According to the Linden Hills Co-op, “There are more independent community-owned food cooperatives in the Twin Cities than any other urban area in the US.” However, for those unfamiliar with grocery co-ops, the system can be confusing. Co-ops are member-owned, but open to everyone. You can pack your own eggs. Or not. You can tote your own canvas bags. Or not.
Co-op shopping is more formal than buying directly from the growers at the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, yet more scaled down, organically oriented, and personal than shopping at your neighborhood Cub Foods.
Co-ops are the focaccia of the grocery world. More elaborate than garlic bread, but not as tricked out as Savoy’s sausage and mushroom pizza, everyone talks about it like it’s a good thing, healthier and higher-minded; yet, no one can really tell you what it is. Focaccia, and c0-ops, occupy the middle space. You’re on your own to figure out focaccia, but we’ll help you sift out the facts about Minneapolis and St. Paul’s neighborhood co-ops.
Myth #1, You have to be a member to shop there: You don’t have to be a member to shop at a co-op, or even to benefit from some co-op sales and discounts. However, your one-time membership fee, ranging $75-$125 in the Twin Cities, typically entitles you to additional “member-only” discounts on products and services, voting privileges, annual cash dividends, and a newsletter. Twin Cities co-ops will give you the member discount on groceries if you are a member of another local co-op.
Myth #2, They are expensive: Twin Cities co-ops do emphasize organically grown and locally produced foods. According to Liz McMann, Education and Special Projects Manager at Mississippi Market in St. Paul, “Eating sustainable foods can be expensive. Organics are not subsidized by the government, they reflect the true cost, they require more labor, and small farms don’t benefit from economies of scale.” But, the co-op, through its monthly specials, coupons, and case ordering can help you trim costs. Save 5-10 percent, depending on whether you’re a member, by placing an order for a case-lot of grocery items that the co-op stocks, such as canned tomatoes or soy milk. If the product is on sale, you get the 5-10 percent off of the sale price. Usually, you place case orders at the member desk or over the telephone. Mississippi Market places case orders three times a week; if you order on a Monday, for instance, your order could arrive as early as Wednesday. Consult with an employee to find out how many items to a case and what your cost will be. Most co-ops publish their sales on their websites to help you plan ahead.
Mississippi Market offers a free class, “Shopping Co-op on a Budget,” taught by McMann, sharing specific recommendations on “shopping with your values” without going broke. McMann offers specific advice for planning and sticking to a budget (one tip: keep track of how much you have left to spend by keeping your week’s or month’s budget in cash in an envelope in your wallet), planning, shopping wisely (one tip: “mind the dirty dozen“), and changing your patterns at home (one tip: “invest your time, not your money.”) Seward Co-op in Minneapolis offers a class for $45 nonmembers/$40 members, “How to Make a Dollar Holler.” The Wedge offers a similar class on occasion. Check your co-op’s website for classes, tips, and recipes.
Myth #3, You have to buy in bulk, and it’s a hassle: Co-ops offer plenty of pre-packaged items. You could do most or all of your shopping without ever having to dig a single scoop out of the bulk bin. But, they also offer bulk shopping for a wide array of products, more than just the grains and spices that conventional supermarkets carry. It’s cheaper because you don’t have to pay for all of that marketing and packaging, and it’s easier than it seems. Co-ops provide baggies for you to package the spices and grains you buy from the bulk bins. If you want to buy other bulk products, peanut butter, honey, laundry detergent, shampoo, vinegar, olive oil, tamari, miso, etc., bring any lidded container from home, such as a Mason jar or Tupperware. To ring you out, the cashier needs only the product number of the bulk item you are buying and the tare weight of your empty container. The co-op provides scales, labels, and pencils. If you forgot your Mason jar, they’ll sell you one.
Myth #4, You have to buy in Paul Bunyan-sized quantities: Buying in bulk doesn’t just mean reduced packaging, it also offers the convenience of buying in the quantities that best suits your needs. So, if you only need a pinch of cream of tartar for that lemon meringue pie you bake but once a year for Easter, you don’t need an entire McCormick tin’s worth. If you pack your own eggs, you can buy as few as one (though if you’re making that meringue, you’ll want to buy four!).
Myth #5, You have to pay for your grocery bags: You don’t have to pay for your grocery bags, but bringing your own canvas or mesh shopping bag for your ride home will earn you a nickel credit. Mississippi Market has added a 10 cent carton charge to the price of a dozen eggs; if your bring your own egg carton you get a 10 cent credit. The Wedge will allow you to bring your own carton from home, but doesn’t give a credit. Though you pay a $1.50 bottle deposit upfront, there is no price difference between buying milk in returnable glass containers and buying it in cartons. Notify the co-op staff when you’ve brought the bottles back so they can return your deposit.
Now you know how to buy what you need to bake your focaccia, and eat it too.