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How to set up an organic buying group

Whether it’s organic pasta, pulses or cereals, by getting together with a group of neighbours or friends you can help make buying organic more affordable and maybe even create a social event!

How to set up an organic buying group

Starting a buying group means you can have access to high-quality organic food, experience a sense of community, reduce waste and packaging and choose to support ethical food production and local farmers. It is also more affordable – products bought wholesale can be up to 40% cheaper than equivalent products in supermarkets.

“Smaller buying groups usually work on a pre-order, pre-pay system, with people paying in advance”, explains Tilly Jarvis, coordinator of Food Co-ops at Sustain, “they usually only meet once a month, or less, as the foods last a long time so don't need to be ordered on a regular basis.”

While it’s not one size fits all, Tilly adds: “The main principle behind all community run food co-ops is that by pooling their buying power and ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers, a group of people can buy good food at a more affordable price.”

Getting started

Sustainable food advocate Phili Denning (pictured) was tired of supermarket plastic and wanted to inspire others to consider alternative ways of shopping. That’s why she set up a food buying group from her garage in South London.

She reached out to her neighbours and while most cared about ethical and environmental issues, she knew saving them money would win her big popularity points!

“Based on my comparison of 20 items from my regular supermarket shop I worked out that the group could save around 30% on the cost of groceries if we bought the products in the largest possible volume,” explains Phili.

It was no surprise that 13 families signed up.

Getting organised

Planning orders, money collection, bank statements, ordering produce, signing for deliveries and maintaining suppliers is a job in itself. This is make or break for buying groups – the best solution is a written agreement of jobs and compensation clearly laid out in advance and agreed by all.

“Thinking about how to organise the money and workload is one of the key aspects,” advises Phili, whose food buying group has now developed into a business called Naked Larder.

“You will need to decide does one person take responsibility (like in my case) or should a few people. Most importantly, then you need to decide how are people compensated for the time they put into the group.”

Tilly Jarvis agrees: “Even if you are setting up a very small food co-op, it is a good idea to create a plan in advance and Sustain’s Food Co-op action plan is a great place to start.”

Finding organic suppliers

“The best part of organising a food buying group is cheaper, more ethically sourced and often higher quality food,” explains Phili, who spent hours researching catalogues, comparing who stocked what, at what prices and in what sizes. Spreadsheets became her best friend!

For dry goods, you’ll need a wholesale organic supplier for your buying group such as Infinity, Suma, CLF or The Health Store. It will depend on your preferences and cost and you’ll need to calculate what will work best for you.

The most popular items for Naked Larder were rice, flour, jumbo oats, muesli and pasta.

If your group decides to offer other local organic products, you’ll need to find producers nearby. Your local farmers’ market is a good place to start – you could also ask if they’d supply a big order at a discount. Other great resources for this are The Organic Directory and Sustain’s Guide to Sourcing Organic Food.

Choosing a venue

Depending on the size, if it’s just a few families in your group, a living room or garage will work as a premises. For example, Phili’s garage provided a great start to her buying group. The garage was great for pick up and storage of deliveries, and her living room became the space for meetings and socials.

If you intend to grow, you could use venues that are free like community centres or local clubs. Partnering with your local council, community groups, or even resident associations could also be a way of expanding members and opening up other venue options. It is also important to think of it as a delivery site – all your supplies and orders will be delivered here.

The benefit of having a small food buying group is that you do not require any equipment to operate. This is because any produce is either ordered in whole packs or divided up by number and so does not need weighing out. If you do decide to weigh things out, you’ll need to factor in a set of scales as a basic requirement, as Phili did for Naked Larder.

Lastly, while some buying groups stick to just food, others campaign on organic issues, go on farm visits and enjoy arranging community events. Your organic food buying group can be what you want it to be. By cutting costs, choosing less food miles, reducing plastic packaging, it will be good for you and your family, good for your community, and good for the planet.

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Useful resources

- Sustain’s Food Buying Group and Co-op Toolkit.
- The Open Food Network’s tool offers an online platform for communities creating local food buying groups and co-ops.
- UK Government official guide to community buying groups.

Katie Roche

Katie Roche

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