Monday, October 12, 2015

Why Food Co-Ops Are Better Than Grocery Stores

I mean it. Better than Trader Joes. Better than Whole Foods. Better than the new Fresh Thyme "Farmers Market" that's going up in the old Dominick's location (yes, I'm talking to you, local readers).

But Jen! Fresh Thyme is an organic store selling local foods! They have "farmers market" in their name! They are helping your cause by getting good food on our tables! How can you talk down about a store that sells the stuff you're always ragging on us to buy??

Because conventional grocery stores, even the organic healthy trendy ones, just. Can't. Compare.

I have good reasons to support co-ops. And so do you.

But let's start at the beginning.

What the heck is a food co-op? In simple terms, it's a food cooperative, or a community-owned grocery store. It is a place to buy truly local, responsibly-grown food, owned and run by members of the community.

A food co-op is democratic. Owners cast votes to make decisions and each owner, regardless of amount of money donated, shares purchased, positions held, or longevity within the organization, may only cast one vote. Food co-ops are held to internationally-recognized principles and revitalize the area around them. They permeate the fibers of the community and weave new bonds, new relationships, and better health into the regions they touch.

The co-op we are trying to build is based on a fairly straightforward set of ideals. We want out of the corporate mess that's become America's food system (Gogurt, anyone?) and in to the fair, body-and-soul nourishing system of truly local foods, education, and participation in our food chain. Our goals include:

Promoting food justice 
Jen Translation: Healthy food is a human right. Our schools should be serving it. Our poor should be able to afford it. The people who provide healthy food for us should be able to provide for themselves. 
Why grocery stores just can't: Ever seen a Whole Foods, Mariano's, or Trader Joes in a poor neighborhood? Me either. Why? It doesn't make business sense. These grocery stores are created for one reason and one reason only - profit. Don't let the flashing "fresh! local! organic! farmers market!" fool you. They want your money. Nothing more. 

Increasing access to healthy food
Jen Translation: Suburban white girl problems: driving to 4 stores and ordering my meat from another state because there's no one-stop shop for the healthy food I want to serve to my family. Reality for thousands living in food deserts across America: it's easier to buy a Coke than an apple. 
Why grocery stores just can't: See above. If they wanted to increase access to healthy food they would build in areas where healthy food is needed the most, not in areas thought to fare best according to sales projections.

Collaborate with local farmers and suppliers
Jen Translation: Plunge money into our local farms so our aging farmers don't get kicked out on their asses and the farmland isn't swept up by Monsanto. Realign the balance between supply and demand so local organic carrots can be as affordable as a Big Mac. Reduce destruction on our planet by reducing the petroleum footprint of our dinner table.
Why grocery stores just can't: Let's say I'm the General Manager of Fresh Thyme. I can either get strawberries from a local (within 25 miles) farm for $3/lb or I can buy strawberries from a local (within 100 miles) farm for $1.50/lb. Which "local" am I going to choose? And what happens in the winter when Mama Caramel Latte wants her organic oranges? Florida is at least in the same country, right?

Enable wise choices with clear labeling and full product disclosure
Jen Translation: Give consumers like me what we need to make truly informed decisions. GMO? Need to know. Truly local? Tell me what farm it came from. Grass-fed? Explain for how long, where they ate, what they ate in the winter, and if they were grain-finished. And motivate those who still think 100% vegetarian-fed chickens are good things to get edjumicated. 
Why grocery stores just can't: Wouldn't want customers to know the "local" berries they're selling are actually from a farm 5 hours away, right? That wouldn't fare well. Can you imagine what would happen if they told us where they got those local oranges in January? Or if they pulled their very best vegetarian-fed eggs from shelves??

Bring sustainable products, services, and education to our community
Jen Translation: A co-op is more than just a store. It's a place to take cooking classes. A place to have pumpkin growing contests. A place to grab a healthy, fast lunch while you're dodging around. A place to learn how to grow your own food, prepare dishes made with in-season produce, a place for single moms to learn how to meal plan, a place for single dads to flirt with hot chicks named Jen...
Why grocery stores just can't: Aside from a super adorable turtle that occasionally entertains our kids while we shop, what do organic food stores give us besides, well, food? When was the last time you walked into a grocery store and learned how to cook a healthy meal....with ingredients you could read......from places you can visit? No? Anybody? 

Strengthen our local economy
Jen Translation: Take co-op profits and put them back into the co-op or the community. One or the other. That's it. 
Why grocery stores just can't: HAHAHAHAHAHA *ahem* sorry. Sorry. Ok so seriously now. Grocery stores are around to make money. They may be owned by honest people. They may be run by men who were once poor immigrants. They may be founded on excellent principles. But they are profit-driven. And every corporate organization has one - a little fat man sitting behind a huge desk somewhere plucking a thread from his $1k tie and checking his stocks online before staring at his secretary's bum and the profits from your recent trip to *insert natural, organic grocery store here* are helping pay for his extramarital affair. You think I'm making this up. I've worked in corporate environments before, people. This is real life. Even the "philanthropic" stores out Fresh Thyme, which will have a "board showing all the organizations we donate to in the local area!" not shoot 100% of profits back into the community. Kudos for them giving a percentage of profits to the community they're in. I'll take their money. But there's a better way to support the community. It's not they way they work. It's the way food co-ops work. 

Pay our workers a living wage
Jen Translation: If you have a full time job, you should be able to afford to keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and good food in your mouth. Here's a handy-dandy chart designed by the powers-that-be in our local elected office. And I betcha they didn't include getting Tommy that new power wheel for Christmas. 

Living Wage Calculation for McHenry County, Illinois
Hourly Wages1 Adult1 Adult 1 Child
Living Wage$11.66$23.53
Poverty Wage$5.00$7.00
Minimum Wage$8.25$8.25
Why grocery stores just can't: Go ahead and google average salaries for employees at your favorite grocery store. Go ahead. I'll wait..... *elevator music*........Back? Good. Did you see what I saw? They makin' $11.66/hour? Don't think so. Likely they're closer to minimum wage, yes? Think profit-driven entities will ever choose to pay more when they can get help for less? 

See what I'm getting at? I love that people are shifting toward organic eating. It's healthier and I believe in supporting it. It's obvious Big Ag has caught on and wants a piece of the all-natural, organic pie. They're enticing the public with words like "farmers market" and "organic" and "local," and our people are falling for it. Hard. My lovely readers, there is a better way to do this. Yes, natural food stores that support our local farmers even minimally are a step in the right direction. But when given a choice between taking a single step and flying half a mile in the right direction, why would we ever choose a single step?

Because it's easier. It's easier to understand a traditional grocery store, with its aisles and aisles of shelves and familiar options. It's easier to justify the cost of food when it's perceived as a "good" bargain with any sort of beneficial undertone, no matter how false or misrepresented. It's easier to treat a grocery store as simply an outlet to buy food.

Let's make the grocery store what it once was - a place for people to buy what they need, the staples, the seasonal produce from the farm next door, pies made in a kitchen, not a factory. A place for people to meet and share stories. A place for people to learn from those who've done it before them. Co-ops do this. They create environments, not grocery stores. They become a part of the community, not just another building absorbing cash from its patrons. And for these reasons, co-ops will always tower over grocery stores. They will always be a better way to purchase what we need. They will always be a worthy investment.

We have everything we need just outside our own front door. Farmers to support. Land to cultivate. Kids to educate. And good food to eat. We just need to be willing to embrace it, support it, and share it.

The food co-op I support is called the Food Shed. You can find more information at We're in the beginning stages but growing fast! Support, share, and be healthy!

Have you ever shopped at a co-op? What did you think? I'd love to hear about your food co-op experiences (or local food sourcing experiences) in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!



  1. Better than Trader Joe's?! Hmmm...

    I always hear about co-ops but never was part of one.

    1. Hahaha it's true! If you find a co-op (especially in the military life, living abroad, Europe is the land of co-ops), go check one out! Well worth the time and I bet you'll love it more than TJs! :)

  2. Fantastic article, Jen! Way to break it down!

    1. Thank you Noelle! Love me some FoodShed! :)

  3. Here in DeKalb the Duck Soup Coop opened 40 years ago, a member owned whole foods market. Sadly it closed this year. Not enough customers. I drive by almost daily and just hang my head.

    1. So sad :( I read that they didn't execute much in the way of advertising and reaching new customers. I wonder if they'd catered more to the college kids and gotten them involved that maybe they would've had better luck? Millennials like me and younger peeps are all about the fresh eating. Gotta fold that new generation into the mix!

      Luckily the FoodShed will be open to the public, not just those who have a membership. It is going to be a beautiful store!

    2. Duck Soup was open to the public, I was there often, but they didn't advertise at all. One of the members said they didn't keep up with the times and offer what people want. And, as you mention, they should have gotten the word out to the community. I lived here for 4 years before I even knew they were there! Not good. Folks are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and I think a bit of advertising would have gone a long way.

      I know the FoodShed is going to be a tremendous success. Hopefully someday there will be a Foodshed store in every county!

    3. Me too! I think it's gonna be awesome when it finally opens!!! :) Thanks for reading and commenting :)

  4. Thanks for the explanations - I never knew what a co-op was! I wonder what we have down here in S Fla. I know it's hard to grow down here with the limestone being so close under the ground. The closest farms to us are 30-40 miles south in Homestead. I've tried to grow but the iguanas destroy everything...I hate that people introduced these pests. Our yard is littered with them, and they're mean. One attacked my daughter with its tail! Anyways, if you have any info about S FLA let me know!

    1. Yes! Thanks Kristen! I didn't know what a co-op was either until I learned of the Food Shed! Such an awesome idea!

      So I did a quick search of co-ops in Florida and unfortunately I couldn't break it down by region - so here is the state list! I don't know how far away these are from you but I thought I'd share anyways! :)

  5. Great informative post. I love the format of the writing, makes it very entertaining and an easy ready. We've brought a co-op to the Texas Medical center, as it's basically a food desert (literally every single hospital has McDonald's). So now workers and students and doctors can get fresh local produce :)

    1. Thank you Natalie :) Best compliment ever! I LOVE that you brought a food co-op to a food desert! That's what it's all about!

  6. We love co-ops! Have participated in the past, but are not currently. You're inspiring me to go back to the good life...thank you!

    1. Thank you Kristen! :) So glad you love them too! They're awesome!!