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Default Food clubs make a comeback in tough economy...,1698238.story

Food clubs make a comeback in tough economy

Families unite to cut grocery costs

By Kristen Kridel

Chicago Tribune reporter

October 6, 2008

Kendra Morrice isn't about to pay $4.53 for a box of cereal at the grocery
store, not when she can order a dozen at $3.75 a pop through her food-buying

"In the long run, you're saving oodles," said Morrice of Des Plaines, who
estimates she salts away hundreds of dollars a year through membership in a
club in Chicago's Oriole Park neighborhood. "But you want to be sure you're
going to be using 12 boxes of cereal."

Spurred by the sluggish economy, there is welling demand for such clubs,
which allow consumers to band together-neighbors, friends, co-workers-and
pay wholesale prices for large food orders, experts say.

Always a "well-kept secret," food clubs have experienced on-again, off-again
success. Now they are ripe for a new surge of interest during the economic
downturn, said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers
Association, a non-profit based in Minnesota.

"I think we're going to see a whole new wave of buying clubs, just like we
saw during the Great Depression," Cummins said. "People have to cope with
the fact that their living expenses are going up."

Buying clubs, considered a type of consumers' cooperative, aim to provide
members with food at the lowest price rather than turn a profit. The clubs
often evolve into storefront co-ops that sell to the public.

Statistics on the number of food-buying clubs aren't readily available, but
the recent growth of co-op stores likely is a good indicator of their
burgeoning strength, said Adam Schwartz, spokesman for the National
Cooperative Business Association.

Clubs in the Chicago area range in size from a handful of families to
several dozen. Some have been together for years and have names such as
C.U.B.S. and Fox Fed Elgin Flakes.

Membership is on the upswing in the Family First Foods club in Lombard,
where three families joined in the last year, bringing the number to 12,
coordinator Denise Karhoff King said.

Participants, who pay a $20 lifetime membership fee and are required to help
out when deliveries arrive, find the idea of cutting out the middle man
attractive, she said.

The club orders $3,000 to $3,500 worth of products a month, enough for
members to get 10 percent off any items not on sale, Karhoff King said. They
buy through United Natural Foods Inc., the main distributor for Midwestern

Products range from frozen green peas, bacon and organic chicken nuggets to
Caesar dressing and even milk chocolate malt balls. The groups typically
focus on buying natural or organic products.

Buying 12 jars of salsa at a time means Karhoff King isn't running to the
store whenever her family of five wants a snack. "Overall, I would say I'm
saving some money and a huge amount of time and gas," she said.

The monthly delivery can be hectic and fast-paced. It took the Chicago-based
C.U.B.S. club only half an hour to unload a recent food shipment. Amid a
flurry of shouts that identified products from fish sticks to sprouted grain
tortillas, about 10 adults systematically sorted dozens of cardboard boxes
and packed them in vehicles in a church parking lot.

Daisy Lancaster of Des Plaines looked approvingly over the bounty stashed in
her van. Each box of organic beef broth would have cost her a dollar more at
the grocery store, she said. And the 6-ounce containers of yogurt that cost
80 cents each go for a dollar when they're on sale at a local supermarket.

"I don't think [the store] is cheap anymore," Lancaster said.

Gwen Moeller, coordinator for the Fox Fed Elgin Flakes, said many of the
members in her club, which includes 45 families, are fierce comparison

"I know they are watching prices," Moeller said. "The stuff that is cheaper
[in the store], they don't buy it" through the club.

Still, there are deals enough in their main distributor's catalog for
members of the Elgin-based club to spend a combined $3,500 to $4,500 a
month, she said.

That doesn't include about $300 worth of items ordered monthly from Frontier
Natural Products Co-op, which specializes in herbs, spices and teas.

Members also can buy eggs and frozen chicken from Phil's Fresh Eggs in
Forreston, Ill.; honey from Honey Hill Apiaries in Hampshire; and nuts from
Terri Lynn Inc. in Elgin.Another farm-fresh option available to club members
and others is to pre-purchase part of a local harvest straight from the

If it's a good year, the consumer can virtually eliminate the grocer, said
Bob Bower, general manager at Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Ill. His farm
and others like it already are selling shares for the 2009 season.

Participants can receive a three-quarter bushel box of vegetables weekly
from Angelic Organics. The produce ranges from lettuce to rutabagas,
depending on which crops are in season.

Orders typically are split among families. A 20-week share sells for $620, a
12-week share for $410.

"We sell out earlier each year," Bower said.

For those willing to search hard enough, food clubs can order virtually any
locally produced item at a wholesale price, from jams and pickled products
to raw milk, said Stuart Reid, development specialist for Food Co-op 500,
which often works with the clubs.

Naperville resident Debbie Lillig said she has noticed more people teaming
up to buy beef fresh from the butcher block.

In November, Lillig will split the beef from half a cow with her
sister-in-law. Her part will easily fill her kitchen freezer and half of her
mother-in-law's. She bought the meat at a farmer's market in Geneva.

Lillig paid about $500 for her quarter, which includes ground beef, flank
steaks and sirloin. It will feed her family of five for more than a year and
save her hundreds of dollars, she said.

"It's less expensive than regular beef at the grocery store," Lillig said.
"You have to have an extra freezer. But that's a small investment that lasts
a long time."


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