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Organic Buying Clubs

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 25, 2007

We’ve dealt both here and here with programs in the United Kingdom in which mixed boxes of organically grown produce are sold on a subscription basis. Now The Palm Beach Post ran an article entitled Organic Food Fanciers Decide it’s Time to Join the Club, which you can read right here.

The article explains:

Organic buying clubs, in which participants pay to get shipments of food grown without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, are becoming much more popular around the country as people look for an economical way to buy organic produce, experts say….

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn., said organic buying clubs have their roots in farm-share programs in rural areas. About 20 or so years ago, urban clubs began to spring up and have grown as American tastes have become more sophisticated.

It is an interesting concept although quantification seems hard to come by:

“There are at least 10,000 organic buying clubs, and they are growing,” Cummins said. “The demand for locally produced food, as well as organic food, is increasing.”

In Florida, there are at least eight organic buying clubs or organic farms with share-type programs.

Ten thousand is a big number and Florida is a populous state. Seems odd that there would be 10,000 in the country but they could only find eight in Florida.

The clubs also seem to take different forms. Some are farmers selling their crops:

Gil Daigneau, 52, owner of Go Natural Organics Inc., a farm in Lakeland, charges $200 for people to join; then they pay on a pick-as-they-go basis. When that’s used up, they rejoin. The business has 190 members and operates from January to June.

Some are true consumer buying groups:

The group that met at the Stuart church has 15 people; there are more than 500 such members in South Florida.

The club buys its produce in bulk from a Sarasota distributor, and each 15-member group has a host who meets the produce truck, divides the shares and hands them out at a house, church or other designated place. Members not only gain like-minded friends but enjoy fresh, flavorful produce at prices about 20 percent below the usual retail….

Every two weeks, the members receive a $43 share of 15 or more varieties, totaling an average of 30 or so pounds, said Howard Rosenbaum, who with his wife, Jayne, operates the Bay Harbor Islands-based Organic Produce Buying Club of South Florida.

Some of the appeal may be based on misconceptions. Although the farm-direct programs exist, a lot of these programs buy organic produce but not necessarily locally grown product:

“This stuff comes right from the farm,” Mass said, surveying the packed canvas bags. “The bonus is that it’s not like the produce in the grocery store. It’s ripe.”

Since members have to take what they get. One wonders how much the produce is actually consumed:

Members cannot be too picky, Mass said, because they get whatever is in the share that week. But there is a bonus table where members can choose three extra items and trade any they don’t want.

Ronni Graf, 39, a teacher and the mother of two boys, hosts another buying group in Boca Raton. She likes the idea of supporting organic farming, she said.

“I moved here from Northern California two years ago, and I was used to organic produce and to its being accessible,” she said. “Organics are easier on our planet.”

Because she’s a host, Graf gets her share of produce for just $2. Those who assist hosts receive $15 off their share.

Graf said that while she enjoys the more common fruits and vegetables in the share, she also likes trying something new, such as fennel.

“One women told me she roasts it and puts it on pizza with white beans. I made it, and it was amazing,” she said. “You get your groceries, then figure out what to make.”

Royal Palm Beach home educator Stephanie McLaughlin, 40, also a buying club host, was preparing “cabbage rolls and a big, big salad,” with ingredients such as avocado, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and peppers for dinner recently.

And there is some wishful thinking involved. One wonders if the woman quoted below knows that the spinach believed to be implicated in the E. coli crisis was grown organically:

“The thought of having pure, clean food is really great. You don’t know what you are getting in the stores,” said McLaughlin, who has two children. “Before we joined, we bought some things organic, but not nearly as much as we are getting now, because of the price.”

An inconvenience with many of these programs is that one must pick up the produce, but door to door delivery is now taking off:

Annie Malka, 41, an attorney, and her husband, Jack, 34, a Web designer, started North Miami Beach-based Delicious Organics Inc. in 2003. Annie Malka started the company because she could not always find the organic produce she wanted for her family, such as lemons and zucchini.

She started out by ordering crates of produce for friends and family, and now it’s a full-time business with revenues of $1.5 million a year and an expanded list of offerings. Delicious Organics has 5,000 products, Malka said, including wild fish, kosher organic chicken, grass-fed meats, grass-fed organic dairy, environmentally safe cleaning products, snacks, organic pressed juice, organic dried fruit and nuts and fair-trade chocolate, coffee and tea.

Delicious Organics serves about 500 customers, from the Keys north to Boynton Beach Boulevard in Palm Beach County. The minimum order is $50 with a $5 surcharge, or $100 with no surcharge, plus a $9.95 delivery fee. The company wants to extend its delivery service to West Palm Beach and is looking for interested families, Malka said.

Generally, its produce, delivered in a cooler, is priced 20 percent lower than retail, and non-produce items are about 10 percent below retail, she said.

In the U.K. supermarkets, such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco, are now doing this. If there are anywhere near 10,000 buying clubs, U.S. retailers won’t be far behind.

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