How to run a food co-op or bulk buying group

Getting Started

Ok it's time to get organised! Here's where you want to be: You've got 5 - 10 people who want to help you start the group, and well on your way to finding 20 or more people who want to purchase regularly. You've got a clean, dry, open space where people can meet and where deliveries can be dropped off.

Many groups meet on a weekly basis, but some are once a fortnight or once a month. It really depends on what works for everyone in the group, and also on what you're buying together. (Fresh fruit and veg is a weekly purchase for most people, but if buying dry goods or household products that might need to happen less often.) The timing will also need to take into consideration the delivery schedules for any suppliers that you use.

The weekly life of a food  group revolves around some central tasks: Firstly, an availability list is often sent out weekly from suppliers. The list is used to update what you make available to your members to order. Next, ordering closes and gets collated per supplier. Orders are then placed with suppliers, and when it arrives the group meets to split the delivery into individual purchases. Invoices are sent, members pay for what they've received, and then bank transactions are checked and suppliers are paid.

This set of tasks has led most groups to form a number of sub-groups so that duties can be divided between members. These groups are usually called:

  Communications - manage communication between members, usually done via email.

  Finance - manage paying invoices and collecting payments from members.

  Stock - manage orders with suppliers and product availability to members.

Click on each of the above links to read more about how each sub-group operates. You should consider having a Group Co-ordinator for each of these, which can be rotated amongst the members of the group. Also consider time frames for rotating roles, which will help with two important factors: sharing knowledge amongst your buying group, and preventing burn-out of individuals. The length of time before rotating will depend on the number of members in each group. You can also rotate sub-groups (maybe yearly or every 6 months) so that all members learn how to perform all tasks over time.

When it comes to the actual packing or purchasing day (or night), there tends to be two different models. The first is used in buying groups where members place individual orders that get collated before being sent to suppliers. In this case, each of the sub-groups mentioned above are usually on a monthly roster for packing all the orders for the group. The other members arrive once packing has finished to pick up their box. Read more about pre-ordering groups here.

The other model operates more like a store, where members shop from what's available. In this case volunteers are usually called on to enter purchases for their fellow members. Read more about non-ordering groups here.

Both models have proven to be successful and long-lasting for the groups that use them. Deciding which way to go really comes down to the preference of the people you start your group with. With either model, you might want to write up what the group expects from it's members, possibly as a formal member agreement.

The most important thing that makes a buyers group successful is having members that are committed to the group and buy on a regular basis. There always needs to be a few people who are happy to put in an extra bit of time and energy, but as long as everyone contributes some of their time, things should run pretty smoothly. Remember, volunteer time is the resource that needs to be managed here, as it is everyone's efforts that makes buying your produce cheaper. The software at lettuceshare.org was written to reduce the time it takes to do most of the regular tasks required. If you would like to trial it with your group please get in touch!

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