Enterprising owners find time is ripe for food co-ops Low costs, high quality lure members


When the Dankert family moved from Virginia to Ellicott City seven years ago, Nadine Dankert found it tough to find organically grown produce -- an important staple of her family's diet.

Her quest for produce grown without the help of pesticides or chemicals eventually led her to help found a food cooperative specializing in providing organic fruits and vegetables.

The co-op, Cool Creek Organics, now boasts a loyal membership of 24, and joins at least two other food cooperatives in Howard County providing an alternative to shopping in chain grocery stores and local health food stores.

The economics of the cooperatives are kept simple, and there is virtually no profit margin for those that found and run them.

Those operating the cooperatives say they are motivated by desire and necessity, not profits.

"No one gets rich running a cooperative. In fact, there's really no profit at all," says Mrs. Dankert.

"Organically grown produce has to be bought in bulk, and it tends to cost more than the produce you find in the grocery stores. The cooperative is a way to keep the costs down and ensure a distributor you can make it worth their while to deliver the food.

"For my family it's a necessity. Without the buying power of the cooperative we might have to go without organic produce."

Mrs. Dankert helped found Cool Creek Organics last March after she decided a county-based cooperative she had been a member of wasn't meeting her family's needs.

She now serves as the membership coordinator for Cool Creek. Other founders order the produce and ready orders for pick-up by members.

Cool Creek Organics is modeled on the other two food co-ops in the county.

Members pay a one-time membership fee, considered a deposit to ensure the distributor can be paid fully at delivery.

In the case of Cool Creek, the membership fee is $25.

Produce is ordered from two organic food distributors every two weeks. It's dropped off at the garage of a co-founder. Members are alerted when they should pick up their "share."

"Shares" are determined by dividing all of the produce equally among the membership.

Cool Creek tries to keep its membership at 24. That allows for shares to be easily divided equally since most produce must be ordered in blocks of 12.

"We operate on the honor system," says Ms. Dankert. "We call the members and tell them when the boxes of their shares will be ready. They show up as soon as they can, pick up their box and leave their check in an envelope."

The average order cost to members is $19.

Members are required to add $1.20 to cover paying volunteers who divide the shares and other operating costs.

While members can make requests for particular produce items, the co-op generally bases its bi-monthly ordering on what is currently available from the distributor balanced with what has been ordered during the past several cycles to provide for variety.

The other produce cooperative in the county is Organic Chao, operated by Pat Chao of Columbia. The 4-year-old co-op currently has 18 members but can accommodate up to 24 members.

Members of the co-op pay a $40 membership fee; $30 is a deposit to cover orders and the other $10 is a one-time fee to the cooperative to cover expenses.

Organic Chao places orders every two weeks with its distributors, basing its ordering on what is available from distributors.

4 Members pay on average about $40 for each order.

"If you want organic produce this is the cheapest way to get very fresh food," says Mrs. Chao.

"I'm sold on organic co-ops because it assures you the food will be fresh. It comes right from the distributor to the member; it doesn't lay around on a store shelf for a couple of days."

Mrs. Chao says members of her co-op seem willing to pay the higher cost of organic produce because they believe that eating organic foods is healthier.

"To me the quality and taste of the organic produce is superior. I could never imagine going back to store-bought food," Mrs. Chao says.

Mrs. Dankert says members of Cool Creek have told her they joined the co-op because they view pesticides and chemicals used to grow some produce to be a long-term health risk.

"A lot of people also say the organically grown food just tastes better. I think it does."

For those who want a broader range of organically produced foods in their diets there is the 23-year-old food cooperative known as Columbia Natural Foods, or CNF.

It offers a wide range of items including fruit juices, eggs, cheeses, yogurt and tofu. CNF doesn't carry a large variety of produce, however.

Mrs. Chao, the membership coordinator for CNF, says that the buying power of the co-op and the fact that it doesn't have significant overhead costs results in items priced lower than those in area health food stores.

"There's not the flexibility and variety of shopping in a health food store, but the costs are lower," says Mrs. Chao.

For example, a bottle of natural fruit juice purchased through CNF costs $1.85, about $1 less than the average price charged by area health food stores, the cooperative says.

To join CNF, an $18 membership fee must be paid up front and members must agree to donate 20 hours of labor annually to its operation.

The co-op currently has between 30 and 40 members, hailing from as far as Baltimore.

CNF members place orders using a form distributed approximately every three weeks.

Members must pick up orders on the day distributors drop them off at the group's pick-up site, the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia.

"People can spend as little or as much as they want, and there usually is a pretty interesting variety of items to order," says Mrs. Chao.

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