Buying organic food in bulk saves money

“By buying large bulk quantities, we are really seeing the savings.”

Sheri Fischer

Organic food buyer

Organic food has become more common, but it costs more than conventional food.

COLUMBUS (AP) — Four years ago, the Fischer family had a monthly bill for organic groceries that equaled its mortgage payment — $1,200.

“We knew we had to find another way to buy organic food cheaper,” said Sheri Fischer, who with her husband, Andy, is raising five children on vegan diets, meaning they don’t consume meat, fish, eggs, cheese or milk. In 2005, the Hilliard family joined the Columbus organic-food buying club Chalice Organics Plus.

The bill since then: “$700-ish a month,” Fischer said.

“It wasn’t that it was hard to sustain being vegan or buying in bulk, and it was always easy finding good food to eat in Columbus,” she recalled, “but it was cost-prohibitive to shop in a grocery store. Shaving $500 off our monthly bill is awesome for a family of seven.”

Organic food today is as common as Wonder Bread — everywhere from independent grocers to chains such as Giant Eagle and Wal-Mart.

Despite its ubiquity, organic food remains costlier than conventional food.

But for those considering the organic route, a cheaper ticket is buying in bulk.

Wholesale buying clubs remain the most economical — and, for many subscribers, convenient — way to fill the pantry with “whole,” “natural” and “unprocessed” foods.

Although most clubs don’t offer produce — the shelf life makes it difficult to buy in bulk — they have access to more than 40,000 organic and natural foods and products.

For health and animal-rights reasons, Mary Boyd-Brown, a mother of two teenagers in Columbus, began eating organic food in the late 1980s.

When she changed her diet she felt healthier, but her grocery bill, which doubled, sickened her.

“When I found out about this kind of thing, I jumped on it,” she said of the buying clubs.

In 2003, Boyd-Brown founded Chalice Organics Plus, a wholesale organic-food buying club.

The club is one of nine in central Ohio served by United Natural Foods, a company based in Dayville, Conn., that distributes organic food and products throughout the United States.

Food-buying clubs and co-ops became popular during the ’60s, when demands for miso, tempeh and tofu arose with the hippie movement.

Groups of like-minded souls operated their clubs out of health-food stores, churches, private homes or communes. The trend continues, but as more organic foods line shelves in regular grocery stores, the number of wholesale food clubs is increasing.

Because any group can form a buying club or co-op as long as it can find a food distributor, no concrete statistics exist for the number of people in organic-food buying clubs.

But, said Adam Schwartz, vice president of public affairs and member services at the National Cooperative Business Association, the demand for bulk organic food is growing “tremendously.”

He pointed to the popularity of United Natural Foods, whose 10 distribution centers serve more than 17,000 customers in clubs nationwide.

Kristen Marek, who shops for her husband and three children, subscribes to Chalice to save her from herself.

“I really dislike going to the grocery,” she said. “If I can buy large quantities, it keeps me from spending extra money.”

Here’s how Chalice works: Members subscribe to a monthly catalog for $14.94 a year. They place orders with Boyd-Brown; then, one Saturday morning each month at a church, a food delivery arrives from United via a distribution center in suburban Indianapolis.

Chalice subscribers help unload and distribute the food, then pay Boyd-Brown. (As the sole organizer of Chalice, she allots herself “a small cut of the volume discount.”)

Unlike a grocery-store shopper, who might fill a cart with a 1-pound package of elbow macaroni and other small individual items, a Chalice subscriber is likely to walk away from the truck with a 10-pound bag of dates, among other things.

“People need to have a serious interest in this way of eating,” said Boyd-Brown, 47.

They also need to have some serious storage space, said Fischer, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother whose five children range from 2 months to 11 years old.

Most of the organic nuts, seeds, grains, beans, dried fruits and baking goods she buys through Chalice arrive in large sacks.

“If you have a place to store your bulk foods, this is a very economical way to buy organic foods,” Fischer said. “We bake bread and other goodies with spelt. We make everything from scratch. Scratch cooking is a cheap way to feed a big family.

“By buying large bulk quantities, we are really seeing the savings,” said Fischer, adding that the money saved goes toward buying organic produce at Whole Foods and a community market.

Chalice subscriber Edie Driskill, a financial planner in Columbus, subscribed to her first food-buying club in 1983.

For Driskill, a 49-year-old mother of two teenagers, the convenience outweighs the economic benefits.

“If you want organic oats in Kroger, you’re going to pay a premium,” Driskill said. “They’re going to package it a pound at a time. Whole Foods has a small bulk department that sells things by the pound — which comes close. But when I buy granola, I buy 50 pounds at a time. I can buy the same granola I get through . . . [Chalice] at Whole Foods, but I’ve got to stand there and scoop 50 pounds of it. It takes forever!

“If you want to actually stock food and have the quality that you want, it’s just a lot easier for somebody to throw a 50-pound bag at you, and you’re done.”

Such shopping, said Driskill, who coaches new subscribers, does involve much more planning and a little bit of trial and error. But she said starting out is simple.

The first step?

Order a case of what you or your family eat most, she advised. “If you have kids and they’re always eating tomato soup, buy a case of tomato soup.

“Two or three years into it, you get to the place where everything you’re buying’s in cases. You’re always three or four months ahead on your supply, which is incredibly rational.”

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