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The wisdom of crowds

(article, Kathleen Holt)

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One freezing weeknight last December, I stood shivering on a quiet residential street along with 20 other members of Portland Green Parenting’s food-buying group, waiting for our Azure Standard delivery truck to arrive. I crammed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and carefully paced a small patch of slippery sidewalk to keep warm.

The food-buying group had been organized and was managed by Rebecca Andersson, who had sent the group an email that evening: “Azure truck will be here TONIGHT @ 8 pm!!!!” My husband, Alex, and I had just finished cleaning the kitchen after dinner and were looking forward to a quiet evening at home. It had been one of the coldest weeks in Portland that I could remember. We’d already had two snow days that week, and the streets were slick and crunchy with ice. I dreaded the thought of putting on a parka and insulated boots, then driving 20 blocks to help unload 2,000 pounds of food from the truck.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Packaged bulk goods at a Portland Green Parenting delivery in  September."]

Alex gallantly offered to go in my stead, but we were in this food-buying group at my insistence. Sending him up the street to pick up five pounds of organic dried cherries or raisins in good weather was one thing, but schlepping boxes of food in the middle of an icy night was another. So, with a sigh, I kissed my daughter good night and went outside to scrape ice off the car windshield.

Half an hour later, the truck driver was navigating his long semi down Andersson’s street. Once positioned to take up most but not all of the street’s narrow span, he opened up the doors and began handing boxes — containing everything from bags of organic tortilla chips and cans of organic coconut milk to tins of sardines in hot sauce and cartons of eggs — down to our waiting arms. We scuttled from truck to curb, forming piles along the sidewalk sorted by people’s names. 

After the truck left, those of us who’d used the Portland Green Parenting online member forum to buy large quantities of items together divvied up our orders. I split a case of organic saltine crackers with two other women and, with another, 1.5 gallons of organic vanilla ice cream. The ice cream would be the perfect accompaniment to holiday pies and, because we'd bought it in bulk, would cost about 25 percent less than the shelf price at the grocery store.

But still, were cheap ice cream and saltines and fewer trips to the grocery store worth an hour in the snow on a December night? After all, anyone else who'd ventured out on that wintry night for provisions was instead browsing the warm, well-lit aisles of a grocery store, not standing on an icy sidewalk ripping open boxes and slip-sliding over to parked cars, trying to pack items loose in trunks. 

h3. Adventures in bulk shopping

I’d dragged my family into this adventure in grocery shopping back in the spring of 2008, after reading a Oregonian newspaper article about a Vancouver woman who fed her family delicious, healthy, mostly organic meals on an impossibly tight budget of $65 per week. Her secret? She bought her food straight from farmers or in bulk. 

The article mentioned Azure Standard, a 38-year-old company based in Dufur, Oregon, that distributes bulk quantities of natural and health foods to small mom-and-pop grocers and residential drop sites. Most of the residential groups are organized as food-buying clubs in order to meet the minimum sales amounts per drop. 

After some research, I contacted Andersson, who started Portland Green Parenting in 2007 to create a community for people interested in green parenting and green lifestyles, as well as simplicity and frugal living. While many of the 135 member families use the forums to exchange advice, provide support, and discuss issues of sustainable lifestyles, the most active forums seem to be the ones that involve food. 

Andersson set the group up as a buying club allowing members to pool their purchasing power and buy in bulk — not only from Azure Standard, but also from Frontier Natural Products Co-op (spices, herbs, foods), Bob’s Red Mill (grains, flour, beans), Thundering Hooves (pasture-finished meats), and Mountain Rose Herbs (herbs, spices, teas, bath and body products). Members have also organized to receive raw milk, organic chickens, and shares of a CSA. They use the forums, broken up by company, to arrange splits and to stay informed about upcoming deadlines and delivery times.

h3. Budget bargains

Teaming up with other families to buy food straight from a wholesaler like Azure can yield tremendous savings. For instance, buying a large quantity of perishables — say, 30 pounds of butter — yields a per-pound rate that beats any grocery-store price if several families commit to buying several pounds apiece. Buying canned foods or dried goods this way can also mean a savings of nearly a dollar per can or pound.

These dollars can add up. Many Portland Green Parenting food-group members are on tight budgets, often spending only a few hundred dollars a month for food. That's well below the USDA's average monthly “thrifty plan” of $523.80 for a family of four with two children under the age of five, according to a January 2009 report by the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. 

[%image kathleen float=right width=300 caption="The author at the September drop, checking over her order."]

Joan Chakwin, a PGP member who's starting her own food-drop site in outer southeast Portland, has four children at home. Her husband works, so they are a one-paycheck family. “We’re not quite poverty level,” she says, “but buying in this way, I get wholesale prices and can afford to feed my family better.”

Other food-buying members are also motivated by things like reduced packaging and fewer trips to the grocery store. Before I started buying most of my family food through a combination of Portland Green Parenting, a CSA, and visits to the farmers' market, I was battling crowds at Trader Joe’s, Fred Meyer, and New Seasons a couple of times a week at peak evening and weekend hours, because my husband and I both work full time. Grocery shopping meant a stressful family outing that often also led to overspending, impulse buying, and all-around grouchiness. 

h3. The rough edges

It's true that shifting from ordinary grocery shopping to collective group shopping requires a high level of planning and organization. But the challenge scratches my Type-A itch, and can usually be done after my daughter has gone to sleep. 

Yes, we still pop in to the regular grocery store to pick up stray items. And I’ve certainly made some missteps along the way, such as that half-gallon of tahini I felt compelled to order. Still, there’s something incredibly satisfying about the sight of all those canisters of beans and rice and grains in the kitchen, those quart jars of organic olive oil in the basement, and that gallon jar of grade-B organic maple syrup in the fridge. 

Did our overall food bill last year look markedly different than the bill from the year before? Not really, but we did stock up on a lot of basics early in the process, and also bought large volumes of fruits and vegetables in season that we preserved and have been eating since late fall. So I suspect our budget will show a decline by the time summer rolls around again.

I'm saving money. I've gotten out of the grocery-store rut. I've said no to wasteful packaging. And I know that during next winter’s storm, we’ll have enough food on our shelves to feed ourselves and our snowbound neighbors for days.

p(bio). Kathleen Holt lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the editor of Oregon Humanities magazine.

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