April 28, 2011

How to shop (and save) at food co-ops – great local, organic deals

I try to buy a lot of organic produce and I really believe in buying local when ever possible. This is just one of the many things we juggle as we balance coupons, sales, and trying to make our budget stretch as far as we can. But I have found that by shopping at my local co-op, I can save much more on organic products than if I shopped at the big box grocery store or a specialty health food store. (See a recent post I wrote, The Grocery Trips You Don’t See. . .)

Co-ops are popping up all over the country and I think they are especially popular here in the Pacific Northwest. I am not a co-op expert, but I will share my experiences based on shopping at my local co-op and a few others here in the Northwest.

A co-op is a group of people or organizations that come together for the benefit of all. They are generally owned by the members, volunteer-based and are generally not in business to make a profit. They are usually run by volunteers (who earn credits or discounts for food and products) and managed by a volunteer board – this keeps prices down! As a member you can volunteer, but it’s not required (at least not at my co-op). The Olympia Food co-op has an open membership policy – which means ANYONE can be a member.

You generally pay a membership fee. First-time shoppers can usually shop without a membership, just to try it out. At the Olympia Co-op regular memberships consist of a one-time $5 fee (non-refundable), plus $24 in dues, which you can pay all at once or at $6 a year. The $24 in dues is fully refundable if you move or stop going to the co-op – what a deal!  FREE memberships are available to seniors, people with disabilities and people with low incomes. A lot of times co-ops honor other food co-op memberships.

Check your local co-op to find out what your fees are.

Getting past the appearance
First thing first – don’t be intimidated. Co-ops aren’t your typical big-box stores. They are generally smaller buildings with much more humble appearances. If I’m going to be completely honest, they aren’t usually the shiniest, cleanest and fanciest of stores. The clientele and the volunteers are different than you’ll see at Winco, Safeway and even Whole Foods – but I’ve always felt welcome and I hope you do too.

My mom, who is a bleach-freak (she bleaches everything) and could care less about organic stuff, wasn’t so comfortable here. So it’s not for everyone. But every co-op is different! I’ve been to co-ops in Oregon that feel more like mini-grocery stores and less “organic”. I love the organic, rustic feeling of my local co-op.

This is the front entrance to the Westside Olympia Co-op store.

This tutorial is based on my experience. Every co-op could be different, it’s just to give you an idea of what you might expect.

  • The specials/deals generally last a month (see Olympia Co-ops special online – PDF)
  • Most co-ops accept manufacturer coupons
  • Look for co-op issues coupon books
  • Bring empty reusable containers for bulk goods or bags for produce

Probably the biggest difference you’ll find when shopping at a co-op, is you’ll need to grab a pencil/paper when you walk in the door because you’ll need to write down the PLU for any produce or bulk items that you buy. The volunteers don’t have all the PLUs memorized like you’ll find at the bigger box stores.

When you walk into the Westside Olympia Co-op this is what you’ll see near the entrance. I recommend grabbing one of each of the numbered items in the photograph:

1.) Specials for the month
2.) Co-op Deals coupon booklet
3.) Paper and pencils
4.) Clipboard to put your paper on

Once you have your paper/pencil/clipboard and your coupon book and specials – you’re ready to go! My store does have little carts and/or hand-held baskets.

Here’s what you’ll expect to see, as far as price tags go. It will generally tell you where the product is from, how much it is and what the PLU is. If you are buying Fuji apples, you’d write down the PLU listed on the tag. You don’t have to worry about weighing them, the cashier will do that.

So from a frugal perspective, you won’t want to do ALL your shopping at the co-op. I try to stick to in-season produce (it’s the best price, naturally) and the special offers for the month. If you stick to those, you’ll get the most bang for your buck. Not all prices are the best, don’t expect rock-bottom prices, but here are some of my favorite frugal areas of my co-op:

It doesn’t get any more frugal than bulk spices (unless you can get them free, of course)! You only buy what you need and it’s generally pennies instead of dollars. You can use the ziplock baggies at the store, but even better, just bring in your spice jars and fill ’em up! Weigh your reusable containers first, on the scales available at the store, to get a beginning weight or a “tare” weight for your reusable containers. This weight will be subtracted from your total weight – so you don’t end up paying for your container weight. Winco also has a great bulk spice section.

Bulk products galore! Both my local co-ops have lots of bulk products. Flour, granola, dried fruit, nuts, grains, beans, tahini, balsamic vinegar, shampoo, and even parmesan cheese – loads of bulk products available, you might be surprised! Bring reusable containers from home (or they have some extras in-store) or they have bags, if you need.

My local stores have reduced produce bins for perishable items that might have a bad spot and/or are nearing the end of their usable life. If you are going to be cooking them up the same day or soon, you can save a bundle! They are all priced at $0.50 cents a pound. Make sure and write down the PLU and tell the cashier they were from the reduced produce bin.

BONUS! FREE Store at Westside Olympia co-op store
The Westside Olympia Co-op has a FREE store. That’s right – everything is FREE. It’s all donation-based, so people drop off items they don’t need anymore and you can just take the things you need. It’s a great give-and-take, and I love the concept. It’s hit or miss if you’ll find a treasure, but it’s always worth a look. I have found some great books, a stainless steel garbage can (brand new) and some baby clothes in the past. It’s hours are volunteer-run, so check the posted sign to see when it will be open. And if you gently used items (not junk) it’s a great place to donate them – you know that nobody is profiting off of them, and they will end up in a good home.


  • Farmer’s Markets – Before too long, Farmer’s Markets will be full-swing for the summer. I seriously heart the Olympia Farmer’s Market, it’s actually one of my first experiences in Olympia and one of the reasons my husband and I chose to move here!
  • CSA – You can join a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, where you basically pre-pay for a farm share. You can pay monthly or in a lump sum and you generally get a weekly box of produce! It’s a great way to get what’s truly in season, support local farmers and save on organic produce. Although the upfront cost is steep (especially for lump-sum plans) you generally end up paying $10-15 a week for a box of organic produce. It’s a great bargain and it’s a win-win that your money is going DIRECTLY to the people growing your food. Makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
  • Other local options – Here in Olympia another great resource is Olympia Local Foods. They partner with local farmers and offer online ordering (which is super slick) and you just pick up your order on Thursdays. Run by a good friend (and couponer) Celia Husmann and her husband Tom, they are good people and they will take good care of you!  (Tell them I sent you!)

Not sure if you have options like this in your community? Google “co-op” and your “city name” and see if that brings up any results. You might be surprised!

Tell me, do you shop your local co-op store (if so, where is your store)? Will you be trying out a nearby co-op?
Do you have any tips for shopping local, at your local co-op or buying organic?


    Leave your comments here...


  1. Do you make use of any CSAs currently? I’ve been considering getting into them, but there are a lot of options and I’m not sure where to go!

    I’ve also heard that people get a lot of unfamiliar produce in their weekly boxes. Is the produce labeled in any way, or would I be guessing what some things are? 🙂

    • Depending on the farm, you could receive a box with a list containing what each item is, or nothing at all. Many CSA’s have recipes in their box. If you are in Olympia I highly suggest Pigman’s Farm! Tell them Celia Husmann sent ya! 😉

      • Also, if you are into mushrooms, an awesome CSA ran by Christian Kaelin (an awesome guy and family BTW) is Provisions Mushroom Farm. They have pickups all over the state!

  2. You’ve inspired me to check the Westside co-op out again! The first and only time I went there was several years ago, and was turned off by high prices and snotty attitudes by the staff. I had no idea that they ran specials, and didn’t notice they had a bulk section either! I think I’m going to stop by this weekend.

    I already love the Freestore though! I’ve picked up baby clothes, books, and a veggie steamer in the past.

  3. Thanks so much for this post, Heather! I will definitely be checking out the Oly Co-Op soon now that I know how it works. I have driven past the one on Pacific literally hundreds of times, but I have never been in.

    I can’t wait for the Farmers Market, either! We have family coming from out of town this weekend, so we might just be there on Sunday.

  4. I love the idea of a co-op, I am only 60 miles north in S Seattle and I can’t seem to find one up here (is that strange, or is it just my google searching?) Do you know of any up here??? I would go as far as Federal Way to the S, Kent to the E, and the City of Seattle to the N. Thanks for all you do, been stalking your blog for about a year, great job!

  5. I love our local co-op (which is in Oregon AND has a rustic, organic feel by the way 🙂 and I love that you posted this! I’ve watched a couple episodes of Extreme Couponing now and was starting to wonder if any extreme couponers ate fresh, organic food. I’m glad to hear you do! My favorite thing about shopping at the co-op is bringing my own reusable containers to fill with exactly the amount I need of a particular bulk item (especially the spices).

  6. Thankyou so much for the info! We are closer to Yelm and love the co-op there but have wanted to stop in this one too!!



  1. […] – I recommend picking them up in the bulk spice section of your local Winco, Fred Meyer or co-op. A little bit goes a long way – and your house will smell AMAZING! You can also look for […]

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