When Loretta J. Ross joined the Shepherd Street NW Collective Buying Club, she said, she halved the monthly food bill for her family of three by buying produce there. Ross said her bill is about $100.
Ross, of Shepherd Street, is among many city residents who have discovered they could save by pooling their money and buying produce in wholesale quantities. Ten storefront cooperatives operate in the city, according to the Mayor's Commission for Cooperative Economic Development.
But the Shepherd Street NW cooperative, started in 1980 by seven families, some of whom lived in the 1200 block of Shepherd Street NW, is the only buying club city officials know about that originated as a neighborhood idea and still is run by volunteers from their homes. Today, 24 families are members, and the group meets twice a month to plan the co-op's purchases.
The Shepherd Street Collective is unlike most co-ops because there are no labor, storage, heating or other costs that are considered overhead; therefore, prices of goods don't have to be increased accordingly. Members get wholesale prices, in some cases those charged supermarkets, members said.
"We didn't know what we could get with our money," said founding member Dennis Watkins, who remembers the first purchase the collective made. "With $175, we got all that we needed and still had money left for additional purchases. That's when we knew we had a good thing going."
Some of the members say they have saved up to several thousand dollars during the 2 1/2 years the organization has been buying produce.
"For $25, the price of one order, we get five bags of fruit and vegetables every two weeks," said member Ernest L. Patterson. Others said one order will more than serve the need of a family of four to six people.
Members say the average $25 order currently will yield 10 apples, four pounds of bananas, three pounds of grapes, four grapefruits, 10 to 12 lemons and nine or 10 oranges.
The same order will include an array of vegetables that include five pounds of onions, two pounds of zucchini, two pounds of yellow squash, four green peppers, one head of lettuce, two pounds of tomatoes, five pounds of white potatoes, five pounds of sweet potatoes, one stalk of celery, three pounds of collards, three pounds of kale, four pounds of green beans, 10 ears of corn, two pounds of carrots, two stalks of broccoli and four cucumbers.
These fruits and vegetables at a local Giant or Safeway supermarket would cost $40 to $45, based on an informal sampling of current prices. But Shepherd Street members say there are other advantages than price: By buying produce direct from a wholesaler rather than retailers, they believe their goods are fresher by several days.
Ernest Moore, a spokeman for Safeway, said co-ops do not pose a threat to supermarkets. "It's true they buy some items through the food co-op, but they must get the items that the clubs buy," he said. "A lot of people still need to shop in a full-service supermarket because of the variety offered. Co-ops are very restrictive."
Although the concept of cooperative buying is not new, cooperative specialists in the city say volunteerism is a great way to start the effort, but sooner or later, organizations find they must pay someone to devote the large amount of time and effort involved in making the co-op work, and that in some cases, the organization also needs an operating base.
Cornbread Givens, president of the Poor Peoples' Development Fund and chairman of the city commission for cooperative development, said groups working out of private homes with no capital and relying on volunteers don't last.
"People get tired of doing volunteer work," Givens said. "It's a good mobilizing tool, then they must take it to the next level."
Frankie Whitman, director of consumer goods for the Cooperative League USA, a national trade association for co-ops, said: "Buying clubs don't understand the need to capitalize their business. They like the idea of owning and controlling their own business, but when its time to put up the money, they ask, 'What's my return?' You own the business."
Despite those notes of caution, the Shepherd Street Collective is doing well, members say.
The group is moving forward to further develop its homespun concept and is gearing up to train others in the city. The Community Based Buying Clubs, a spin-off of the Shepherd Street Collective, will help city residents establish similar buying clubs.
According to a CBBC brochure, once numerous small buying clubs have been established throughout the city they will "consolidate the buying power of multiple buying clubs to obtain goods at a lower cost than individuals or individual groups" could obtain alone.
For those who may not want to participate regularly in the collective effort, the CBBC has another offer: savings from 20 to 40 percent, at Peoples' Market Days. The collective has had four such market days, in which Agricultural Teams Inc., a black-owned farming cooperative in North Carolina, sends a truck full of straight-from-the-farm produce to the District.
Shepherd Street Collective members say the response to the market days has been good. At each market day -- the first was at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Avenue SE, the other three at Shiloh Baptist Church on Ninth Street NW -- Agricultural Teams has sold out early, members say.
This arrangement works well for both blacks who own small farms and consumers who pay lower prices for produce, presumably without the price markups from wholesalers and retailers.
Makaza Kumanyika, a member of Agricultural Teams, said that black farmers must rely more upon markets such as Peoples' Market Day to survive. Otherwise, Kumanyika said, the small farmer is also hurt by the middleman.
Meanwhile, Givens said, the Poor People's Development Fund has launched a campaign for corporations to adopt storefront co-ops in neighborhoods that have been abandoned by supermarket chains.
Riggs National Bank and Washington Gas Light Co. have contributed $10,000 each, while the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development has contributed $40,000. The money will be used to train city residents to establish and manage their own storefront co-ops.