September 27, 2005

Food Co-Ops Grow in Popularity in Arlington, Texas, Area

By Daniel C. Bartel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Sep. 27--ARLINGTON -- Elizabeth Priebe's living room is a supermarket.

Every other Tuesday, shoppers drop by to pick up organic fruits and vegetables at her food co-op, The Complete You.

But space for her family and her customers is getting pretty cramped.

"Our co-op is growing every day," she said.

Next month, Priebe plans to move the co-op into a 15,000-square-foot storefront near her Arlington home.

Partial funding to lease the storefront was obtained through a grant offered by the National Cooperative Bank, which gives financial services to cooperatives and other member-owned organizations.

Co-op members also contributed money for the new property. Once there, The Complete You will be one of hundreds of storefront food co-ops cropping up nationwide.

Food co-ops are increasingly popular among consumers seeking organic food at lower prices. Co-ops are buying clubs where members pool their money to buy goods -- in this case, fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and dairy products.

By buying in bulk directly from organic farmers, co-op members can get lower prices than those at the supermarket, where organic produce typically costs a little more than commercially grown vegetables and other produce.

"It's cheaper than what you get at Whole Foods or Central Market," said Cindy Gidon, a south Arlington resident and co-op member. "Plus, there's more variety."

Across the country, about 275 co-ops have set up in storefronts, and as many as thousands more smaller food clubs operate out of people's homes and garages, said Walden Swanson, CEO of CoopMetrics, an analyst firm based in Carrboro, N.C.

People join co-ops for a myriad of reasons, including low costs. Members find themselves aligned along similar interests, such as a strict -- even passionate -- adherence to healthy, whole- food diets.

Because no two co-ops operate the same, joining is also a statement of individuality as members get what they order rather than what's available, Swanson said.

The co-ops often provide a wider variety of produce grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides than that found in grocery stores.

And there's even a sentiment among members that co-ops are a return to a traditional, more agrarian way of life. Member leaders work directly with local farmers, who grow the food specifically for the co-op. The proceeds are turned back into the pockets of the farmers without corporate or government intervention.

As a whole, natural foods are on the rise.

Last year, natural/organic foods posted a 7 percent sales growth over 2003, making it the fastest- growing segment of the grocery industry, according to Cooperative Grocer magazine. In addition, natural- foods stores average nearly 5 percent growth for 2004 with more than half reporting sales increases, analysts said.

One of the most- recognized retailers of organic food is Austin-based Whole Foods Market, which has increased annual revenue by $550 million in the past four years to $1.34 billion in 2004. The company owns 169 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Co-ops are among the top five players in the organic food market. The 200-plus co-op storefronts recognized by the National Cooperative Grocers Association collected about $750 million combined in 2004, Swanson said.

Neighborhood co-ops such as The Complete You compete on a much smaller scale. Priebe declined to discuss revenue but said her co-op, with its 65 members and growing, grosses between $50,000 and $70,000 per year. That figure should go up with membership dues expected to rise.

"It makes enough to support itself," she said.

The "organic" label identifies food produced without growth hormones or pesticides, which some say makes it healthier. Some co-ops also distribute whole foods, which have not been processed, such as whole-grain breads.

The quest for better health compelled Monica Brown to start her own co-op, Your Health Source, in Fort Worth. She and her husband were troubled by health issues ranging from hypoglycemia to irregular heart beats. Brown also has a history of cancer in her family and knew she needed a lifestyle change.

The results of altering their eating habits were unmistakable, she said.

"My husband dropped 40 pounds, and his heart stopped skipping beats," she said. "There are so many stories about people saving their own lives by eating the right things."

Brown now encourages others to go with whole- foods diets. She even holds cooking classes to make the transition to a healthier lifestyle more palatable.

Others in co-ops relate their own experiences of how eating whole foods saved them from illness.

Research is still being done on whether organic foods are better at curing disease, said Joice Carter, a dietitian with the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. But, she said, sweeter-tasting tomatoes grown organically aren't necessarily more nutritious than conventional ones.

"An apple is an apple," she said. "Your body responds to good nutrition -- period."


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