With inflation nibbling relentlessly at paychecks, Washington area families are turning to food cooperatives and buying clubs as ways to skirt supermarkets and bring home more, and sometimes better, bacon.
"I feel like I'm beating the system a little bit, at least a little bit," said Marion McKinney, a physical therapist who has five children and is a member of the Daily Bread Food Coop in Arlington.
The metropolitan area has a number of food coops and buying clubs.The main advantage of the groups is that their prices generally are lower than those in major groceries. The disadvantage is that what you gain in savings you may lose in the convenience, speed and variety offered by supermarkets.
Most groups charge an initiation fee, which can range from $1 to $50, and ask -- some coops require -- that members donate time to perform such chores as ordering, dividing and distributing goods and keeping the books, which supermarkets do for you -- and add to the cost of food.
"You're basically trading time and effort for the savings of the coop," said Cheri Loveless, who helped organize the Northern Virginia Consumers' Coop in Vienna.
Discovering where the coops are is often a matter of happenstance and word of mouth. Some, like the Uncommon Market in Arlington, operate out of small storefronts much like community markets. A few, like the Greenbelt Cooperative in Greenbelt, Md., are barely distinguishable from the large chain stores. Others, primarily buying clubs, briefly occupy someone's garage or basement for an afternoon and have been dubbed "homefronts" by Deanne Dixon of the Savers' Coop, a large Montgomery County buying club.
"Coops will vary from six families who pool money to buy dried fruit once each year to $60-million-a-year businesses, and every step inbetween, so it's impossible to categorize them," said David C. Zinner, who works with cooperative ventures for the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies.
Most coops and buying clubs are tailor-made by and for their founders. Memberships generally are open to anyone, although when a coop threatens to outgrow its ability to function efficiently, it will close its membership. Some coops must limit the number of members to the amount of food which 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 coops and buying clubs grew out of others, according to organizers. In some cases, members of smaller clubs that purchase fresh produce belong to larger clubs that can get a better deal on bulk dry goods such as pasta, beans or flour.
Conversely, some of the larger buying clubs seem to be able to incorporate any number of new families by simply adding on another unit of 10 to 20 families whenever enough people express an interest and live near enough to each other to facilitate pickups. The more members, the larger the savings, say most co-opers.
Northern Virginia Consumers' Coop, with 145 families -- 44,000 pounds -- of bagged wheat direct from Colorado. Members paid $11 for 100 pounds of wheat compared to the area wholesale price of $16.50, said organizer Loveless. w
Many coops bear the distinctive philosophical bent of their founders. For instance, Loaves and Fishes, a tiny 12-member group in Springfield, is "strictly a Christian coop," according to organizer Pat Ferguson. It is founded on the "first fruits" principle in Proverbs 3:9-10 and urges members to put part of their montly orders into a basket for needy families.
Others, like City Garden Coop in the District, allow members to earn tokens worth 25 percent off coop prices by working a certain number of hours each month.
Some groups stock only certain items. For instance, the Bethesda Avenue Food Coop refuses to stock items with added surgar and does not offer meat or fish. Products such as unhomogenized milk, raw butter and macrobiotic foods reflect its members' concern that foods be unprocessed, vegetarian and free of dyes and additives usually found in supermarket foods.
Co-opers generally speak highly of other benefits of co-oping. The quality of the food is often much higher than food offered in supermarkets and corner stores. It is usually fresher since it is stored for a shorter time and has been handled less because it comes in larger quantities.
Because so many of the chores are shared, some co-opers feel that co-oping offers them a better chance than the supermarket for getting to know their neighbors.
"A lot of people here are living in their own world with ivory towers and moats," said Deanne Dixon of Savers' Coop. "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 co-opers, however, are in it for the savings and little else. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't have a large family," said Penny Lane of the 18-family Waynewood Coop in the Mount Vernon area, which has a waiting list and is not open to new members. "You know, bargain fever strikes you and you get all excited but it really is a lot of work."
Whether coops are the thing of the future or not is highly debatable. Most area officials acknowledge that coops are a long way from threatening supermarkets, but most also expressed the hope that they may provide an alternative as the cost of commodities, fuel, distribution and packaging continue to boost food prices higher and higher.
"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."
Shaw said the county extenson office gets a lot of calls from people asking how to store a barrel of flour or grain, "but a lot of people live in apartments, and where are you going to put a case of Worcestershire sauce?"
Still, Shaw says: "There is a trend in our country, as we go back to bascis we are going to have to live in a more sharing attitude. People will have to share their time and expertise and I think there is a trend in that direction."
Whatever the future of coops and buying clubs may be, here is a partial listing of coops in the Washington area:
(Under Types of Food, dry bulk goods means an assortment of beans, nuts, dried fruit, pastas, flours, seeds and grains).