Fresh, Healthy and Cheap

I’m going to sound really old here, but my first memories of food co-ops go waaaay back to the ‘70s and ‘80s. The upside was healthy, nutritious (and, for us, exotic) foods like dried papaya and carob chips. The downside was pen-and-paper ordering, tallying and record-keeping. Those poor volunteers, including my mom, really toiled over their calculators at delivery time.

Nowadays, ordering is online and you don’t even have to break out a pen – unless you need to jot a reminder note about your pick-up date and time. The foods are still healthy and nutritious, but the focus has shifted to locally produced wares.

I walked through the sign-up process at Community Helpings Coop a few days ago, and it was so easy that I asked one of the organizers, Tracy Gruener, if I had missed something.

“Overall it is pretty simple,” she answered via e-mail. “You order online, pick up on set date and jump in to help where you might see your group needing some help.”

The co-op offers more than two dozen neighborhood groups across the metro area, from St. Louis City to Mascoutah, Ill., or Imperial, Mo. Gruener said at least 2,000 families shop the co-op each month, buying thousands of pounds of produce and grocery items. “Everyone wants to help their families eat healthier without going broke,” she said. “I also love that I serve my family healthy food but we are also able to try new things that never would have made it to our dinner table if I was shopping straight from the grocery store.”

The most popular item is the $23 basket filled with 12 to 18 kinds of fresh fruits and veggies. Right now it includes offerings from local farms – and you can get in on it for the next pickups, happening during the week of Sept. 13 or Sept. 20, depending on the location. You can even buy extra cases of produce for canning or freezing.

But fall is just around the corner … what then? “We don't stop eating healthy once the cold weather hits,” Gruener said. “Obviously there is not going to be a local supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Midwest during the winter months. During this time, just like the grocery stores, our produce will have to come from other areas. We take great pride in trying to get our groups the best possible produce year round.”

If eating local is high on your agenda, Gruener had some tips: Check out the pizza crusts, Amish fruit butters, tortilla chips and whole wheat tortillas. “This is a great way to support a local business and still get a great deal,” she said.

The two-year-old co-op’s community spirit comes through in its philanthropy, too. “I do think it is a shame that there are families out there that are not able to have a refrigerator full of fresh produce on a regular basis,” Gruener said. “Many of the coop groups work together to help others in the community. Some of them donate to local food pantries, others donate extras to families in need or adopt a families at Christmas time.” 

There is no long-term commitment, but volunteers keep the groups running, so Gruener encouraged families who sign up to think about alternatives that fit into their schedules. “Sure, volunteers are always needed to help sort the produce, but there are other ways to help the co-ops,” she pointed out. “It may be helping to recycle boxes after the delivery, spreading the word about the co-ops or helping another co-op member load up their car with the produce.”

Gruener said anyone interested in setting up a new group can contact her at [email protected]. You can also check out her blog at www.allthisandnowwhat.blogspot.com.

Community Helpings is just one of many food co-ops in operation around St. Louis. They come in different sizes and require different time commitments, but they all share the philosophy that by banding together, families can eat better and more cheaply.

By Amy De La Hunt, Health Blogger for SmartParenting

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Amy De La Hunt is a journalist and editor who lives in the St. Louis metro area and works across the country as a writer, copy editor, project manager and editorial consultant on everything from fiction books to monthly magazines to blog posts. When she's not chauffeuring her teenage sons to activities, Amy is an enthusiastic amateur cook, landscaper, Latin dancer and traveler. Follow Amy on Instagram @amy_in_words

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