You may have noticed a local store called a “food co-op” or “member-owned grocery” and thought you couldn’t shop there without paying a big fee or getting mixed up in some kind of hippie thing.
I felt suspicious when my brother got obsessed with co-op shopping in Minneapolis in 1999. I thought it was weird that his kitchen was filled with foods in hand-labeled jars instead of factory-sealed packages. Would joining a co-op really help me save money on real food like Katie saves at Aldi?
But within two years, my local co-op became a crucial part of my shopping routine. Now my pantry looks like this! As a good Kitchen Steward, I’m excited to share with you why shopping at co-op is good for your budget and can help you get healthy food for your family!
The truth is that almost all co-ops welcome shoppers who aren’t members.
Although a co-op usually focuses on natural foods and treading lightly on the environment, you’ll find plenty of ordinary people shopping there, not just dreadlocked vegans. Most co-ops sell locally, sustainably raised meat and dairy products as well as vegetarian alternatives.
A co-op is simply a business owned and run by and for its members. Anyone can join. Everyone gets to vote on how the business is run, either by voting directly on decisions or by electing officers.
I love shopping at the East End Food Co-op here in Pittsburgh! Members get a 2% discount every day and a 10% discount on 1 shopping trip per 3 months–you choose when to use your 10%.
Membership requires a one-time, refundable fee of $100. It’s not like Costco where you pay every year. You pay once, and when you’re done being a member, you can ask for that money back! (Other co-ops’ details vary, but general policies are similar.)
East End is a member of Co-op Stronger Together, a network of co-ops that pool their buying power to get members better prices. It organizes monthly sales and coupons. Here’s a map of member co-ops around the United States.
Shopping at the co-op is much like shopping in any other grocery store, but there are a few unusual features. Here are my tips for co-op success!
Get Your Gear Before You Go
I bring reusable shopping bags to most stores. When I’m going to the co-op, though, I pack those reusable bags with empty containers. Although I do buy some packaged foods, most of my co-op haul comes from the bulk section.
At a co-op, buying “in bulk” doesn’t mean buying a huge amount! It’s the co-op that bought a lot, and the savings are passed on to you. Use any packaging you choose for the amount of food you choose to take from a big bin.
Because each bulk-food jar requires a sticker, we use the same jar repeatedly until the sticker is unreadable or we decide not to buy that food anymore. After we use the food, the empty jar gets washed if necessary, and then we store them on a shelf in the dining room.
Before going to the co-op, I check which jars are empty. I make sure I’m bringing containers for all the bulk foods on my shopping list. Other empties might not need to be refilled yet, depending on how many containers we have for that food.
Let’s say there’s an empty oregano bottle. If the oregano in our spice cabinet is running low, and there isn’t a spare oregano in the pantry, it’s time to refill! Checking all these things can get tedious, so when we have a lot of empties I actually make a list before going down to the basement pantry.
Why take the time to reuse bags, jars, and bottles?
- It’s a lot better for the environment! Washing and sterilizing a glass container uses much less energy than making a new one, even from recycled glass. The difference is more dramatic for plastic, which recycles very inefficiently.
- We decide what type and size of container is best for us.
- Glass jars keep food fresher than the packages the food is typically sold in. Consider the difference between brown sugar in a glass jar and brown sugar in an open plastic bag held shut with a clip, after 2 months in your cupboard.
- Glass, metal, or heavy plastic containers with tight-fitting lids keep moths, weevils, and mice out of your food!
- For things we store up high or might drop, or for gifts that will be mailed, we use lightweight, unbreakable plastic containers. But these don’t have to come from the same kind of food! We can put tea in a washed-out (and thoroughly dried) vitamin bottle, and that screw-on lid will keep it much fresher than a cardboard box would.
- We can choose small jars for things we buy in small amounts so that they don’t take up more storage space than necessary.
- Glass is inert…and plastic is not. Plastic food packaging can leach harmful chemicals into food.
We also buy local milk in refillable glass bottles, so I pack those into my bag, and here’s the first thing I do when I get to the co-op:
Swap Milk Bottles for Store Credit
Our co-op sells milk from Brunton Dairy, which is only 30 miles away and gets all its milk from cows right there on its farm in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The milk is processed at the farm and put into half-gallon glass bottles which we return for refilling–so there’s no paper carton or plastic jug to recycle.
The cows do not get hormones. (There’s no official statement about antibiotics or grazing–but the fact that the cows live on a small farm suggests that they get to eat grass outdoors in season. The milk is not certified organic.)
Another great thing about Brunton Dairy milk is the price! It’s only $3.29 per half-gallon— the same price as the cheapest certified organic milk in our area. That big-brand organic milk may have been trucked from far away, losing nutrients in the process.
The first time we bought Brunton Dairy milk, we paid a fully refundable deposit of $2 per bottle. When we finish a bottle, we rinse it and let it drain until dry. At the co-op, we turn in our milk bottles at Customer Service and get a laminated ticket for each one. Then we get full bottles of milk and give the tickets to the cashier to show that we’ve already paid the deposit.
If we decide to stop buying this milk, Customer Service will give us $2 for each bottle we return. The only way we’ll lose the deposit is if we break or misplace a bottle. So far, that hasn’t happened–the glass is thick, not very fragile.
I put the milk tickets in my wallet on top of my co-op member card so I’ll remember to hand them over at check-out.
Overall, 64% of milk sold at the East End Food Co-op is locally sourced. Above the milk I’m buying, you see milk from Turner Dairy, which is located just 7 miles from the co-op and processes milk from farms within 70 miles. Turner’s milk is less expensive than Brunton’s but is in disposable plastic jugs.
Hit the Hot Food?
This is an optional step that I usually don’t take. But if I’m hungry when I get to the co-op and not in a hurry, I’ll get a meal or snack in the Co-op Cafe.
Visiting other cities, I’ve found that a food co-op is one of the most reliable places to get a healthy, quick meal! Most co-ops have a hot food bar and/or salad bar and/or prepared foods. East End has all of the above, plus fresh juices and coffee!
Ready-to-eat foods are typically sold by weight–so watch out! Your meal can get expensive if you scoop up too many heavy foods.
Juices are pricey, too. But a cup of coffee at East End is just $1.75— the same price as many restaurants whose coffee isn’t organic and fair-trade!
Many co-ops offer a dining area and real dishes. Eating in is much better for the environment than using disposable take-out containers! If you know you’ll be buying food to take home from the salad bar or hot bar, bring your own container and weigh it empty so the cashier can subtract its weight from the price.
Prepared foods in the deli case and bakery are great for inspiration, combining flavors in a way I’d never considered. Because all the ingredients are listed, I may be able to figure out how to make it myself! But I don’t buy prepared foods often because they’re expensive and packed in plastic.
My partner Daniel highly recommends this spinach-and-feta pie! Made by Najat’s Cuisine Authentic Lebanese Food in East Pittsburgh (5 miles from the co-op), it’s tasty, all-natural, and filling, for just $3.49! You can heat it up in the microwave in the dining area or take it home to heat in the oven. East End Food Co-op also sells Najat’s excellent pita bread.
Pick Some Produce
East End’s produce section is almost all organic! (Anything conventionally grown is very clearly labeled.) They sell local products whenever possible. For produce that’s in season, prices can be quite reasonable. I love browsing to see what’s a good deal today and where it came from. Look, a kale sale!
Pennsylvania is America’s largest producer of mushrooms. We can always get local, organic mushrooms for a good price at our co-op, and they aren’t in a wasteful plastic box like at the supermarket–we’ve been reusing plastic produce bags, and this year we’re trying washable produce bags. Did you know that even simple stir-fried ordinary white mushrooms contain lots of minerals and B vitamins?
Bulk Bin Basics
Bulk bins provide a wonderful opportunity to get the discount for buying a large amount of food (which the co-op bought from its supplier) while paying only for the portion you choose to take. East End offers hundreds of bulk foods, as well as bulk liquid soaps. They even have healthier versions of treats like candy-coated pretzels, fig bars, and m&m’s (SunDrops)!
Most co-ops let you decide whether to refill your own containers or use containers they provide or sell. (Some cannot allow refilling because of local laws.)
East End offers all these options: If you forgot your container, you can grab a glass jar that the cashier will charge you for, or you can have a free clear plastic tub, plastic produce bag, small zip-top plastic bag, or small paper bag.
Many bulk foods are in bins with a scoop. Things like lentils, tea, coffee, honey, and cooking oils are in gravity-feed bins: Put the mouth of your container around the spout and push the lever to dispense. Most spices and herbs are in half-gallon glass jars, and spoons are provided for scooping into your little spice bottles. Liquid soaps and lotions are in pump bottles.
It takes a little practice to get good at refilling your containers without spilling! I didn’t let my son help until he was 6 years old and had been observing my techniques for years. Of course, the store expects some spills, but do your best to avoid wasting things, and clean up as best you can. (East End has a sink with paper towels in the bulk section.)
I wrote a long article about buying bulk food in reused containers, with lots of detail about how to do it and why. Many foods cost less in East End’s bulk section than at the supermarket, but others don’t. Some of the prices have gone up since I wrote that, but most of the price comparisons still hold. (One exception: Bulk raisins are now more expensive than organic raisins in a big package at other stores. But we still like the co-op’s raisins better and try to stock up when they’re on sale.)
Here are some quick tips for the bulk section:
- Spices, herbs, and loose teas tend to be much cheaper in bulk–about 1/5 the price of the same amount in a package!
- Your own containers need to be weighed when empty so that their weight can be subtracted from their filled weight and you’ll only pay for the food.
- Some stores ask you to bring your containers to Customer Service to be weighed by an employee. East End trusts you to weigh them in the bulk section and write the correct weight on the label–but if you forget, you’ll be charged the food price for your container’s weight!
- If your reused container still has a barcode on it, put the co-op label over the barcode to avoid confusion.
- Each bin has a Price Look-Up number, which the cashier uses to look up the price per pound. Make sure to write the PLU number on your container!
- For foods dispensed from gravity-feed bins, make sure your container’s opening fits around the spout so the food doesn’t fly out or drip down the side! I’ve messed up on this a few times. I wrote, “Get a bigger jar!” on the label to remind me not to use that one again.
- When filling a spice bottle from a jar with a spoon, set the bottle inside the lid of the bulk jar so that any stray bits fall into the lid. Shake them back into the jar when you’re done.
- Take a spoon from the Clean Spoons bin and, after scooping, place it in the Used Spoons bin. Nobody wants cayenne pepper in the peppermint!
- If you choose to grind your coffee, measure the coffee beans keeping in mind that they will be fluffier when ground. Keep running the grinder until no more comes out. This prevents the next person from getting some of your variety of coffee mixed in with theirs.
- If you must put food into plastic bags, double-bag to avoid tears that would waste your food. The outer bag will be clean, so you can reuse it.
- East End offers wide, papery twist-ties for bags of bulk food. Write the bin number on there, and you don’t have to fill out a sticker!
A new feature in East End’s bulk section is this kombucha filling station! I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m intrigued.
The greatest green tea!
On this visit before Christmas, I bought green tea for my mom. She drinks at least one cup per day of this organic gunpowder green tea. “Gunpowder” means the leaves curl into tight little balls when dried; they uncurl in hot water. A little of this tea goes a long way: This 2-cup container (which cost $8.12 to fill) will last my mom about 4 months.
Green tea may help to slow the progress of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. My mom’s daily green tea habit began when she was diagnosed in 2004. Her doctors said it would be 5-10 years before she got really sick. Instead, 13 years after diagnosis, her white blood cell count is down to normal! She says it’s the green tea. This kind isn’t sold in her town, so I make sure she stays stocked up!
Note from Katie: Obviously none of us are doctors or anything important here; we’re just sharing our stories. Take our advice with a grain of Real Salt!
Green tea has many other health benefits, too! I’m glad we can get this tasty, organic variety at a reasonable price, with no wasteful teabags.
When I’ll be mailing tea (or other bulk food), I use the clear plastic pint or quart containers that Chinese take-out soup comes in. We don’t get take-out very often, but the containers can be hand-washed and reused many times. They’re sturdier than the plastic containers the co-op offers, and the lids stay on really well.
Is bulk food unsanitary?
I try not to think about the possibility that my fellow shoppers might touch some of the food with dirty hands or sneeze into the bin! If I ever develop an immune-system disorder, I’ll limit my bulk purchases to things that I cook before eating.
If you have celiac disease or a life-threatening food allergy, bulk food may not be a wise choice. It’s possible that dust from the food you can’t have could scatter onto the bin of the food you want and then get into the food when someone opens the bin. (This type of cross-contamination could be happening in your own kitchen as well!)
For most people, though, I think bulk food is pretty safe. After all, a little germ exposure is good for us!
Packaged Food: What I Do and Don’t Buy
East End Food Co-op sells a full range of boxed, bagged, bottled, and canned foods–natural, organic, and/or local versions of stuff you’d find in any supermarket. A lot of these are competitively priced. When I’m shopping the co-op, I’ll get most of the things on my list there.
But just because a food product is more natural than the supermarket version doesn’t mean it’s good for your health, your budget, or our environment! The co-op sells cookies, chips, “fruit snacks,” soft drinks, and instant soups that might be made with organic ingredients and no artificial coloring–but they’re still over-packaged junk food. I don’t buy that stuff.
When we want healthy-ish treats, I get things from the bulk section so we’re at least skipping the packaging. (In addition to the fig bars and yogurt pretzels pictured above, I recommend the bulk sesame sticks–protein, fiber, and delicious toasty flavor!)
Organic yogurt is affordable at our co-op, but butter and cheese are priced too high for me. I understand that organic dairy production is expensive and gets more so for these “value-added” products. I know that organic cheese would be better for us and the Earth than supermarket cheese–but I just can’t bring myself to pay 4 times as much for food that will spoil more quickly than conventional cheese!
One packaged food my family eats a lot but never buys at the co-op is breakfast cereal. We sometimes get bulk granola when it’s on sale, but we never buy a box of cereal at the co-op because it’s so expensive! Another issue here is that the co-op only sells smallish boxes of cereal, so even if the cereal itself is more environmentally friendly than Cheerios, there’s a lot more cardboard and plastic per serving.
Usually, I resist the lure of the co-op’s well-stocked chocolate department! But for Christmas, this is a great place to get organic, fair-trade candy for stocking stuffers. In addition to chocolates, I really like Panda natural licorice in both licorice and real-fruit flavors.
There are also many fancy, gourmet packaged foods at the co-op that I would only reluctantly consider for the most special occasions–$9 jars of fennel jam and so forth.
Several Savings Strategies
Healthier foods sometimes cost more than the over-processed, artificial, pesticide-tainted alternatives. But there are lots of ways to cut your costs! Buying from the bulk section is a big help, and here are some other penny-pinching tips:
It Pays to Be a Member
East End Food Co-op’s $100 membership fee buys you a 2% discount–plus 10% off 4 shopping binges per year. $100 is 2% of $5,000. My family spent $3,850 on groceries in 2010; considering inflation, our new family member, and our older kid’s growing appetite, I’m sure we spend more than $5,000 a year now! But we only buy maybe 1/4 of our total groceries at the co-op.
Even if it took us 4 years to save as much money from the member discount as we spent on the membership fee, it’s a one-time, refundable fee! We’ve been co-op members for 16 years now, so our membership has paid for itself at least 4 times over–and we can get back every cent any time we want. It’s really a better deal than Costco.
Shop the Non-Food Sections
Most food co-ops also carry natural and eco-friendly health-and-beauty products and household products. Our co-op has pretty good prices on plant-based dish and laundry detergent, kitchen supplies like unbleached waxed paper, essential oils for deodorizing our home, and reusable feminine hygiene gear. We refill our bottles of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, which we use in the shower and for refilling hand-soap foamers.
When I’m looking for a moisturizer, sunscreen, insect repellent, or anything else to rub on our skin, the co-op always has a wider range of safe products than any other store in town. They carry brands I can’t find anywhere else except online–and I’d rather support a local business than buy online, when possible.
These “better” products can be more expensive than the mainstream versions. Often, though, I’ve found that the products I buy at the co-op are more concentrated than mainstream brands: A bottle lasts a long time! Look for bargains in the clearance bins.
Our co-op carries a huge variety of herbal and nutritional supplements, both in bulk and in bottled capsules. Some are more competitively priced than others. Comparison shopping pays off!
East End Food Co-op also has an eclectic book department and lots of other items that make great gifts: natural lip balms and bath potions, organic socks, fun reusable water bottles and lunch kits, helpful kitchen gadgets . . . . I always check out the co-op for my Christmas shopping!
Buy a Case to Save 20%!
Another benefit of co-op membership is the opportunity to order a case. You can even get products that aren’t stocked on the co-op’s shelves, if any of the suppliers the co-op buys from carries the product you want. Your price is 20% lower than the retail price for which the co-op would sell the items in your case. You save money and save shopping time!
I’ve been surprised at how conveniently small a “case” is for some products: a 5-pound bag of Equal Exchange coffee, 6 boxes (120 teabags) of Celestial Seasonings tea, 12 Primal Spirit mushroom jerkies. Those are amounts my family of 4 can use!
Other products’ cases are big, but that’s just fine for things we can store long-term and use gradually. I love buying toilet paper only once a year!
East End members can order a case by phone or in person at the customer service desk. They’ll call you when it arrives. On your next visit to the co-op, ask for your case at customer service, go do your shopping while they get the case from the stockroom, stop back at the desk to pick it up, and pay for it at checkout with the rest of your groceries. Simple!
Co-op Means Community
Although food co-ops in other cities are similar, each one is rooted in the local area and the interests of its members. My co-op connects me to local farms, other great eco-friendly businesses like Construction Junction and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, and member discounts for things like yoga classes and massage. East End Food Co-op also has its own credit union.
I might bump into someone I know at any grocery store. But at the co-op, even people I don’t know feel like friends. We sometimes chat about what to buy and how to use it. When I recognize “co-op people” somewhere else, we wave and smile at each other. There’s something about sharing this food system that enhances our feeling of being all in this together, part of a sensible system working toward healthy food and a clean planet for everyone!
If you’re in Pittsburgh, check out my tips specific to East End Food Co-op!
Don’t have a Food Co-op Nearby? Save Money Other Ways…
- Costco vs. Aldi Where’s the Best Deal?
- What Does a Real Foodie Buy at Costco?
- 25 Reasons a Real Foodie Should Shop at Aldi
- Frugal Money Saving Tips
- How I Slashed $400 off my Real Food Grocery Budget