its purchasing practices, and what it stocks. Like other cooperatives, food co-ops are governed by a set of guiding principles that are agreed upon by the owners, and the owners have a say in what activities the organization participates in. Most food co-ops also allow non-members to shop.

Food co-ops are rooted in the communities they serve, which creates a sense of accountability among the workers, members, and shoppers. Rather than being a one-way commercial exchange of goods for money, the people who shop at co-ops are participating in a system that is committed to community development, not just profit. Most food co-ops are involved in community education projects and other enrichment activities.

If you're interested in joining a food co-op but don't know where to look, the website Local Harvest offers a search tool to help you find a local co-op. If there are multiple options, be sure to check out the differences between each. Some co-ops will allow you to shop as a guest while others require you to be a member, some have minimum amounts you need to spend at each visit, and some will specialize in bulk items while others prioritize organic produce. Many food co-ops will also expect members to work a shift or volunteer for a certain number of hours each month. You should pick a food co-op that aligns with your own food values and matches your lifestyle and shopping habits.

The Benefits of Joining a Food Co-op

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Fair prices

If one of your goals is to eat a healthy diet on a budget (and really, who doesn't want that?) then a food co-op may be an integral part of that strategy. Most food co-ops order in bulk and are able to get wholesale prices, passing those savings on to their shoppers. Some co-ops that welcome all shoppers might offer additional discounts to member-owners or annual refunds based on how much you've spent during that time period, so be sure to research all the potential savings options when looking into your local cooperatives. That being said, it's not a blanket statement that all items at a grocery co-op will be less expensive than at a traditional grocer, so you'll have to do your own research based on what's available in your region.

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High standards

Whether you're looking for organic produce, grass-fed beef, or cage-free eggs, you're likely to find it at a food co-op. Because the food-loving owners of the co-op decide what is being sold in the store, the quality standards are quite high compared to a traditional grocery store. You essentially have a group of people passionate about tasty food, agricultural standards, and animal welfare hand-picking each product that lands on shelves. It doesn't get much more curated than that.

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Support for local agriculture

Compared to conventional grocers, food co-ops have a much higher percentage of foods that come from local farms and ranches. While it varies by specific location, most food co-ops place a priority on sourcing locally and supporting small regional farms. Benefits to these procurement practices include a lower carbon footprint due to your groceries being grown close to home, fresher produce that's been picked at the peak of ripeness and hasn't traveled a long distance in a truck, and keeping in business small farmers and ranchers that aren't large enough to participate in commercial grocery sales. This also means that you will be more likely to eat seasonally as you are presented options that are grown in your region throughout the year.

RELATED: Eat Like a Climatarian for a Healthy Planet and Healthy You

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Increased community engagement

Because food co-ops are run by community members, whether you join one as a member or just visit from time to time for your grocery shopping, you are automatically deepening your involvement with your local community. In an era when it's easier than ever to order grocery delivery from a national grocery chain with contactless drop-off, there's something surprisingly intimate about going to a food co-op and having an actual conversation with another shopper and member in the bulk food aisle. And even if you choose to just get in and get out, you are automatically taking part in a system that strives to increase community health and promotes social responsibility. Shopping at a food co-op is truly voting with your dollars for a healthier local economy and more sustainable local food system, and that's something we can all get behind.

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