How to Start a Food Buying Club

When you know how to start a food buying club, you can not only save a ton of money, but you can also connect with the food produced in your region and build a real sense of community in your social group.

Whether it is organic produce, non-toxic shampoos and deodorants, or a half-side of grass-fed beef, you and a group of friends can get together and order just about anything that can be had more cheaply by buying it in bulk.

Between rising food and oil prices and a depressed economy, organic, pasture-raised, and healthy, natural products are more expensive than ever. But you can make them substantially cheaper by throwing in with your friends and family to buy in bulk quantities.

In the first study of its kind to look into the benefits of buying in bulk, research conducted by Portland State University Food Industry Leadership Center for the Bulk is Green Council (BIG), revealed that Americans could save an average of 89 percent on costs by buying their organic foods in bulk.

Bulk foods obviously use far less packaging, but you may not realize how quickly this adds up.

According to the report, if Americans purchased the following products in bulk for one year, it would save hundreds of millions of pounds of waste from going into landfills:

  • Coffee: 240 million pounds of foil packaging saved from landfills
  • Almonds: 72 million pounds of waste saved from landfills
  • Peanut butter: 7 pounds of waste saved from landfills per family
  • Oatmeal: Saves five times the waste of its packaged equivalent

There are benefits to manufacturers too, who can save an average of 54 percent on material and delivery costs by packing foods like nuts, dried fruit and trail mix in bulk.

How to Start a Food Buying Club

If you have a large enough group to meet the minimum order price on a relatively regular basis, you can set up a wholesale account with a lot of different natural product and organic food vendors, both local and out-of-state. This can save you hundreds—or even thousands of dollars a year!

Some of the benefits of buying clubs include:

  • Access to high-quality, natural and organic products at bulk or wholesale prices.
  • Buying clubs build a sense of community amongst the members.
  • Members gain a greater connection to their local small businesses, farms and ranches.
  • Members share opinions and learn about products from each other.
  • Buying in bulk also reduces the amount of packaging that is produced by the manufacturer.
  • Reducing carbon emissions due to shipping only one order per club purchase vs. if members ordered individually.
  • Purchasing products from businesses, farms and ranches that share similar values as your club.

Starting with just five or six families, the buying clubs here in San Diego eventually grew large enough to need some administrative leadership and some formal rules to keep everything organized and accountable. Whether the leadership is formal or informal, static or rotating, paid or voluntary depends on what works for your group.

Ultimately we have grown to need a food scale and a few used, deep-chest freezers (bought off of Craigslist) to hold orders in someone’s garage until they can be picked up by members. (Never buy a new freezer: There are simply too many used ones in perfect working condition to keep out of the landfill!)

While I don’t think we want our buying clubs to grow so large that we need a storefront or warehouse to hold all the products, if you wanted to go in that direction, know that most co-op grocery stores got their start as little garage-and-kitchen-table operations like ours.

I’m proud to say that between gardening, buying clubs and farmer’s markets, we barely need the grocery store anymore—and we certainly never pay retail “Whole Paycheck” prices for expensive things like non-toxic sunscreen, organic almond flour or pasture-raised poultry.

And as an added benefit, we have the satisfaction of knowing that most of the money we spend on food, housewares and personal care is going to great small businesses and nearby family farms and ranches, instead of huge, unaccountable, corporate chains.

Once you get your buying club together, you’ll be amazed at the deals you can negotiate simply by having a group large and organized enough to regularly buy in bulk.

Here are some of the great national and regional vendors where our buying clubs have set up wholesale accounts:

  • Azure Standard – From organic cereals, pasta, and yogurt, to bulk nuts and produce, if it’s a packaged food you’ve seen at a health food store, Azure probably has it. Only available in certain parts of the country.
  • Frontier – Frontier is a national co-op that provides buying clubs with teas, coffees, spices, bulk food items, personal care items, household items, culinary accessories, vitamins, and supplements. They have thousands of Fair Trade items and carry all the major, natural brands like Frontier, Simply Organic, Aura Cacia, Ecover, Seventh Generation, Dr Bronner, and more.
  • Mountain Rose Herbs – An outstanding source for any and every type of herb, spice, tea, essential oil or traditional fat you might need for cooking or natural medicine. Their vast selection can’t be beat anywhere on the net, and their prices are great, even at retail. Working with a co-op to order wholesale is even better!
  • Thrive Market – An outstanding source for wholesale priced, organic packaged foods, and natural cleaning and personal care products. They have a membership fee, but their prices are great!
  • Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil – Your grandmother was right: Cod liver oil is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can add to your diet to ensure good health. If you ferment it in the old, Norwegian tradition the way Green Pastures does it, then it is even better.
  • Wilderness Family Naturals – Sustainably harvested and produced coconut oils, coconut milk and cream, chocolate spreads and nut butters, sprouted nuts and seeds, soy- and canola-free mayonnaise and salad dressings, REAL wild rice, and more. One of my favorite traditional food stores!
  • Ancient Organics Ghee – Yummy ghee. Mmmmmm.
  • Green Virgin Products – Bulk soap nuts and mineral salt deodorant stones.
  • Shelton’s Poultry – Pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone free chicken and turkey. West Coast only.
  • Brite Creek Farm – A grassfed beef CSA with yummy steaks and really nice ranchers. Southern California only.
  • Glacier Grown – Free-range bison by the half and whole animal (though butchered for easy sharing), raw honey. Southern California only.

We also bulk order a lot from small businesses, farms and ranches in our county:

  • organic produce
  • citrus, tropical fruit and avocados
  • raw vegan ice cream
  • raw honey
  • raw milk, butter and cheese (by the 5-pound block!)
  • olives and olive oil
  • pasture-raised pork
  • grass-fed beef
  • pasture-raised chickens and eggs
  • duck eggs
  • fish and seafood
  • stainless steel food tiffins
  • diapers (both cloth and “eco-friendlier” disposables)

As a group, we also regularly go in together on online orders for clothing, housewares and more, whenever a member has a good coupon or free shipping. Clothing and toy swaps are relatively common too.

We keep a member business list so that we can hire each other for services before we open the Yellow Pages to hire a stranger. But the best part for me, as a full-time mom and caregiver, is that order pick-up days are often lively social occasions and multi-family playdates.

It’s amazing how social, sustainable, frugal, and fulfilled you can be when you start working together and sharing resources with your friends and neighbors.

Starting or joining a natural food buying club this year just makes good economic and environmental sense. It can also help connect you with the farmers and food produced locally in your region, and build a strong sense of community and connection in your neighborhood, social group and family.

What do you have to lose?

Here are some additional resources to get you started:

How to Create a Neighborhood Food-Buying Club – PDF

This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, pick up a copy today!


31 thoughts on “How to Start a Food Buying Club”

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  1. I was part of a food buying club about 28 years ago in New Mexico. We purchased from one distributor of organic foods. When the shipment came in, it came in on one semi-truck and we all met to unload the products. At that time, we also portioned out the products. It generally was an all nighter as shipments came in on Friday night and by the time we were done, it was 3-4 in the morning. It was a requirement of membership that all member families have at least one person there on delivery night. I was always amazed by the 25 pound wheels of cheese.

    I wish I knew of one locally but I do have a wonderful co-op a short distance away and from April thru October, a huge Farmers Market.

  2. I was wondering if you would share what licensing and permits you needed to start your buying club. I am also in Socal and want to make sure that I handle that portion properly.

    Thanks so much for such a great article!

    1. Our buying clubs are just a large group of friends, neighbors and family going in on products collectively. We do not need any permits or licensing because we do not have a storefront, storage, nor are we profiting or distributing. We simply receive the orders at someone’s home and divvy it all up among those that ordered the day it comes in. If you were working with a storefront or people you did not know personally, you might want to set up an LLC.

      1. Some of these companies say that they need a tax ID number to provide wholesale information. Will they still give you info if you don’t have one?

        1. There are many companies that don’t require one (many listed in the article), and you may need to work with them. At some point, your group could incorporate into an LLC or other entity and apply for an EIN. You could also possibly do it under the umbrella of a small business owned by one of your group’s members if they are open to that.

  3. Hi there, I just found this post. I have been looking for a food buying club in San Diego for some time. I looked for the San Diego Natural Families on yahoo groups but couldn’t find it. Would you have any other resources? thank you

    1. This is the address for the Natural Families group, but the buying club is not affiliated directly. Rather it is run by a few members. Right now the food buying club is not open to new members, but you might be able to start or join with some of the other cooperatives happening on the list.

  4. Hi Dawn! Thanks for this awesome post! I’ve been eating real food in San Diego about 5 years now & I picked up several new resources here. Thank you! I’m curious where you’ve met so many like-minded people? Most of the parents at my kids’ school are not very interested, although I’ve gotten a few curious. Maybe it’s partly because I have my farm box home delivered & don’t meet the other members or maybe I’m not that great at talking it up with my friends? Any advice appreciated.

    1. I replied to you personally via email, but I recommend joining the San Diego Natural Families yahoo group. Everything green, crunchy or AP happening in San Diego goes through that group. It’s an invaluable resource!

      1. Thank you so much, Dawn, for taking the time to respond & point me in the right direction. I’ve already got two families on board to start buying a few items in bulk. It’s a start! Thanks again for all your helpful, well-written posts.

  5. I wanted to point out another great resource for buying clubs and co-ops – This is free/low-cost site developed specifically for clubs and co-ops, and the catalogs of many of the vendors listed here are already available to use – your club just needs to open a business account with them (the vendor) and start ordering. The system does all the order tracking, case splitting, and invoicing for you. I have been using this system for 3 years, and it only gets better as new and useful features are added.

    I encourage any and all clubs to check it out. While it’s currently a free system, the developer would love to make a living doing what he does, and I also encourage any clubs who do use it, to consider that and include some kind of regular payment/tip as part of their club’s operating expenses.

    And finally, I am not affiliated, but a huge fan.

  6. Thanks for this post! This isn’t something I’d thought of before. Now I just need to find a club or start one.

  7. I’m interested in starting a buying club, but am not sure where to find real cost savings. I compared the prices between Azure and my local Wholefoods for 4 products I buy often (spray oil, gf pancake mix, gf macaroni, & almond milk), and the prices at Wholefoods were only slightly more expensive (like 20 cents). Is there a vendor that offers wholesale prices for bulk purchases?

    1. It’s true you are not going to save a whole lot on packaged products through Azure or Frontier, because these items are already expensive by virtue of being process and packaged, and compared to whole foods, the mark-up is relatively low. (Did you log in as a wholesale customer? They do have two different pricing tiers.)

      However, go in with your group to buy and split 50 pounds of raw almonds, several crates of oranges, 40 dozen eggs, or 6 whole steer (butchered to order), and then you’ll see significant cost savings over retail. Your best cost savings will always be in farmer-direct and whole food bulk buys, which will also give you the most nutrition and environmental benefit too! Best to you with your club!!

  8. Is the buying club you are part of open for another addition?  I live in San Clemente but go to San Diego often and would love to join if possible.

  9. What’s sad is I don’t think I even know 4 or 5 other families who would be interested in going in on stuff like this. And I love the resource of online whole foods retailers! Some of them I haven’t heard of! Thanks for linking up to Healthy 2Day Wednesday.

    1. When I joined the buying clubs here, I didn’t know anyone in them personally, but I did know we all shared similar values around food, farmers and the environment. You don’t necessarily have to know each other to buy together; you just have to share similar values. Perhaps there is a group in your community that appreciates real food, and would love to get it at better prices. 🙂 Good luck to you! And thanks for hosting!

  10. Avatar photo
    Emily @Randomrecycling

    I’ve been thinking about this vs a food co-op lately. Thanks for pulling all of these resources together.  I live in the Northeast and there are not too many options, but at least there are now lots of farmer’s markets in the winter to allow for easier local shopping.

  11. Avatar photo
    Melanie at PickleMeToo

    Thank you so much for sharing!  I live in the middle of nowhere with the closest natural food store being about 600+ miles away.  We have a ton of people who order monthly from Azure Standard but we’re looking for more options.  Thanks for the ideas!

  12. Avatar photo
    Joy at The Liberated Kitchen

    We agree with everything but that part about not buying a new freezer  ; )   Maybe the Craig’s List situation is better where you are than in Portland, OR. 

    Buying clubs are great, though, and have been key not only to being able to afford quality food, but just plain having access to it! One thing we have had to continue to watch out for is gluten cross-contamination. Sometimes there will be a buy where we are splitting an order of, say, raisins, and someone else may be splitting an order of flour. We have to make sure to communicate with the host of the order to make sure that they don’t contaminate our order when divvying things up! Also, it turns out that Azure repackages all their beans and lentils in the same facility as their grains. Just because it is bulk and organic doesn’t mean it is safe. Always check it out if you are dealing with an allergy or severe intolerance!

    1. Thanks for this information!! There are so many sneaky ways gluten can get into our food! This is very helpful to know.

      I definitely think freezer availability on Craigslist must vary by city. Down here in San Diego there are dozens and dozens of newer freezers of all dimensions and styles for $100-$200, and often you can talk the seller down.

      thanks so much for commenting and the post on freezers. I’m really enjoying your blog!

    2. you might check out organic flour as the gluten problem turns out to be another case of monsanto messing with our food. Did you know that prior to harvest wheat is sprayed with glyphosphate ie roundup,besides being a highly toxic pesticide it also is a dessicant [removes moisture]. It appears there is a reason for all the gluten intolerance, thank Monsanto.The health ranger is where to look for info hope this helps.

      1. Thank you for your comment. It is enraging to me that we use a probably carcinogen like glyphosate to dry out our wheat. I don’t have much love for the industrial food system, and I advocate a local, whole food, organic diet whenever possible and affordable.

  13. Avatar photo

    I love your blog! I came to it from the Homemaker Monday link up and I am thrilled. There are lots of things on here that I have wanted to do. Love it!

  14. I am getting started with my own buying club to access real milk and soy free eggs.  We hope to expand.  Thanks for sharing this.  It is definitely getting bookmarked!



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