What’s a co-op?

When you think of a “co-op” your mind may immediately go to a common-owned house with a bunch of people living inside. This is not the case for Food Cooperatives like that of Common Ground Food Co-Op in Urbana, Illinois.

I discovered Common Ground through a field trip that one of my sustainability classes went on a few years ago. They give tours regularly, and if you’re unsure of exactly what the co-op is and this article doesn’t give you a good reason to shop there, I suggest you stop by for a tour or just to collect some snacks and info.

In simplest terms, a co-op is a collectively owned grocery store. They are owned by members of the community who pay an investment to become one of the many owners of Common Ground. You do not have to be an owner however to benefit from the goods and services provided by the Co-Op.

What’s the good in shopping there?

There are many benefits of buying food from the co-op regardless of the "organic" and GMO controversy.

The bulk food aisle

beer, cheese
Kelsie Travers

Yes, I am aware that many grocery stores have a bulk food aisle, but most are not as expansive as Common Ground. You can buy gluten free pasta, nuts, chocolates, rice, oats, beans and the list doesn’t end there. There is another aisle dedicated to soaps and cleaners, which some can be bought in bulk if you so choose.

The benefit of buying in bulk is that it’s more sustainable due to the decreased amount of packaging needed and less required transportation. Bulk foods also tend to be about 89 percent cheaper than buying that same food pre-packaged. This is because you are not paying for packaging, package design, marketing, and so on.

You can even bring your own Tupperware to Common Ground to fill with bulk foods—saving even more from being wasted.

Locally-sourced food

Common Ground admirably tries to source all of their food from nearby—preferably within the state, but at least within the country. “Local” food is defined as food produced within 100 miles of the store. Their website has a map of their farms, and when you are shopping in the stores, foods will be marked with “local” or “regional” labels.

Kelsie Travers

In some instances, if the town is very close, they will also list the town the food came from, such as for vegetables that often come from a nearby Urbana farm.

vegetable, pasture, tuber, garlic, onion, radish
Kelsie Travers

To me, buying local food is reassuring because I know I am supporting local farmers and people within my community. Grocery shopping locally also means less transportation meaning less greenhouse gas emissions from the trucks and less time for fresh foods to lose nutrients.

Common Ground ensures quality foods in many ways, not just through locally sourced products. They truly take the time to learn how the food is made, if it is USDA-certified organic and if it is something that their store would support selling.

Helping the community

Not only does Common Ground help the community by selling locally-sourced foods, they also help the community with education and donations. Common Ground offers education that ranges from actual in-store cooking classes to “Food For All” recipes that can feed four people for less than $2.

They also run another program in which customers can “round up” their total at the end of their shopping trip and donate the extra to local organizations. You can find a list of the organizations they have and donate to them on their website.

Is it really worth it?

In my opinion, shopping at the co-op is worth it for some things. Obviously, if I was not a broke college student, I would love to buy all of my groceries knowing they came from Urbana farms and left a minimal carbon footprint. However, for the time being it is unrealistic.

I do believe that some things can and should be bought there. There are some foods that are better to buy organic when you can. Fresh fruits and vegetables, such as celery and apples, use a lot of pesticides, so it is often recommended to buy them organic and clean them really well.

Fortunately, Common Ground has competitive prices to that of nearby grocery stores like Schnuck’s and County Market. Thus, buying your fresh fruits and veggies at the co-op shouldn’t break the bank in comparison.

In addition, milk and dairy products are an often-suggested good organic buy. Here, "organic" ensures the cows are fed a suitable pasture diet and are not given any growth hormones. Overall, if you are concerned about eating “natural,” “organic” foods, then milk would be a justified product to spend your money on.

milk, dairy product, yogurt, cream, dairy
Kelsie Travers

On a more fun note, the co-op has some really cool offerings. The cooking classes for one, are super interesting and something we all probably need help with as college students. Some of the classes include making homemade pasta and organic meals on a budget.

They also carry some strikingly unique foods. You can buy fresh almond and peanut butter that you grind yourself, and they even have a deli where you can grab lunch or a quick snack. It's a store that is at the least worth exploring.

Kelsie Travers

At the end of the day, even if you don’t support or let alone care about organic food, shopping at the co-op means keeping tax dollars in the city, supporting local farmers and families, and being more sustainable (like using your own bags or shopping in bulk).

Agriculture is a huge industry that we are constantly surrounded by at UIUC so it is a topic, for me at least, that is hard to avoid thinking about. Sustainability is also a subject that is constantly in the news and in our studies no matter the field. Grocery shopping somewhere that supports local agriculture and sustainable efforts should be on every student's radar.