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How to Start Your Own Produce Co-op

After reading , Deja wrote and asked if she could share how they set up their own produce co-op very similar to . Her article is packed with great information if you’re looking for a way to save money on produce. -Crystal

Guest post by Deja Armstrong

Several years ago, a friend of mine came up with the realization that we were spending lots of money buying fresh produce for our families. We live in Texas and don’t have .

My friend decided to see if we could save money by buying fruits and veggies by the case and splitting them among several families. Our co-op was born out of this idea and it’s been 3 ½ years of great savings.

Here’s how you can start your own co-op:

1. Contact the Produce Manager (in person) at your favorite grocery store.

Tell him or her that you know 15 to 20 families who are are interested in regularly purchasing about $300 to $450 of produce each week. Say that you’d like to work with him or her to come up with a volume discount for making a consistent large purchase.

Like the rest of us, Produce Managers are responsible for their productivity and sales, so knowing that they can boost their weekly numbers by several hundred dollars should be appealing to them.

Now, you can’t go in and ask for a unilateral 20% discount, but you can try to get a good deal for you and your friends. Generally, my store gives me a 15-20% discount on my entire purchase. Sometimes, though, the savings are much more.

2. Come up with a cost per family to participate and spread the word.

In our co-op, we have “Shares.” Single Shares are $15 and Double Shares are $28. I give a Double Share a discount because they often are easier to sort. I tell people that a veggie-loving family of four to six will eat through a double share in less than a week. Smaller families or those trying out our co-op opt for the Single Shares.

Once you have your cost, then you start telling everyone you know about what you’re trying to do and get their commitment to try it. For our group, we do not place an order with less than 18 shares. In my experience, my Produce Manager is more generous with the discounts when I’m spending over $350.

The last time I calculated, a $15 Single Share at market value was about $23. (I checked the price of produce at the store I bought my cases and Walmart.) That savings is bigger with a Double Share. In that instance, you’re getting about $46 worth of produce for $28.

3. Find out what fruits and veggies your friends like and loathe.

People won’t order each week if you buy strange things. At first, we got cauliflower every week and quickly found out that people didn’t like it that much. Now I get it every few months. If you’re a spreadsheet person, make one. I just write it down in my notebook.

We tend to get the basics. Each week I order romaine, loose carrots, bananas and apples. These generally are well below market value prices, so I always get them.

Then, we add items like broccoli crowns, green beans, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, corn, tomatoes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, asparagus, avocados, celery, oranges, pears, peaches, nectarines, kiwi, mangoes, strawberries and grapes — “normal” foods. While I may like artichokes, I don’t assume everyone else does, so I try to stick with mainstream fruits and veggies.

I also buy seasonal fruit and vegetables because the prices are even lower.

4. Research case quantities and weights.

Ask your Produce Manager how many items or pounds are in cases of the things you are considering. For me, romaine comes in cases of 18, carrots are 25-pound bags, strawberries in flats of eight and apples are in 40-pound cases. These are important things to know, so that you know how many cases you’ll need to purchase in order to meet the needs of your group.

5. Prepare an order based on how much money you have.

When I’m ready to place my order I have written down how many Single and Double Shares I have and how much money I have to spend. I come up with the list of items I’d like to buy and write down the pre-arranged prices for certain items and my “hopeful” prices.

I call my Produce Manager and we work through my list. Sometimes we negotiate. Other times I’m told “This is the best price I can give you.” I take it or leave it, based on what I have to spend. I try to buy five to six different fruits and five to six different vegetables.

I also keep track of each week’s order, so I don’t order the same items consecutively. I keep all my co-op information in a notebook. You can come up with a spreadsheet or print out a chart if you’d like. Notebook paper works for me.

What does a Produce Day look like?

On Produce Day, I go to the grocery store and pick up my produce. My husband takes the back seat out of our minivan so I can get it all in there. I meet up with the manager and we go over the order. It usually is sitting in the cooler on a cart for me. Once we double-check everything, I go to the check out to pay while a member of the produce department loads my van.

We unload and begin to sort into laundry baskets. (Each co-op member is responsible to have two laundry baskets marked with their name to use for their co-op purchases. They pick up their full basket each week and drop off their empty basket from the previous week.) We determine how many items go in each basket based on how many shares we have. Many items have the actual case count printed on the end of the case, or the Produce Manager has told me how many items are in the case.

Often, I end up with leftovers after evenly dividing everything. If I have 18 Single Shares and six Double Shares, and nine apples, the Double Shares get the first six, and the rest go into an “extra basket.” The extra basket gets the random carrots or whatever that doesn’t evenly divide. It’s first come, first served for people to take whatever they want from the extra basket. Also, my cantaloupe or asparagus-loathing folks can put theirs in the basket, and take a handful of whatever they want to make up for it.

I have a 30-minute window for people to pick up their baskets. When they come, they bring their empty basket and sit it on my front porch, and then pick up their full basket. Often, they will also pay for the next week, so they only make one trip to my house.

My total time investment is about two to four hours each week. The bulk of that is on produce pick-up day. It might take a bit more time upfront getting things organized, but once it’s running, your time investment is much less.

What do I get out of running this co-op?

First, I take a free Single Share of produce for every 10 Shares sold. I do purchase Shares to help us meet our 18-Share minimum, if necessary. However, usually two to four hours of work gets me $40-$50 in free produce for my family. Since I do all the work, folks in my co-op don’t mind me taking free produce.

When calculating how many shares I have, I add my shares to the total, but don’t add the money. So I’m buying 30 shares of produce, with 28 shares of money.

The co-op also gives my children a chance to practice their math skills while sorting. And it gives them a excellent opportunity to serve others by lugging cases of produce into the dining room, sorting hundreds of apples, opening the doors, playing with littles while mom visits and carrying baskets out to vehicles. While we know many people in our co-op, there are many others who have joined by word-of-mouth. That has given us a tremendous opportunity to minster to others.

Deja Armstrong has been married for 16 years and is a homeschooling mom to 5. She spends about $400 per month on groceries. She’s values family and is about to launch a Titus 2 blog for women in her church.

Photo credits:

Super Savings Saturday

Here were my purchases for this week:

Target Trip: Spent $11.26 — Read the full details on this trip here.

Walmart Trip: Spent $4.14 — Read the full details on this trip here.

Dillons Trip: Spent $9.44 — Read the full details on this trip here.

My husband also picked up a gallon of milk earlier in the week, as well.

We’ve been eating mostly from the pantry and freezer the past few weeks in an effort to use up all of our perishables before our move. But we’ve pretty much eaten almost every last bit of them, so I’m not sure what we’re going to be eating in the coming two weeks while we’re in the midst of packing and moving to our new house.

I’m thinking we’ll subsist on cereal, fruit/veggies, burritos, sandwiches and probably a little fast food, too. And I’m not going to feel guilty if we spend a little more on groceries and food than usual over the next few weeks. In my view, there are seasons when it’s totally okay to loosen the reins a little bit when it comes the budget and just do what you have to do to get through a busy time.

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Did you snag any great deals or bargains this week or save money in other ways? If so, be sure to post about them on your blog and leave your link below. Please remember that this weekly round-up is to share deals you personally got and/or money you were able to save this week. In order to keep this weekly round-up focused on helping and inspiring others in their efforts to save money, links which have little-to-no content other than promoting affiliate links, etc. will be deleted. Also, to make it easy for everyone to navigate quickly through the links, your link must link directly to your Super Savings Saturday post.

Weekend Giveaway: Four Cansolidator Shelving Systems

Is your stockpile getting crowded and disorganized? Are you afraid some of your food is going to get outdated because you don’t have a system for using up the oldest items first? If that’s the case, then this giveaway is for you!

is a front loading system that automatically rotates up to 40 cans. It’s adjustable, expandable and stackable system and a takes the hassle out of can rotation and allows you to organize cans the way you want. The Cansolidator is easy to assemble and guarantees a more organized pantry in minutes.

We got to try out a and I was pretty happy with the results. We just stuck it on one of our pantry shelves, filled it with cans and we instantly had much more organization as well as space!

I also really liked that you’re able to see exactly what you have. When I just stick all the cans on the shelves — even if I have them grouped by type — I find that often items will get overlooked or I’ll forget I have them. With the , I can more easily see everything in my pantry.

Now, would I buy one of these? Well, definitely not for their retail price of $44. That’s just way too steep for me to even consider — and sort of seems to defeat the purpose of buying ahead and having a stockpile in the first place.

However, through next Friday (July 2, 2010), you can save over 50% on the Cansolidator when you use coupon code SAVE1 at checkout. That’s a much better price and would make me feel a little more comfortable about paying to organize my stockpile shelves.

To read more about this coupon code and other specials, check out the .

Would you like to enter to win a Cansolidator? Just click on the button below and type in your name and email address to be entered. Four winners will be chosen and posted on Monday.

House-Hunting: Patience Pays Off!

We purposefully waited to look at houses until we had saved 100% of our goal for our house-fund. Because we were committed to staying out of debt and paying cash for a house, we didn’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we looked at houses, fell in love with one and then were tempted to go borrow money in order to buy it (yes, we’re like that!).

So we waited until we were completely ready and our house fund was fully-funded. And when we finally hit our goal at the beginning of the year, we’d been renting for seven years. Most people expected us to go right out and buy something almost immediately since we were finally ready to do so.

But we weren’t in any big rush. Sure, it would be nice to move to something a little better suited to our needs than our current rental, but we wanted to wait and find something we really liked and knew without a doubt was THE house for us.

We were initially thinking we’d find a house within a few months — if not sooner — but we quickly learned that when you’re paying 100% down on a house, you’re not in a big hurry to part with that money until you know you’ve found a house which you love.

So we waited, we prayed and we continued to look at houses.

After about five months of looking, I was getting a little tired of people asking “Have you found a house yet?” In fact, sometimes I felt like that mother who is pregnant and past her due date and people keep coming up and saying “When are you going to have that baby??”

I also was finding that we’d worked so hard for this big goal and now it felt like we were in a holding pattern. Going nowhere, getting no traction and without purpose. It wasn’t that we weren’t still saving money, it was just that we’d put a lot of our financial goals on hold until we found a house — since we wanted to have extra padding in our house budget to account for the additional expenses which might present themselves (necessary costs, moving expenses, work which would need to be done to the house, etc.)

When I talked to Jesse about this, we decided to sit down and map out a specific future game plan for our finances — even if we hadn’t found a house yet. We needed purpose and drive and goals. Without them, we were feeling a little aimless and slacking in sticking with the budget.

So we laid out specific dates for other financial goals and started working towards those. And almost immediately, the momentum was back and my frugal zeal returned!

And would you believe it? Within days of our “money meeting”, THE house went up for sale. And we signed a contract on it within 48 hours!

I guess you could say that we weren’t in a hurry until we found THE house — and then we certainly didn’t dawdle. How it all came to be is a bit of a wild story and still has us shaking our heads and pinching ourselves. But I’ll save all those details to share with you next week.

48-Hour Giveaway: Two $100 Borders gift cards

Have you been participating in the this Summer?

Kids 12 and under can join the and earn a free book when they read 10 books. Just and bring it in to any Borders, Waldenbooks, or Borders express store by August 26, 2010 to participate in this program. This is a great way to encourage and inspire your children to read more!

In addition to the free books Borders is giving away to everyone who participates in their , they are giving away a $100 Borders gift card to two readers here in the next 48 hours.

Would you like to win a free $100 gift card to Borders? To enter to win, just click on the button below. Two winners will be randomly chosen and posted on Monday.

How to Unplug Your Kids in One Day

Guest Post by Morgan at

I absolutely must start this with a clarification: You do not have to ban TV and DVDs forever if you choose to “unplug.” You can use the following tips to eliminate or cut back on TV watching and video games. Only you know what your children need.

We all know that kids need fresh air, fun projects, free play time and lots of time reading books. But personally, I have found (and maybe you have too) that if I am not very careful about how and when I use television or DVDs, it becomes my go-to — my cure-all for rough days, for busy days, for lazy days, for sick days. It’s just quick and easy.

In my case, there was no cable needed. Good old PBS kids + a TIVO was just enough for an unfortunate television addiction. So, I decided to undo what I had done. I unplugged my kids, and I did it in one day. Cold turkey.

Before you do it:

Make sure your spouse (and all caregivers) are on board.

First and foremost, your spouse must be on board and willing to uphold the new regime. If the kids know as soon as you walk out the door that Daddy will turn on the television, you will not be successful long-term. If you and your partner can have plans together on how to handle tough moments, you’ll be stronger and more prepared for road bumps. You have to be a united front; it’s vital.

Plan ahead.

You need to know when you as the parent are at your weakest and more likely to turn on the tube. You also need to identify when your kids get whiny and start asking for the television. That way you’ll be prepared to confront those moments. For example, if you always use TV while you shower and get ready for the day, try showering at night, or getting up before the kids. You can enlist your partner in this too.

Part of planning ahead is carefully deciding when to end the TV habit. If you choose to turn off the TV on a rainy, freezing cold day, you’ll have a much more difficult time of it than if you choose a warm, beautiful day. You’re going to need to use the outdoors to your advantage.

Young children thrive on routine, and they recognize and depend on TV time just as much as you do. To be successful, you’re going to need to have alternative activities planned and scheduled for the times when you usually use television. Fun and engaging activities keep little ones occupied so they don’t miss the TV.

8 Tips:

1. If the TV always goes on first thing in the morning, try to get plenty of sleep the night before so you can get up and get going rather than turn on cartoons and go back to bed.

Start your day with breakfast instead of TV. If that isn’t an option, provide your kids with a basket of toys and books for the morning time so you don’t have to get up before you’re ready. Carefully select toys and books that won’t be destructive or noisy.

2. If your weakness is to turn on the TV for your preschooler during the baby’s nap, then get play dough, crayons, pipe cleaners and other simple craft supplies and set up special “Quiet Time” play opportunities. That way, your preschooler will be so excited to do “new” things with you that the loss of his movie time won’t bug him as much.

3. If you tend to turn the TV on to beat the afternoon blahs, turn to the outdoors (this is where a nice day is key to unplugging). Children need fresh air almost as much as they need food.

Kids who spend all day in school (even when recess is included) need the freedom to run and jump and twirl without structure. Preschoolers need to learn motor skills. Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. I completely believe that media is a key component to that.

Fresh air is vital. If you’re home all day with preschool children, the minute you start to feel your fingers itch for the remote, hit the playground or the back yard. Get up, get out! GO!

4. If you just want to check your email and write a blog post, and your kids bug you unless they are plugged in, carve out time once the wee ones are in bed to be on the computer for an hour. If that’s not an option, provide them with fun activities right next to you, such as drawing or puzzles, so they aren’t feeling like they need to be obnoxious just for attention. Keep computer time to a minimum to avoid disasters.

5. If your hard time is when you’re trying to prepare dinner, have a family pow-wow in the kitchen. Have the older kids do their homework and tell you about their day, and the younger ones “help” you with dinner.

Tupperware and spoons with some dry rice or noodles can seriously entertain a toddler for quite a while. You can also enlist older kids to read stories to younger ones. Anytime you can replace TV-watching with book-reading, you’re doing a good job. Visit the library one afternoon a week to keep the literature new and interesting.

6. If your children are old enough, use the late afternoon to help children enhance talents or hobbies. Art, music, photography, dance, scrapbooking, and writing are all great things to do instead of television-watching. This is also an excellent time for school-aged kids to practice those instruments or whatever skills they are working on. If you can stand to listen to violin practice and provide feedback while the pork chops broil, then you’re in a great place!

7. If you use TV at the end of the day for a treat or to unwind, replace it with family game night. Games like Apples to Apples or Cranium are fun for all ages. Toddlers who are too small to play are usually content to hold a game piece and feel like they are participating. Books before bed are always a nice,  quiet way to end the day as well.

8. If you are used to having the TV on all day as background — or to watch shows you like — you can replace the noise with music from an Mp3 player or CDs.

By the end of a no-TV day, you will be so tired, and yet you will feel so gratified! You did it! You actually did not turn on the TV for your children even once. If you feel like it, do it again tomorrow. It gets easier every single day.

But let’s get real here: Kids who have been raised on a steady diet of lots of television or DVDs are not going to give it up easily. Older kids, especially, are going to notice the lack of television.  They are going to complain, they might even weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

Decide what’s right for you and your family

You can decide what works for you, but I suggest having them earn their media time (I say media because you can apply all the above to computer time as well). They want a half hour of media? Then they have to practice piano for 30 minutes.

Use chores or homework to earn their time. This teaches them that media is a privilege, not a right. If you really want to undo media entirely, then have open discussions about your feelings and why you’ve made this choice for them. Since families are not democracies, they do not have to agree, or like it. They’ll adjust. Really, they will.

Don’t cave. It’s just one day at a time. Be strong.

Children absorb media, even if they aren’t specifically paying attention. Bad language and violence affects them, even if they are not directly watching. If you find that the TV habit is yours to break, then apply similar tactics for yourself.

I’ll repeat this point: Unplugging does not mean sledge-hammering your television. I still turn on the TV probably three days out of a week. However, there are days (or a string of days) when the kids don’t watch anything. Those tend to be the best days.

Morgan writes real, do-able how-tos for life with zero money and zero time at . She mothers three boys, a dog and wifes a really nice guy. She lives south of Salt Lake City, UT and looks forward to the day when her husband finishes school. She is a doula in her spare time.

photo credit: ;