Press-Republican

September 23, 2013

Online buying club boosts local-food access

By LAURIE DAVIS, Cornell Cooperative Extension
Press-Republican

---- — For nearly two decades, my family has grown much of its own food.  

If we can’t produce it ourselves, sometimes we purchase through a cooperative-buying club and place an order online each month. A semitruck deftly maneuvers the back roads and delivers the items to our club site, where a handful of cooperative members unload, sort and weigh groceries and organic produce. We buy in bulk and save money. 

It’s like a slick combination of Sam’s Club and a natural-foods co-op. But one aspect has been conspicuously absent: Most items, especially the produce, are not locally sourced. Enter the next generation of online cooperative-buying clubs, Wholeshare.

Wholeshare offers an exciting new dimension on the local-food front. 

It was developed in Silicon Valley, but launched with local-food distributors in New York state, coordinating its operations out of its Potsdam office. The company was introduced to the North Country region by Mark Dzwonczyk, CEO of Nicholville Telephone Company/SLIC Network Solutions and a Wholeshare advisor. The beauty of the system is that Wholeshare does the work of sourcing locally for you, checking your group’s location, giving you access to the farm products nearest to you and then expanding out from there. Your group can decided how wide to cast the “local” net. You can even purchase “fair trade” bananas and oranges.

The advantages offered are similar to other cooperatives and buying clubs. Here’s a quote from the Wholeshare website: “By shopping as a group, everyone increases their purchasing power. The group places larger orders than you could on your own and as a result, it becomes worthwhile for farmers and other local food producers to come deliver directly to you and your group. Also, because you’re able to go direct to the source you cut out costly portions of your supply chain, which means you save money without shortchanging the producers.”

Interested in joining or starting a group? There are no fees to join, start or maintain a group. The only costs you will encounter are associated with delivery fees, a varying amount that will be split among all members of the group. Go to the wholeshare.com website and click on the “Find a Group” tab at the top of the page. Enter your zip code, and all the existing groups in your region will appear. 

Do any of them look appealing to you? If not, go ahead and click on “Start a Group.” As a group coordinator, you can earn a small commission and oversee the general operation — there’s even a handy “new coordinator guide.” This will take time and energy so if you have neither of those — but want the food — just join an existing group.

The Wholeshare system has some sweet attributes. Each member is responsible for placing his or her own order online and pays for the order by credit card, eliminating the communication and financial headaches of other buying-club cooperatives. There is a nifty “split” system whereby you can order a partial case of a product — say 5 pounds of potatoes from a 15-pound bag. The other members of your groups are alerted to this, giving them an opportunity to join in on the split. As soon as the 15 pounds of potatoes have been spoken for, the order can be placed. All of the members’ orders that are ready will be filled at each delivery date. Unfilled splits remain in the system until filled at some future delivery.

The next task is to encourage more of our local farmers to use Wholeshare as an outlet for their marketing. Another option is for community-supported agriculture groups to start a Wholeshare group so that more local food can be accessed at the regular CSA distribution. The future of local foods is bright. Find more information at www.wholeshare.com, and visit www.adirondackharvest.com to find local farms, farmers markets and CSAs.

Laurie Davis is an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Reach her at 962-4810, Ext. 404, or by email: lsd22@cornell.edu.