How Food Co-ops Thrive in California

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Photo by Fotolia/Kheng Guan Toh
Co-op food buying ... and here's how they do it in California, as reported by the Berkeley People's Office. See, there's nothing to it!

Co-op food buying … and here’s how they do it in California, as reported by the Berkeley People’s Office. See, there’s nothing to it!

The food-buying co-ops take cooperation among members to make them work but savings are really something (20% to 50%). They function this way:

Buying Fresh Food for the Co-op

Neighborhood groups of five to eight living units get together and send representatives to a Thursday night central meeting. Every adult pays a non-refundable, one-time kitty fee of 2 dollars or more as a cushion for fronting the money to buy things. At the meeting, orders are taken from the representatives of each group for fruit and vegetables.

At 6:00 AM Saturday morning, three or four people go down to the Farmer’s Market in San Francisco and buy organically grown fruits and vegetables in boxes or crates and save lots of money.

Between 10:30 and 12:30 everyone comes and gets his stuff at a central location. The price per lb. is a bit marked up to cover waste — there’s always left-over stuff since you have to over-buy a little (crates come in standard amounts). Markups might be 1 cent per pound for items under 10 cents per pound, 2 cents under 20 cents per pound, 3 cents under 30 cents per pound, etc.

You’ll need:

• Large vehicles (two if over 30 living units are buying)
• Two bookkeeper-cashiers and a table
• Space-two or three spaces in your parking lot
• Two or three scales (1 to 3 dollars used at Value Village in Richmond or Oakland or at Flea Markets, baby scales are best)
• Cash to pay the farmers — no checks accepted
• Paper bags and boxes so people can carry their stuff home
• One person to dispose of left-overs (see dry goods below)

Buying Cheese for the Co-op

Domestic and imported cheese at a 20% discount (on 20 pounds or more) is available from the Cheese Board on Vine near Walnut in Berkeley.

The order, composed of each group’s orders combined is phoned in on Tuesday morning (make sure and tell them you’re a new group), and picked up at 8:00 p.m. Friday night. It is paid for then.

The cheese is cut up and weighed on Friday night, and put into packages for each group. It is distributed to group representatives on Saturday morning with produce or dry goods (see below). Group reps pay the cashier for their group’s order.

You’ll need two to three people to handle cheese.

Buying Dry Goods for the Co-op

Once a month or so you may want to buy good, organic dry goods. The prices are well below even non-organically grown things bought in the supermarket. You may want to contact Bill O’Connell or Marcia Binder at For the Love of People on Telegraph in Oakland just this side of the new freeway overpass on the right as you head south. They are a health food co-op and they get good things at low prices if you buy in large quantities (like 100 pounds of flour, 30 pounds of raisins, etc.)

For the Love of People needs our help in going and getting the stuff, as their truck can’t hold too much. Contact other co-ops to find out when everybody’s going, and a caravan of People’s co-ops can go together to the wholesalers.

Sometimes dry goods can be purchased in large quantities at very reasonable prices therefore:

• Storage space is needed, preferably a kitchen or room with a sink

Maybe you could wheedle out a basement room from your landlord or manager (ask the latter to join, if he’s a resident!) near where you distribute produce. You also need plastic-bag lined garbage cans and five gallon ice cream containers for storage, as well as ladies, scoops (cut out plastic bleach bottles are great!) and funnels. Also jars for honey, peanut butter and oil.

• Lots of front money is needed

One way is to sell 5 dollars or more worth of Script to members, enough to cover the cost completely each time you make a dry goods run. Members then pay in script for dry goods!

The same price mark-up system as for produce is advised. There is always waste.

Dry goods are distributed at the same time as produce.

Bookkeeping for dry goods is easy with Script. Script in 1-dollar amounts can be used, with purchases which come to under or over the even dollar being paid in script and change. You’ll need one or two cashiers, and one or two people to help weigh things out. (P.S. Script could be paper, coins, special stamped objects, you name it.)

General hints: In the case of produce and dry goods, everyone weighs his own and tallies his bill, with the cashier checking the addition. Equal participation and equal responsibility. It works if you’re careful to be accurate. Cheese is another story. Cutting is tricky as cheese varies in density from one kind to another. Waste is more costly at 70 cents to 90 cents per pound.

Produce buyers should try to get to know the farmers and should draw up the price list on the way back. A blackboard is handy for listing prices.