Photo Credit: Jeffrey Hamilton/Lifesize/Getty Images
When it comes to food co-ops, one thing’s for sure: They’re not for everyone. At most co-ops, members are expected to pitch in and work in exchange for lower food prices, access to high-quality products and having a say in how the organization is run.
I have friends who call my co-op a cult, scared away by the work requirement and other rules. Sure, Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Co-op has made a name for itself since its inception in 1973, but it’s really just a quirky community of people who care about good food, the environment and saving money.
But I see where my friends are coming from. Supermarket shopping can be stressful enough and having to work at one is just too much for some people. I used to feel the same way, but after crisscrossing my neighborhood for years to find high-quality foods (and spending way too much money as a result), joining a food co-op became the best solution. Now I rarely need to shop anywhere else.
Curious about joining a food co-op in your neighborhood? Here are some of the pros and cons I’ve discovered.
You’ll Really Save Money:
At the Park Slope Food Co-op, I save between 20 and 40 percent on food. I’ve even found some really good all-natural beauty products that cost way less than they would at the pharmacy.
Quality! Quality! Quality!
My co-op carries a wide variety of products including local, organic and conventionally-grown produce, pasture-raised and grass-fed meat, organic and kosher poultry, fair-traded chocolate and coffee, and wild and sustainably farmed fish. The co-op also strives to purchase food from farms that are just 100 to 200 miles away from New York City, a goal that’s easier to achieve when our local growing season is in full swing. I’m currently addicted to kale that’s from a farm in upstate New York that costs less than $2 per bunch and rainbow carrots that look like they were just plucked from the dirt, their green stems the longest I’ve ever seen. Best of all, products are replenished more than once per week and are as fresh as possible.
Shop 'til Your Kids Drop
That’s right. My co-op has childcare. It really doesn’t get better than that. On most visits, I can shop solo while my kids hang out in a room stocked with toys, books, trucks and bonus: free bagels!
Enjoy Door-to-Door Service
Even though I supermarket shop once a week, my cart is always filled to the brim. Before my co-op days, I used to walk blocks balancing multiple bags on my forearms. The co-op’s solution for this is designated walkers who escort shoppers home (within a certain distance). Now, I can push my groceries home in a shopping cart and have someone else bring it back to the co-op for me.
The Earth Will Thank You
Before joining the co-op, I used to have tons of plastic bags crammed under my kitchen sink. These days, I’m lucky if I can find a few since The Park Slope Food Co-op doesn’t provide plastic bags at checkout. Shoppers must bring their own and there’s usually a bunch of recycled boxes available. In addition, the co-op has a monthly recycling day where shoppers can recycle plastics that aren’t accepted by the sanitation department.
Make New Friends
If you’re new to an area, a food co-op is a great place to meet a diverse crowd of people. Many shifts are social, making it easy to meet new and interesting people, and at my co-op there are special workshops offered on cooking, nutrition and more.
Take a Break
My co-op offers a 12-month maternity leave that can be divided among family members. I joined the co-op when my son was six months old, which allowed me to try it out for half a year before starting a work shift. When my second son was born, my husband and I loved having some time off from the co-op while we adjusted to life as a family of four.
You Have to Work
To belong to my co-op, all members must work a two hour and 45 minute shift once every four weeks. If you miss too many shifts, your membership can be suspended.
Lines Can be Long
Shopping at my co-op isn’t exactly quick and easy. There are times when the checkout line weaves its way through multiple aisles and it can get even busier around holidays. There’s also a slightly archaic payment system that requires you to check out at one register and pay at another if you’re using cash. The Daily Show recently poked fun at this while reporting on a co-op controversy regarding Israeli products.
It Can Be a Tight Squeeze
My co-op can get crowded and the narrow aisles can be tricky to navigate. This can make certain shoppers very cranky and a friend once witnessed a shopper’s meltdown over some missing mineolas.
You Have to Bag Your Own Groceries
Probably my least favorite part of shopping at the co-op is bagging my own groceries. At big grocery stores, I’m always in awe at how quickly the checkout workers pack up my purchases. To people who are picky about how their bags are packed, this might actually be a pro. For me, it’s a disadvantage, but definitely not big enough to make me stop shopping there!
To find a co-op in your area, click here.