The thought of barreling down Florida Avenue in a torrent of rain at 5 a.m. in search of the perfect avacado seems more ridiculous than sublime. Yet when my bimonthly turn to do the shopping at the Florida Avenue Market--on behalf of 16 other families--is over, I can hardly wait to get started again with the ritual of pricing, selection and delivery of some of this area's choicest produce.
Is it already obvious that I am one of those vegetable co-op fanatics willing to freeze her kiwis off in the wintry wee hours for the sake of a fresh shipment of Florida grapefruit? Even without a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, I am proud to be a member of a group that has helped me replace frozen food with fresh fantasies at my dinner table. Honk if you like broccoli!
Begun in 1976 by a transplanted Californian (who else?), out Northwest Washington vegetable co-op is one of about 14 others in and around the city. With an average membership of 16 families, the weekly cost to members has risen only slightly, from $5 to $7, since the early days. For $10 a month extra, a delicious array of cheeses is also available every other week through the efforts of one member.
When I joined the co-op last September, I had no idea what kind of savings would accrue. My immediate thought was to eliminate standing in supermarket lines with two children and to provide alternative inspiration for my family's fast-food palates. Thus far, on a grocery bill which previously totaled $70 for a family of two adults and two children under 5 (and not including wine), I am now saving $15 to $20 a week. Further, a new emphasis on protein dishes which combine eggs or cheese with vegetables has cut down the cost of purchasing large quantities of beef, pork and chicken.
Each week, by prearrangement on a master sheet, a team of two members is responsible for the current order, selection and delivery of vegetables. On Tuesday, one member calls the market to check prices and availability of choices. Each team must consider current selections and prices against recent orders made and posted in the co-op book.
For example, the co-op order for one recent week included: avacados ($6.50), bananas ($10.50), grapefruit ($33), grapes ($16 for 21 lbs.), celery ($8 or 60 cents a bunch), eggplant ($12), peppers ($10.25 or 4 per family) and spinach ($16), for a total of $112.25. The aim then for the next week would be to change color and content wherever possible, while preserving balanced nutrition. Only very popular items, like bananas and celery, are acceptable anytime.
Once the week's selections have been agreed upon and the definitive order placed, the team is ready for the 6 a.m. Wednesday morning pickup. Yes, that does mean getting up around 4:30! Any later would eliminate the chance to check the produce before it is loaded into your car (appropriate tips are a must) and to get the carpool to school or to work.
After buying the produce, the team drives to the home of another co-op member who has generously made her garage available as the distribution point for all families. The team fills 16 waiting baskets inscribed with each family name. After the ritual sorting of vegetables, all discarded boxes are stacked outside the garage for the Wednesday trash collection in our area.
All in all, organization in the co-op is comfortable, but efficient. Note abound on the garage bulletin board. Members leave checks for the following month in the chairperson's basket. Occasionally, new recipes--placed there by a thoughtful member--pop up among the cabbage heads.
The chairperson for the month collects all the fees and passes on the check and the co-op book to the buyer of the week. Membership meetings are held only twice a year, all that seems necessary to make things run smoothly. Otherwise, all mishaps are handled creatively over the phone.
Starting Your Own Co-op:
* Begin slowly and usually by checking with neighbors and at parties to see who's interested and what may not be happening already. Existing baby-sitting co-ops are great beginnings. Otherwise, advertise in the neighborhood newspaper or on bulletin boards.
* Take names over the phone and limit the number to about 20. A few will decide not to join, which should leave you with about the right number (14-16).
* Have the members research and decide on a market among the dozen or so at the truck-farming distribution mecca on Florida Avenue in the District.
* Select a permanent locale for delivery.
* Set up a crib sheet of dates for team pick-ups. Sheets should cover a three-month period and include a monthly chairperson who will collect all money and get a check to that week's team before delivery time.
Then begin. Mistakes and changes will occur, but nothing that can't be handled with ease if members are enthusiastic and will make the effort on behalf of good nutrition and economy. You will probably have a waiting list in a short time.
While the family munches the last of a cake in which I substituted parsnips for carrots (an odd idea that worked), my thoughts now drift to new culinary heights with glorious borscht, a fruit compote and a raw cauliflower and egg salad.
No longer a victim of menu monotony, I look forward each week to fanciful and frugal cooking.