Organic Consumers Association


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Join or Start Your Own Buying Club

  • Find a Buying Club Near You (United Buying Clubs services 37 states)
  • Tips for Buying Clubs
  • A Food Buying Club Primer

    For Access to Healthy Food at Low Prices, Start a Food Buying Club

    by Kim De Lallo
    Natural Life Magazine #63

    Food buying clubs are about more than just saving money. They are also about creating community.

    A food buying club or co-op is an association of people who get together in order to purchase food. As a group, their purchasing power increases and allows them to access the wholesale marketplace, which is usually prohibited to individuals. By buying through wholesale distributors or directly from farmers, the food buying clubs can save money. The food buying clubs place pre-orders with the distributors and buy for their own consumption. Food buying clubs or co-ops are not retail food co-operatives, which tend to have a storefront and buy goods for resale.

    Food buying clubs first became popular in the 1970’s for pretty much the same reasons people participate in them today. Many people want better quality and often organically grown food, and they want better prices. Circumventing the supermarket and going directly to the wholesale distributor and the farmer are the best ways to do this. There is some work and time involved in participating in a buying club, but there are lots of perks along the way.

    Food buying clubs are an international phenomenon and are strongly linked to the co-operative movement. For example, in Japan, han groups are known as consumer co-operatives, and they operate like a food buying club. Some han groups get involved in product testing and development, which can influence the marketplace. In the United States, there are thousands of food buying clubs, often known as food co-ops. Many of the US and Canadian food buying clubs are connected to the co-operative distributors.

    The Ontario Natural Food Co-op, also known as the Ontario Federation of Food Co-operatives and Clubs Inc., is a co-operative distributor that has been promoting food buying clubs in Eastern Canada since 1975. Co-op D’Alentour is a co-operative distributor in Quebec. In Western Canada, PSC Natural Foods worker co-op sells to buying clubs. There are literally hundreds of food wholesalers in Canada; some will sell to food buying clubs, many do not.

    Most wholesale distributors deal in large volumes. Each one has its own unique policy and terms. Some require vendor permits or other official documentation. Others only require that you fill in an application in order to start an account. When dealing with a local farmer, the club will work out the details of delivery or pick-up and may even establish an exchange of labour for food.

    Although there are many ways to run a food buying club, there are basically two models. One is a co-ordinator model, the other is a co-operative model. In the co-ordinator model, there is one person who takes the lead organizing the club, makes key decisions, and is responsible for most of the work, although they may delegate some the tasks to the members. In the co-operative model, members work together, each taking on a role and ensuring that their tasks are completed. Decisions are made as a group. In the co-operative model, skills and knowledge needed to run the club are shared amongst the club members.

    In both models, a community is created. Often the discussions will centre on the food: recipes are exchanged, unique products are discovered, and health-related information is shared. Members learn from each other and share their own stories. In many buying clubs, there is a sense that the group is achieving something very special.