Driving through rural Mansfield, we pass by miles of green pastureland speckled with an array of trailers, big houses, small houses, pools, tanks, goats, horses and dogs. We're headed to the home of Elizabeth Preibe, who hosts a local food co-op called Life Through the Garden. Every two weeks her members make the trek out to her place to pick up their local organic fruits, veggies and other goods.
"When I joined the co-op I was looking for a source of local produce and dairy. I wanted to be closer to my food source," says member Adrienne Vaughan of Arlington. In doing so, she has completely changed the way her family eats -- for the better.
Every co-op is organized differently, but the general concept is the host gathers the food from local sources, including farmers, ranchers and bakers, and then distributes the food to members at a set place and time. It's one-stop shopping for the modern day farm advocate who is looking for a row of the tilled life in their urban homes.
Cost is usually based on a "bin" of produce, which for Life Through the Garden two weeks worth ranges from $40 to $55. Exceptions in the selection can be made, but typically one just takes what has been collected, leaving the host responsible for providing what is available locally. Things like meat, milk or eggs are ordered and priced separately.
Supplying plentiful bins throughout the year can be a challenge, though, because of the highs and lows of the seasons. Priebe aims to have a variety of growers in order to offer more options.
"Here in Texas, the growing seasons are somewhat muddled with mild winters and scorching hot summers," Priebe says, "but, currently we have seven farmers providing our co-op products. Most of the produce farmers quit in the winter because they do not have a warm place to grow. Now we have a new farmer with large green houses, which will allow us to get more produce through the winter."
But sometimes, it's just not enough. So while the goal is to purchase all local, Priebe will occasionally shop at grocery stores to ensure the bins are filled.
"If our members were amenable to just seasonal produce, we would only do local," said Priebe. "However, many people are not satisfied with eating seasonally, so the store supplements produce like lettuce in the dry, hot summer. Further, certain fruit and veggies will not grow in Texas without a serious amount of time, effort and money. Bananas, for instance. No matter how locally minded, most people are not willing to give up their bananas. To put a number on it, the bins usually contain about 75 to 80 percent local during the summer."
Co-op members don't seem to mind, though. The benefits outweigh those exceptions. "First, picking up my produce every two weeks saves me multiple trips to the store," Vaughan says. "I would never buy this amount of produce at the grocery store at once."
Taking time to properly store all the goods is important in making it last. After that, the dinner table looks different.
"I feel like I get a very good variety, though sometimes I struggle with using it all," says Vaughan. "I have to be creative, and it takes practice to get into the habit of shaping our meals around what we have instead of buying the ingredients for a specific meal. But again, that's the reason I joined to begin with."
Another perk of purchasing through a co-op is personally knowing those who provide food for your family. If there's a problem with something, you know where to go.
Lastly, there's buying local. "Instead of supporting a large corporation I support a local family and farmers markets. Even if I pay a little more for my produce and dairy, I know it's going towards the local economy," Vaughan says.
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Priebe encourages anyone who is interested in either hosting a co-op or becoming a member to contact her.
"We have lots of contacts and resources for both producers and consumers," she says. "Our goal is to have small, neighborhood co-ops throughout the metroplex. It matters not that we head them. What does matter is that consumers begin to realize the freedom they have in choosing what they eat and where it comes from."