Participating in an Organic Foods Buying Club and Co-Op: Learning the Ropes

I was recently introduced to a local organic/natural foods co-op and buying club in a neighboring town. I was surprised to know that it existed, as I have been in the area for seven years, and no one that I knew personally participated in it. Due to a desire to save money while eating a healthier and more sustainable diet (a work very, very much in progress), my interest was piqued.

Our local buying club works through several wholesale suppliers of organic and natural foods. Volunteers work with participants and suppliers to coordinate orders on a regular basis. Many products are significantly cheaper to buy in bulk, so members will split cases of a product whenever possible. There is a $15 membership fee (a one-time only charge) after a two month trial period, and members can volunteer to help with administrative duties, deliveries, sorting orders, etc. in order to have purchasing power without the small service fee per order (something around 5-10%, depending upon the supplier).

Within a day or two of joining the club, I managed to catch the end of a “split order” that was being submitted to a supplier–meaning that certain items had been requested by members who wanted to pay the more inexpensive price extended to those who ordered items by the case, but who did not want to purchase said full case themselves, so you could purchase the remaining items in it to be able to order the case at the bulk discounted price.

For example, someone wanted to purchase two packets of organic taco seasoning at the discounted case price. However, they only wanted two packets, and a case had ten of them within it. So, since we use taco seasoning on a very regular basis (and since we prefer spicy, flavorful varieties), I decided to buy the other eight packets. Both of us then were able to receive the discounted case price.

Here was my first order, which came to $21.03, including a small service charge:

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In my order, I purchased two pounds of organic California white jasmine rice, two 10 ounce bags of butternut squash, and eight packets of organic taco seasoning.

I’m not entirely convinced I received a monumental price break. Per item, I did receive a discount as opposed to buying them at retail online (plus shipping). And compared to “conventional” foods, well, let’s be honest, the “conventional” items will almost always be significantly cheaper compared to organic foods and produce. It’s just the way it is. However, when compared to the organic items I sometimes find at discount stores or the local scratch-and-dent grocery store, the items purchased via the co-op/buying club were still higher in price.

However, several points in favor of the buying club…. For starters, I did not make much of an effort to track the items that were on sale or heavily discounted, or discontinued, etc. I am still learning how to navigate the suppliers’ catalogs and lists. Most of us, like myself, are used to making purchases with catalogs full of glossy pages and photographs. A wholesale catalog seems to be mere item numbers, names, and lots of price listings with abbreviations I am still learning, so I don’t feel as confident making wise choices as to what to buy and what to avoid just yet. Also, the food options and choices available are countless compared to any of the grocery stores in our area–if I want something, I am pretty much certain to find it in a supplier’s catalog somewhere, be it essential oils or spices or meats or cheeses, anything. Anything that I can think of is available somewhere. And, ultimately, in the end, the club will still be cheaper, and more than likely a provider of higher quality foods, than the mainstream grocery store. I am also thrilled to be participating in a community of people who are interested in the same dietary and environmental goals that I possess (even if I’m not very far at all in achieving them).

It will be a fun challenge to see what is on sale next time, and whether I have figured out any tricks to obtaining a better deal on my purchases the second time around. I’m also interested in possibly joining a co-op in my former hometown, and it has an actual storefront that has been in operation for decades.

Do you participate in a co-op or a buying club?

Grocery Shopping on a Third of the Normal Budget

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(Purchased at a discount, scratch and dent, grocery store, $34.)

So, armed with a third of my normal grocery budget (for a span of two weeks, due to a temporary setback), my husband and I decided to utilize the local discount stores as much as possible.

The area where we live is an odd mix, economically. There are some, like our family, who are lucky enough to have a spouse/partner/head of household with a good job, and even though we have our rough patches financially, we survive.

And then there is the other end of the economic spectrum, where a significant portion of the area lives below the poverty level. It’s been bad enough to hit national news circuits.

The ONLY perk to this situation is that the area abounds with inexpensive produce via local farms (the area is rural), and there are scads of discount grocers and scratch and dent stores.

I absolutely love discount stores. I love second hand clothing, love clearance sales and closeouts, you name it. And, when money is tight, a scratch and dent store might be your saving grace; however, there are some tips to follow:

1) Some products might be past their “Best By” dates. That is different than a “Use By” date. “Best Buy” is a bit more like a helpful suggestion…the quality might go down after the printed date, but it still might be fine to eat. This is a matter of personal preference, really. If I plan on using it right away, or its something I can store still for a month or so, like a mix, then it doesn’t bother me. We buy gum, in three packs, for 10 cents because it is past its suggested date, and it’s just fine. However, I’m leery of things like flour when they are past their prime. It’s a matter of preference.

2) If you’re like me, and you like a certain food niche, like organic food, or if you need gluten free, for example, then a scratch and dent grocer might have what you need at a fraction of the cost. Look for these niche items first. I find loads of organic foods, eco friendly cleaning products, etc. A lot of times, they are still in date, but because they are geared toward a smaller market, they don’t sell as fast as a store wants, so they get sent to a closeout or discount store, and you can snag it for mere cents off of the retail cost.

3) I admit, this is a personal preference, but I recommend steering clear as much as you can from dented cans and smashed boxes, per food safety reasons.

4) Look for paper goods in stores like this. We find diapers with cute prints (when we need disposables) for a fraction of the cost. Diaper companies circulate prints quickly, feminine hygiene companies are constantly advertising something new, same with toilet paper. And when the “new” becomes old, it gets sent to the discount stores. And, let’s be honest, paper doesn’t expire. Why NOT buy it? You’ll save big here.

I went to two discount grocers today–and the photographed haul cost $34. Retail (this is an estimate based on past purchases) would be around $75, I would venture. Can’t beat it! With shopping at discount stores today, I spent $70 on everything we wanted for two weeks.