My Co-op Education

My sister, Ashley, lives in a town just outside of Dallas and she has been in a produce co-op for a few years.  I love fresh produce, so I’ve always loved hearing about what she’s gotten in her stash every other week.  When I visit her house, I love to check out a certain area of her kitchen where she keeps all her co-op goodies.  I’m just fascinated by all the good stuff she gets for a mere $10.  Ten bucks.  That’s it.  The more I saw evidence of and heard about her co-op, the more interested I became and started wishing we had one here that I could join.  I’ve heard of exactly zero co-ops in this area.  We’ve got the Farmer’s Market (which I love, but is only open seasonally) and grocery stores.  Or you can attempt – in my case, unsuccessfully – to grow your own garden.  There is certainly, to my knowledge, no group that exists around here like the one my sister is a part of.  Curiosity and fascination have turned into motivation.  I want to start a co-op here.  I want to model it after Ashley’s co-op, because I think it runs beautifully.

In Ashley’s group, during each calendar rotation, each member has a partner within the co-op and each team of two has an assigned day to do the shopping & sorting into shares.  I wanted to go on a fact-finding mission, sort of a hands-on field trip.  I wanted to see firsthand how all this works and experience it instead of just be told about it.  So Ashley chose a date that I would be able to come help.  I got off work and Mama came along with me to keep me company and to also learn about all this.  Ashley’s co-op currently has 39 shares at $10 each, so they have $390 in their budget for each shop.  Ashley allowed Mama and me to each put in $10 along with the others – bringing it up to 41 shares with $410 in the budget – and take a share home, which we were very excited about.  My very own stash of co-op produce!  I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve.

We arrived at Ashley’s house Monday night and the co-op activities took place Tuesday morning.  Monday night we looked through the previous price list to get an idea of what we might want.  Each time they go to the wholesaler, they get a new price list for the day, because they can change from day to day.  We wanted to use the previous one as a guide to come up with an idea.  It may have worked out or it may have needed to be tweaked the following morning, but it would save some time having a plan.

We came up with a great plan.  My favorite part was the avocados.  I just love avocados.  We were going to buy two cases of avocados and that would allow each share to end up with either two or three avocados.  Then, based on our avocado plan, we started a Mexican food theme.  We added cilantro to our list along with yellow onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, lemons, and tomatoes.  Ashley let me pick my favorite kind of apples from the list – Granny Smith – so we added those, too.  I believe we also had some kind of lettuce – butter lettuce, maybe? – and another kind of fruit, but I can’t remember which.  I think we had new potatoes on the list.  In the end, we had about $15 or $20 left, so we scanned the list for something that would fall in that price range.  We decided on some fresh herbs.  We let Mama decide between Rosemary & dill and she picked dill.  So our plan was ready.

We left Ashley’s house at 5:30 Tuesday morning and drove to Dallas to the Farmer’s Market District.  Ashley backed in to the loading dock area at her supplier of choice and we walked to the door only to be met with a sign – We have moved!  Our new location opens Monday!  Ashley didn’t know where the new location was and she is calm under pressure, so she simply said, “Okay, scratch our plan.  We’ll have to go to our other supplier.”  We looked up the address and it was just a few doors down.  Ashley had never used this particular wholesaler, but it was on their list of options.

We went inside the office and Ashley asked to see their price list.  The man only had one copy, so we weren’t allowed to take it with us.  We stood at the counter and reviewed the list.  Ashley had a pencil and paper; I had my iPhone calculator.

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Unfortunately, the first thing we noticed was how pricey their avocados were.  Scratch the avocado idea, because we wanted to get the most bang for our buck.  Ashley asked questions on things that were unclear on the list.

“What’s the difference between Red Potatoes A, B, and C?”  The answer – “A are the larger ones, B are medium sized, C are the smallest ones.”  We went with B – medium sized, because the smaller they are, the better they tend to taste in our opinions, but the smallest ones were significantly higher than the medium.

“How does the broccoli come?”  Answer – “20 pound boxes.”  We got two boxes.

“What about the yellow onions?”  Answer – “50 pound bag.”  We got one bag.

In the end, we spent $408 of our $410 budget.  (The remaining $2 went into their “reserves” for if someone goes a dollar or two over one week.  In the end, they’ll use all the reserves to add to their budget for the last shop of the calendar rotation.)  The man helping us wrote up the order on a receipt and sure enough, it came to exactly $408.  Ashley paid him and then Mama, Ashley, and I went and stood out of the way while the guys drove little machines into the back of the warehouse and gathered up our order.  Then they came back with two loading machines full of boxes.  As they were loading them into Ashley’s car, she looked on her list and confirmed the complete order was there.  The entire back of Ashley’s SUV was loaded and there were also three boxes in the back seat with me.

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We brainstormed on the way to Ashley’s house about which items were more tough & heavy duty and could handle being on the bottom of the bags and which were more fragile and should go up top.  Once we got back to her house, we unloaded all the boxes and crates and bags of produce from her car.  I remember saying, “I’ll get the onions!” and then immediately realizing that I am about as strong as I look and I needed help with a 50 pound bag.  Good grief, it was heavy!

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We arranged the different items throughout Ashley’s garage in the order we wanted to bag them.  Then Ashley went around the garage with a Sharpie marker, eyeballing the different items and determining how many of each to put in each bag.  She pointed out that it was easier to go back and put more than to dig through the bags & remove stuff, so we were conservative with our guesses to begin with.  She walked around our semicircle and wrote on the boxes the numbers – 7 potatoes, 2 onions, 3 stalks of corn, etc.  Before we got started, we opened our box of grape tomatoes and Ashley brought out some ziplock bags.  We put eight grape tomatoes in each bag and then realized we had enough to add two more.  Each person got ten grape tomatoes.  This photo shows our semicircle of produce and Mama and Ashley getting started on the tomato distribution.

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Mama and my nephew, Caleb, took my car and went to Chick-fil-a to pick up breakfast while my other nephew, Jacob, Ashley, and I got started on bagging the shares.  Jacob bagged the potatoes and onions and handed the bags off to me.  I bagged the corn, lemons, Granny Smith apples, and cucumbers and handed the bags off to Ashley.  Ashley finished up with the leaf lettuce, red and green bell peppers, broccoli, jalapeño peppers, and grape tomatoes.  Once we had finished all 41 bags, Ashley went back around the garage to assess how much we had left.  Every bag got an extra onion, an extra lemon, and either an extra green bell pepper or cucumber.  The items that had just a handful left but not enough to distribute evenly got distributed among Ashley, her partner, Kenya, Mama, and me.  (The group that does the work gets dibs on excess if they want it.)  We had a significant amount of leaf lettuce and red bell peppers left, but still not quite enough to distribute equally, so Ashley just had the boxes of those set off to the side.  When people came to pick up their share, Ashley told them about the extra bell peppers and lettuce, if they wanted to add any of that to their stash.  Some people took one of each, some picked one of the two, and some declined any extras.

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When the co-op members came to get their bags, they would pay $10 which covers them for the next shop.  Ashley would take their $10, check their name off a list in their folder to show they were paid up for next time, and put their $10 in a zippered pouch in the folder.  Everyone picks up their share by a certain time and whoever shops next comes last.  That way they pick up their share along with the co-op folder and all the money for the next shop two weeks later.

Mama and I were so impressed with the whole thing.  It runs like a well-oiled machine.  My little hands-on field trip has just made me want to start one up here even more.  That is in the works now.  My wheels are turning and I’m getting it all figured out with high hopes of a successful co-op being formed.  I want to base ours off of Ashley’s, because it is so successful.  I read their binder on the trip from the supplier back to my sister’s house, and I fully intend on using what I’ve learned to form one here.

This is what a typical $10 stash looked like this week!

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Each bag ended up with the following:

  • 7 new potatoes
  • 3 yellow onions
  • 3 stalks of corn
  • 3 lemons
  • 4 Granny Smith apples
  • 1 (or 2) cucumber(s)
  • 1 (or 2) leaf lettuce
  • 1 broccoli
  • 1 (or 2) green bell pepper(s)
  • 1 (or 2) red bell pepper(s)
  • 2 jalapeño peppers
  • 10 grape tomatoes

All of this for $10.  Amazing.  By my estimations, this stash would be roughly $20 in the grocery store.

And oh my goodness, is this delicious.  We usually use spinach leaves in our salad, but we’ve been using this leaf lettuce.  We have eaten some of the most beautiful, green, delicious salads.  The cucumber and grape tomatoes have been great in the salads.

Co-op supper #1 –

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A beautiful, delicious salad and roasted red potatoes.  (The only thing I added to this meal that was non-coop was avocado, freshly grated parmesan cheese, and ranch dressing to the salad.)  This meal was great.  Melissa ate two servings of both and then helped me finish off my potatoes.  It was that good.  I only used four of the new potatoes and it was plenty for both of us.

Co-op supper #2 –

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This meal was at my parents’ house.  The stuffed bell peppers actually only used an onion from our co-op stash.  I had purchased the bell peppers last Sunday at Brookshire’s, so we still have our co-op bell peppers.  The salad was entirely co-op goodies – leaf lettuce, grape tomatoes, and cucumber.  (And so wonderful!)  Mama made some jalapeño poppers with her jalapeños from the co-op and they were unbelievably good.  I wanted more.  And tomorrow we will have more, because Melissa and I are donating our jalapeño peppers to Easter lunch so we can have some jalapeño popper appetizers!

Tomorrow for Easter lunch, Daddy is grilling kabobs, so we are also going to grill our ears of corn – both Mama’s and ours.  We’ll have another salad with the leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.  We based a lot of our grocery shopping and meal planning around the produce we received and I’m really looking forward to all of it.  There’s just something that feels good about eating fresh vegetables.

So yeah … hopefully before too long, we’ll have our own little co-op set up here.  My fact finding mission was a success.  I have been sufficiently motivated!

 

 

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