With inflation nibbling relentlessly at paychecks, Washington area families are turning to food cooperatives and buying clubs as ways to bring home more, and sometimes better, bacon. "We have found tremendous savings," said Vauda Aisen of the Consolidated Buyer's Association, which has members in Wheaton, Silver Spring and parts of Prince George's County. Aisen, a Navy wife, said her coop has lower prices on many items than the military commissaries, which offer discounts to service families.
"I feel like I'm beating the system a little bit -- at least a little bit," said Marion McKinney, physical therapist, mother of five and a member of the Daily Bread Food Coop in Arlington.
The metropolitan area has more than a score of food coops and buying clubs that, in general, offer their members lower prices than supermarkets.
In exchange, members spend hours each month doing work -- ordering, dividing and distributing goods and keeping the books -- that are part of a retail store's overhead costs and add to the price of food. Coopers sacrifice the speed, convenience and, often, some of the variety offered by supermarkets.
Discovering where the coops and buying clubs are is often a matter of happenstance and word of mouth. Few advertise -- another cost-cutting measure. Some operate out of small storefronts. A few, such as the Greenbelt Cooperative in Prince George's County, are barely dstinguishable from large chain stores.
Others, primarily buying clubs, briefly set up shop in a private carport or basement for an afternoon. These have been dubbed "homefronts" by Deanne Dixon of the Savers' Coop, a large Montgomery County buying club.
Most are tailor-made by and for their founders, and often they bear distinctve marks of their philosophical bent.
The Bethesda Avenue Food Coop stocks no items containing sugar and offers neither meat nor fish. Products such as unhomogenized milk, raw butter and macrobiotic foods reflect its members' preference for foods that are unprocessed, begetarian and free of colorings and additives.
Loaves and Fishes, a tiny 12-member Springfield, Va., operation, is "strictly a Christian coop," according to organizer Pat Ferguson. It is founded on the "first fruits" principle in Proverbs 3:9 and 3:10, and urges member families to put some portion of their monthy order into a basket for distribution to needy families.
"But not everybody cares. We do not go to extremes . . . ," said Karen Sobers of the Dufief Food Coop in Gaithersburg.
Defining coops isn't easy. They "will vary from six families who pool money to buy dried fruit once each year to $60-million-a-year businesses, any every step in between, so its impossible to categorize them," said David C. Zinner, who works with cooperative ventures for the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies, a national organization based in D.C.
Most coops are formed for and by members and maintain an open membership.
Groups that keep stores must comply with local requirements, such as licensing, maintenance of sanitary standards and taxes, that apply to any store, said Zinner. Buying clubs usually must meet some "not very stringent" local regulations.
The failure rate of coops "probably is no greater and no better than that of other small businesses," he said. To judge a cooperative, Zinner advises prospective members to look at its stated purposes and evaluate how well it is serving them. For example, if a group's stated aim is to supply "good food at low prices," compare its prices with those in stores. Zinner says if a coop requires no investment from a member one should be suspicious, but an initial charge of more than $30 might mean the coop does not know how to use its money wisely. A good coop also informs and educates its members about its operations through a newsletter and monthly meetings, and seeks to involve members in planning and operations, said Zinner.
Often, a coop that is outgrowning its ability to organize and function efficiently will close its membership. Some must limit the number of members to the amount of food that fits into a station wagon or rented van.
When that happens, "there is an unwritten coop principle to help form another coop," Zinner said. Many of the coops and buying clubs listed in this issue grew out of others, according to their organizers.
Conversely, some of the larger buying clubs seem to be able to incorporate any number of new families simply by adding another "unit" of 10 to 20 families whenever enough people express an interest and live near enough to each other to facilitate pick-ups. The more members, the larger the savings.
Savers' Coop in Montgomery County, which provides itself on going back along the food-supply chain as far as possible to get the best prices, had enough preorders from its 220 members to buy several tons of beans, which were then distributed to members in one afternoon. Northern Virginia Consumers' Coop, with 145 member families, contracted for a semi-truckload -- 44,000 pounds -- of bagged wheat to be shipped directly from Colorado. Members paid $11 pe 100 pounds of wheat, compared with the metropolitan area wholesale price of $16.50, said organizer Loveless.
Coop members generally speak highly of other benefits. The quality of the food is often much higher than that found in supermarkets and corner stores. It is usually fresher because it is stored for a shorter time and has been handled less because it comes in larger quantities.
Some coop members also feel the cheese-cutting and bean-weighing sessions give them a chance to get to know their neighbors.
"A lot of people here are living in their own world, with ivory towers and moats," said Savers' Coop's Deanne ydixon. "And this coop has helped to bridge those moats. We have a better feel of the community. It's more than a source of inexpensive foods."
Other members, however, are in it for the savings and little else.
Whether coops are the wave of the future is highly debatable. Coops are a long way from threatening supermarkets, but may provide an alternative as commodities, fuel, distribution and packaging costs continue to boost food prices higher and higher.
"My thinking is that certainly there is a trend that will probably be increasing as people become more conscious of food dollars and will be looking for ways to cut their food costs," said Marian Sutton, a county extension home economist in Montgomery County. She acknowledged, however, that her office receives few calls on the subject of food coops.
"My gut feeling is that (coops) have great potential," said Denise Shaw, an agricultural extension agent in Fairfax County. "They probably are limited to a certain extent. We have tried to get them working in low-income communities, but you need to have time, you need to have money."
These efforts were not successful, she said, because poor people lack the money and time to devote to a cooperative effort even if it would result in substantial savings. Storage space, especially in freezers, was another problem.
Following is a partial listing of coops in and around the Washington metropolitan area. Under types of food, "dry bulk goods" means an assortment of beans, nuts, dried fruit, pastas, flours, seeds and grains.