While grocery shopping at a food co-op has become commonplace in my adult life, each visit is a trip down memory lane for me that evokes a distinct childhood recollection. Back then, the food co-op of my town, The Grain Train, was then tucked away in a tiny, creaky, old building. Narrow aisles with tall shelves struggled to squeeze as many products as possible into the minuscule space. Always a little terrified by the spooky noises from the ancient wood floors, I had a single goal when we entered: fruit leather, the natural food answer to the fruit roll-up, and one of my favorite childhood treats. I would carefully deliberate over which was the ideal flavor to choose, and emerge feeling victorious about my healthy snack. Little did I know then that this was the beginning of a lifetime of co-op shopping.
Shopping at a food co-op may seem daunting, overwhelming, or downright intimidating to one who has never experienced it before. Have no fear: they are some of the most welcoming places to shop. Hopefully, this article can give you an introduction, and encourage you to give your local food cooperative a try.
So, what exactly is a food co-op?
At first glance, your local co-op may seem little more than a health food store. Look further, and you’ll find a community of people who are interested in and passionate about what they put in their body, and where that food comes from. Look a little closer still, and you’ll discover that the co-op is a thriving alternative business model – set up to be whatever those who shop there want it to be!
You see, cooperatives (be they food co-ops, credit unions, or housing co-ops) are owned by and operated for their members. Individuals pay a fee to join, and receive benefits and a say in how the business is run in return.
Every co-op operates differently, but the benefits may include special discounts, the ability to vote for the co-op board, discounts at other local businesses (my personal favorite!), a percentage of the profits, and more. The cost of being a member varies with every co-op, but can be as little as $20 per year.
Wait: do I have to be a member?
Of course not!
There are a bundle of bonuses to becoming a member of your local co-op, but the best news is that anyone can shop there.
Why should I shop at a co-op?
Co-ops are created with a focus on the local economy, and therefore source what they can from within their own community. After the farmers market, your town co-op is likely the best place to find fresh local vegetables, and other wonderful regional products.
As people become more and more interested in what they put into their body, food co-ops make it easy! Your area co-op will have a set of buying standards, which generally focus on whole, natural foods.
Co-ops also have the best bulk food selection. Many carry an incredible supply of bulk spices (say goodbye to buying a whole jar of a spice you want just for that one recipe), as well as grains, granola, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, and other treats.
Not yet the foodie you wish you were? Most co-ops will give you a full tour of their store to help get you oriented. Many even have product demonstrations, recipe tastings, and cooking classes to help you reach your culinary dreams.
Above all, shopping at a co-op is a lesson in cultivating community. Food has that special power to bring people together – maybe you’ll meet a new friend along the way!
As a child, my connection to the local food cooperative was all about my favorite after school snack. These days it is about so much more. I go to the co-op because I know that there will always be a friendly face and sense of community, to shop without worrying about what is in my food, for the best selection of local produce and products, and, most of all, because it feels a bit like home. Heck, I own the place!
So, check the list below to see if your community has its own cooperatively owned grocery store. If it does, I challenge you to stop in and take a gander. Maybe one day you’ll own the place too!
Christina Carson – Contributing Writer
Find a Co-op Near You
People’s Food Co-op
214/216 North 4th Avenue
Cass Corridor Food Co-op
456 Charlotte Street
East Lansing Food Co-op
Dibbleville Food Cooperative
106 East Elizabeth Street
Simple Times Farm Market & Buying Club
6081 East Baldwin Road
West Michigan Co-op
1111 Godfrey Southwest
Keweenaw Food Co-op
1035 Ethel Avenue
Hillsdale Family Food Co-op
31 North Broad Street
Brighton Food Cooperative
2715 West Coon Lake Road
Ionia Natural Food Co-op
576 State Street
Northwind Natural Foods Co-op
116 South Suffolk Street
People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo
436 Burdick Street South
Marquette Food Co-op
109 West Baraga Avenue
Green Tree Grocery
214 North Franklin Street
Grain Train Natural Food Market
220 Mitchell Street
Oryana Food Cooperative
250 East Tenth Street
Ypsilanti Food Co-op and River Street Bakery
312 North River Street