One Sustainable Change: Join your local food co-op

After taking a look through my pantry, I compose a shopping list. Buckwheat flour, cumin seeds, sun-dried tomatoes, raw cacao……the list goes on. Then gathering up a container for each, I pack my shopping bags, load them on my bike and enjoy twenty minutes of sunshine as I ride.

Arriving at my destination I order a Fair-trade coffee, open my laptop and sit down to a couple of hours of client work as I savour the brew. Around me students chat over $5 organic lunches, lounging on mismatched secondhand furniture which has a lovely retro charm. Succulents grow in repurposed tea pots and on each table, organic sugar in reused jars.

Food Co-op Community Cafe

After a couple of hours I take a break, and puruse the shop, and weigh my containers before filling them with organic goodies from bulk bins. Before long I have what I need, and take them up to the counter. I chat with the volunteer shop assistant as she updates my volunteering hours in the system. Those few hours spent sharing articles and recipes on the store Facebook and Pinterest accounts were easy to fit into my schedule as a busy mum, and they are worth a 15% discount on my groceries.

This is how I go about my fortnightly shop at my local food co-operative the the Food Co-op Shop & Cafe. The food stocked here is organic, fair-trade when possible, locally grown when available, unprocessed and unpackaged. I can make a major impact to the sustainability of my lifestyle with this one simple act of shopping at the co-op.

Compare this experience to shopping under the glaring lights, blaring muzack and beeping of the checkout system in a supermarket. Instead of a reluctant chore, my grocery shopping is a pleasant outing that I look forward to.

Food Co-operatives are consumer-owned alternatives to the industrial food system which is almost completely controlled by ten multinational conglomerates. These multinationals squeeze profits from farmers and get consumers hooked on highly processed, nurient deficent and disease-inducing convenience foods. Even when you choose to eat well, shopping at a supermarket for fruit and veges often means fresh food that is unnessecarily wrapped in plastic, whilst farmers who supply the stores are contractually required to bin their ‘ugly’ produce. You can’t shop at a conventional supermarket without contributing to this massive food waste. Food co-ops, on the other hand, aim to restore justice to the food system, putting more power into the hands of the consumer, and giving farmers a better deal. They are typically member-owned and run enterprises, not-for-profit, and usually sell bulk, organic, locally-grown and minimally processed/packaged natural foods. Because they are not run for profit, the food is sold at the most affordable price possible. Often most of the staffing jobs are done by member volunteers as a condition of membership or in exchange for a member discount.

Root veges at my food co-op

There are food co-ops  throughout ‘Western’ world, and there is a good chance that you have one in your community. Shopping at a food co-op helps you to buy out of a highly unsustainable globalised food system. The problems in the food system are very simillar to those in fashion, and anything that you can do to support a more ethical and sustainable alternative will make a positive difference. For a thorough understanding of the global food system, and why food justice is essential, I highly recommend reading Stuffed & Starved by Raj Patel.

But food justice aside, even the simple act of buying unpacked goods will make a tangible impact on the sustainability of your lifestyle. There is a signficant amount of carbon needed to manufacture plastics and carboard to package food. The raw materials are often transported across the globe and back again before packaging your food and then travelling to your local store. Plastics in particular are a major problem as much of the plastic covering your food is non-recyclable. That is without considering the health impacts of plastic wrapping your food.

Food Co-op Toiletries

If you are used to shopping a large range of convenience foods, even if they are wholefoods versions, shopping in your food co-op may take a bit of getting used to. You might prefer to phase in some new food habits so that you can phase in your bulk food shopping over time. Instead of a muesli bar or premade biscuits for morning tea, try switching to some almonds, dried apricots and a little dark chocolate. Instead baking muffins from a packet mix, find a simple recipe and pick up the ingredients from the bulk bins. Your health will thank you if you make these simple changes, as will the planet.

Joining a food co-op is a great way to be more involved in your local community. It isn’t surprising that community comes up time and time again when making changes to a more sustainable lifestyle. This is no exception. An active community is a key element in our sustainable future. If you don’t have a co-op close to you, why not set one up with a couple of your neighbours? You don’t need to set up a shop- start small and chose a couple of bulk goods (such a flour, sugar, lentils) that you all wish to share, and bulk buy from a wholesaler. Most food co-ops were started in this way and grew over time. Connect with some friends in your local community and make this sustainable change together.

If a co-op isn’t an option for you, you can still reduce the carbon footprint of your groceries by choosing bulk goods over individually packaged ones, and trying to eat wholefoods instead of processed and prepackaged ones. Any change that you can make in this direction is a positive one, no matter how small.

Back at my local co-op a fortnight later, this time with my two little boys in tow. They go straight for the box of second hand toys, whilst I do my shop. My older son delights in helping me fill up the jars with nuts and dried fruit. We enjoy a raw dessert in the co-op cafe before heading home. This beats the stress, overstimulation and tantrums that accompany shopping excursions in the mall. Convenience in modern shopping is a falsity that you begin to understand when you have little children in tow. I find the alteratives far more pleasant. I am sure that you will too.

Food Co-op Groceries at Home

Besides, could supermarket foods ever look as appealing as my co-op shopping does in my carefully collected reused jars?

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  • such a great suggestion! there was a small co-op down the street while i was in college, but that was long before i understood the realities of our food system and before i could appreciate the co-op’s value. at the time, as a broke college student, i just saw prices that were more expensive than the regular grocery store and only shopped there once. now that i know better, i wish i still lived near one! it would be way more pleasant, and much closer to how i would want to spend my money, on whole foods in low-waste packaging.

    • Co-ops are so often attached to, or close by, colleges and universities. My local co-op is on the edge of my university, but I actually didn’t start shopping there until years I graduated. Like you I didn’t fully appreciate the issues. I am lucky enough to still close by.

      Such a shame that you don’t have one close by. But perhaps there are some small changes you can make in that direction, even if it to just try replacing items with more packaging to items with less. Or maybe you can find a co-op that is a day trip away, and just do a big shop of non-perishable goods every month or two. Any little change you can make- no mater how small it seems- will still make a difference over the long run. Good luck finding the small changes that work for you and where you are living now. We all do the best that we can with the circumstances that we have to work with, don’t you think?

      • yes, all we can do is the best we can. i never thought of making a day out of it though, that would be nice! i can even hop on the train! thanks for the idea!

        • That is so wonderful Taylor! I love hearing that people find my suggestions helpful or valuable. I hope the daytrip becomes the highlight of your month :)

  • Britney V Bankhead

    Where is the best place to find local co-ops? I’m having a hard time finding one close to me.

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  • Insightful write-up. You paint a wonderful picture to an alternative to traditional grocery shopping.