Tuesday, February 16, 2010

how to buy real food at the co-op without going broke!

I really believe it's worth it to buy real food that isn't processed and has come from actual farms in your local community. Often though, I hear people saying that organic food is too expensive. It definitely may be true that organic food is much more expensive then conventionally farmed food you find at big box grocery stores like Walmart or Cub Foods. However, if you check out a local food co-op, armed with some knowledge on how to shop effectively there, I think you might be pleasantly surprised to find that local, and even organic food does not have to be overly pricey.

I spent about 45$ on the food in my picture. I came home with over 1 lb of bacon, 1 lb of local and pastured pork breakfast sausage, 1/2 pint raw apple cider vinegar, 1lb of freshly ground, organic and fair-trade java from local roaster Peace Coffee, 1/2 lb of garlic stuffed olives, local green cabbage, bulk dried spices (coriander powder and sage), a pint of local and grass-fed Cedar Summit Farm cream, cashews and dried cherries in bulk, salad greens, and of course 90g of 77% dark chocolate!

Here are my tips and tricks for shopping at local co-ops in the Twin Cities. I don't do all our grocery shopping at just one co-op, I generally go to a few different co-ops, Coastal Seafoods for the freshest fish, Clancy's butcher shop for grass-fed meats, and sometimes Whole Foods or Trader Joe's throughout the month. In the summer the best deal for produce is always at a farmer's market, and it's the freshest.

Tips for Co-op Shopping on a Budget:

1. Look for local, bulk produce rather then pre-packaged veggies and fruits shipped from far away. If it's winter and you live in the Far North like I do, check out the selection of organic, frozen veggies. Sno Pac is an inexpensive local brand here in Minnesota that has great quality.

2. Don't buy anything in a box! This really is the best way to eat healthy food and save money. Things in a box include crackers, pasta, breakfast cereal, cookies, toaster waffles, etc. Don't buy them and you won't need to eat them! That being said, we do of course, sometimes have rice crackers and the like, it's just no longer essential to me to have a cupboard stocked with "snacks" that come in packages.

3. Buy everything you can in bulk. I save a lot buying in bulk vs. buying the exact same foods pre-packaged. Things you might find in bulk include; fresh veggies and fruit, dried grains and flours, sea salt, local honey and maple syrup, cooking oils, coffee and tea, eggs, meat and cheese that are packaged by the co-op itself, nuts, legumes, seeds, dried fruit, herbs and spices, chocolate chips, baking supplies and household cleaning products, to name a few!

I'll be sharing more budget-conscious tips for buying real food at ethical, community based grocers in the future. In the meantime, please tell me about your awesome local co-ops and what the best buys are there.

I'm sharing this with the Nourishing Gourmet's Pennywise Platter and Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.


  1. Great tips! And I'm curious how you got a Trader Joe's in MN but we still don't have one in Billings? :o) Cutting out boxed foods has helped me stay on budget too.

  2. we actually have 2 tjs within 15 miles of minneapolis. its funny but mpls is like the organic/natural foods capital of the usa, we have the largest consumer-owned co-op in the country and dozens of co-ops and hfs throughout the state. when i travel, unless its in california, im sadly surprized to not find a co-op on every corner!

  3. I miss trader joes so much! I have to agree with #2 - that is the biggest way to cut back on grocery expenses when eating organic, local (when possible), sustainably raised foods. we don't have a lot of co-ops in my areabut during the spring/summer/fall, there are numerous farmers markets/csa/locally raised meat. You just have to shop around and use the internet/word of mouth!

  4. I enjoy buying and eating healthy foods for our family of 7, but boxed cereal is one thing my family cannot seem to give up. What do people eat for breakfast when boxed cereal is removed from the choices?

  5. NanaV- our three boys generally eat an egg, prepared to thier liking (of course they have to each have a different way they like eggs!), a piece of bacon, a glass of milk, and maybe a slice or two of fruit.

    my husband likes oatmeal sometimes, so i buy thick rolled oats in the bulk section of the co-op where they are about 1.00$/lb, soak them overnight in whey and water, then the oats cook up in less than 5 minutes in the morning. i make sure to serve it with plenty of milk or cream, butter and some chopped nuts so that breakfast for my husband is protien packed and has enough good fats to sustain him on his bike ride to work.

    my baby and i often have one of these things;
    salsa and eggs
    grain-free granola and yogurt

  6. I shop at co-ops infrequently, mainly the St. Paul Farmer's market and the nearby Cub but these are great tips for shopping anywhere.

    As to NanaV's question, check out a post by the Crafty Lass this week. Suggestion #1 would be a great breakfast alternative. http://acraftylass.blogspot.com/2010/02/whole-grain-mix.html

  7. I work at a food co-op myself - one that is also a member of the NCGA! (The Co-Op Advantage thing)

    It's such a wonderful experience, and I really recommend everyone takes Emily's advice to heart; Co-Ops reinvest in the community as well as give you power in that when you become a member, you become part owner.

    It's a win-win situation - super win when you discover the ridiculous savings of the bulk aisle and all the wonderful local foods you have easy access to.

  8. aaron- i worked at 2 local co-ops for a total of 4 years, those were my favorite jobs! plus employees got a 15% discount!

  9. Touché, Emily, well said! Good, real, local food only seems expensive; the real costs of the "other kind"--in environmental impact, health care, cost to community--are never revealed.

    NanaV: Our breakfasts are often homemade granola--cheap, delicious, wholesome...and crunchy.


  10. Do you go to Traditional Foods MN? They're another local-sourcing place that can have some good deals.

  11. gina- yeah, i have a membership to tfmn, however, thier priceson things i get there- wilderness family naturals mayo, coconut oil, eggs, arent a savings over buying these items either online, at a co-op, at the farmers market, or at whole foods. i could go on, but basically, i love the idea of a tf buying club, i just dont fin the one here to be terribly convenient.

  12. This is such a great post. 2 things I would like to add, the first is make a menu plan- if you know what you are going to eat for the week, or month you save so much money, and space in your kitchen. The second is you can always buy direct from the farmer. For example you can buy from Pastures A Plenty monthly as they have several direct buy drop offs, you can go to cedar summit and buy milk, butter, cheese, and meat from their creamery. Or you can find a small farmer who maybe is not certified organic but is farming organically and buy right from them. The other suggestion I have is in the summer when you go to the farmers market make friends with the egg people, or the meat people and see if you can continue to buy all year. Can and freeze your veggies from your own garden, or from the farmers market- okay that was more then 2 but there are so many ways to save money and still eat healthy.