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What is a Food Co-Op?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A food co-op is a collectively owned grocery store. Most frequently, it focuses on making natural foods more affordable for co-op members, although other products may be carried as well. There are a number of different styles co-op, but all of them share common values of group management and decision making, social responsibility, and equality. Towns of all sizes have food co-ops ranging from very small to quite large.

In a private food co-op, only members may shop at the store. In order to become a member, someone pays a small initiation fee and usually invests a set amount of money in the organization to purchase a share. Some co-ops allow members to purchase multiple shares, or require an annual fee, which causes long term members to own more shares. In some cases, members also join work crews, contributing a few hours of work to the running of the co-op. The frequency and duration of work shifts varies from co-op to co-op.

In an open food co-op, anyone may shop at the store, but only members receive discounted prices. Anyone may join the co-op, often receiving benefits on the day that he or she joins. The prices for non-members this type of store can vary widely, but they are often lower than other retail stores in the area, to encourage people to shop at the co-op even if they cannot join.

Members of a food co-op are able to vote on issues which are relevant for the co-op. For example, members may decide that the store should stock only organic products. They may also have an influence on hiring decisions, remodeling, and other management issues. Because coordinating a big group of people can be challenging, this type of organization encourages cooperation, support, and honesty.

In many cases, a food co-op offers reduced fees to people of low income, or allows people to trade work for membership. The goal is to create a community grocery store with a cooperative ethic. The store offers low prices on goods because it tends to have lower overhead, since members work for free. A food co-op may also offer classes and community event space, along with a newsletter for members with information about the co-op and regional events.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon160571 — On Mar 16, 2011

We visited rainbow ranch farms, and our kids just did not want to go home. We bought a wholesale chicken box and 1/2 a pig with our neighbors. They are hard working and honest farmers, and we have had a great experience. Delicious and wholesome food, and we are pleased. --Jessica

By Babalaas — On Jul 03, 2010

@ Fiorite- I am a member of a Health Food Coop and a community supported agriculture (CSA) coop. I pay a monthly fee for a basket from the CSA and receive a specified amount of free-range farm fresh meats, fresh baked breads and pastries, and boxes of in season produce.

I order the specific cuts of meat that I want as well as a specific breads and pastries, but the produce is what is in season. Every month I get something different, and everything is organic.

Another benefit about the CSA is I never get bored with food. I am always getting new herbs and vegetables to experiment with, and there is always enough to give some away to friends. You can also feel good about joining a CSA coop because you are supporting the local economy, and not buying produce shipped halfway around the globe.

It is also a lot cheaper than buying food at the grocery store. I pay about $115 per month for enough for enough fruits, vegetables, meats and breads to last a month.

By Fiorite — On Jul 03, 2010

I used to be a member of a health food coop and it was great. We were getting the same products one would find in Whole foods for about half the price.

My family would get the best organic and minimally processed foods twice a month. We bought in bulk and ordered directly from the food purveyor. Our family would get together with other families to collaborate on orders.

The prices were so cheap because we ordered direct and had the pallets dropped at a local commercial address associated with one of the families. There is no store to maintain, so the only mark-up is that charged by the wholesaler.

In some instances the food purveyor will do drop offs at public places like parks. This is a great way to get healthy foods.

By anon69038 — On Mar 05, 2010

Rainbow Ranch Farms offers heritage, free range, grass fed poultry and it's fresh. They ship all over the USA and they have great customer service, I have been a member for seven months and very pleased.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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