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.
"Not that I hate the system or anything," mused Margaret Rizzo, a member of the City Garden Coop in Mount Pleasant. "It's just that (I'm glad) somebody's not making a huge profit off of me."
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 ordering, dividing and distributing goods and keeping the books -- work that is part of a retail store's overhead costs and adds to the price of food. Coop members also sacrifice the speed, convenience and, sometimes, the variety offered by supermarkets.
Discovering where the coops and buying clubs are is a matter of chance and word of mouth. Few advertise -- another cost-cutting measure. Some, like Fields of Plenty in Adams Morgan, operate out of small storefronts, much like community markets. A few, such as the Greenbelt Cooperative in Prince George's County, are barely distinguishable from large chain stores.
Others, primarily buying clubs, set up shop in a private carport or a 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 bear distinctive marks of their philosophical bent.
City Gardens Coop in the District set up a system whereby members who work in the coop earn tokens worth 15 percent off coop prices.
"We hoped people would begin to exchange tokens among themselves for other services such as babysitting or bicycle repair," said City Garden member Charlie Garlow, "so we could begin to establish an alternative economy."
At the Chakula Coop on the Howard University campus, however, organizers are more concerned with providing members with a balanced but meatless diet at a low price. Chakula members pay $9.50 weekly to receive a selection of five fruits and five vegetables chosen for their combined nutritional value. On a recent week, members received several pounds each of sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, collard greens, carrots, apples, oranges, pears, bananas and avocados.
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, and every step in between, 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, a national organization based in the District.
Most coops maintain an open membership.
Groups that keep stores must comply with local requirements, such as licensing, sanitary standards and sales taxes -- regulations that apply to any store, said Zinner. Buying clubs usually must meet some "not very stringent" local regulations, he added.
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 says its aim is to supply "good food at low prices," compare its prices with those in stores.
Zinner said 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 outgrowing 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 of The District Weekly grew out of others, according to their organizers.
Conversely, some of the larger buying clubs incorporate 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, organizers say.
Savers' Coop in Montgomery County, which prides 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 per 100 pounds of wheat, compared with the metropolitan area wholesale price of $16.50, said Cheri Loveless, one of the club's members.
Coop members say the quality of the food they provide is often 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, they say.
Some coop members also believe the cheese-cutting and bean-weighing sessions give them a chance to get to know their neighbors.
"I guess I like the connection with the food," said City Garden member Rizzo. "There is also a community spirit about being in a group (coop) that you don't get at a supermarket."
Other members, however, are in it mainly for the savings.
While coops and buying clubs are flourishing in suburban Maryland and Virginia, they have enjoyed only limited success in the District.
Cornbread Givens, who chairs the District's Commission for Cooperative Economic Development, said those who testified at the commission's recent hearings were more interested in housing cooperatives. Only a few spoke on food cooperatives.
"Its not a promising picture for food coops in the District," Givens said. "There hasn't been much activity. For the most part, they are small groups, but the interest in the idea is real."
Haje Griffith at Cornucopia Food Cooperative in Southeast agreed. "It's not an idea whose time has come to the District," he said. "It's kind of California-ish, a college campus sort of thing. Washingtonians are bureaucrats and don't trust anything anyway."
He thinks coops' lack of popularity here is ironic because the District is the headquarters for organizations such as the National Consumer Cooperative Bank and the Cooperative League of the U.S.A., which promote coops in other parts of the country.
Another problem, he said, is that coops require people to alter their buying, cooking and eating habits. "It's harder to mess with someone's eating habits than it is to change someone's religion. Those things take time."
D.C. Extension Service home economist Kelly Peterson is more optimistic."We're finding that people are really talking about it a lot now. I think the interest is really there, and I think it's really gearing up as people become conscious of all the federal cutbacks that are expected."
Other area officials said efforts to establish coops in low-income communities have not succeeded because people lack the money and time. Cooperatives require effort, even if they result in substantial savings. Also, most city dwellers don't have large freezers or enough storage space to take advantage of bulk buying.
Following is a partial listing of coops in and around the Washington metropolitan area. Under types of food, "bulk dry goods" means an assortment of beans, nuts, dried fruit, pastas, flours, seeds and grains.