Food cooperatives – healthy, environmentally friendly food

Something insiduous been happening with our food over the last hundred years or so – aside from the increasing role of oil and chemicals in growing our food and the genetic engineering of crops, our sustenance is increasingly coming from further afield.

As mentioned in my article on food miles and sustainability, the fixings for an average meal in North America have travelled well over a thousand miles! The energy expended in getting food from farms to our plates is simply environmentally unsustainable. Given how many processes our food goes through and the variety of countries it comes from, it’s also really hard to be sure of what’s in it these days.

Natural food cooperatives have sprung up everywhere in recent times, providing affordable food, fruit and vegetables and a range of other environmentally friendly products to their members. The focus is usually on providing organic produce that’s grown locally by small farms and companies. If imported items are offered, they are usually in line with fair trade practices.

How food cooperatives work

This can vary, but usually a reasonable annual membership is paid and perhaps a small initial investment which is returned if you ever choose to leave the cooperative. Some food coops also require you to put a couple of hours a month into working in the coop store, warehouse or delivery point. This work helps to keep the costs of overheads down and the savings are passed on to members. If you can’t volunteer any time, you may be required to pay more for your food. The membership decides the types of food needed, it’s then ordered from local or fair trade sources and brought to a central distribution point.

There are two main types of co-ops:

Buying clubs – an informal association of people who know each other who pool their financial and time resources to purchase food on behalf of the group which is then shared among the members.

Co-op grocery stores – similar to the above, but legal entities with thousands of members and a physical location such as a store or a distribution point.

Food cooperatives around the world

If you’re in the USA or Canada, try a search on LocalHarvest or  CooperativeGrocer – both very comprehensive resources. There’s also a long list on DMOZ

People in the United Kingdom should give the Co-opOnline site a try

As for Australia and other countries, I had problems finding directories, so I suggest hitting your favorite search engine and entering:

food cooperative country city/town

Where country city/town is your location.

If you know of any good international food cooperative directories online; I’d greatly appreciate you letting me know!

Start your own food co-op

If there’s no food co-operative in your area, consider starting your own buying club or co-op. It could even form the basis of a full or part-time career for you!

If you just want to get together with your friends, family and neighbors to purchase natural food in bulk, this primer may be useful. For a more complex arrangement, or if you aim to turn a buying club into a larger, more structured concern, this guide from the Cooperative Grocers’ Information Network may be of some assistance.