Freshness, prices keep co-op going 54 families join in Westminster CARROLL COUNTY SENIORS

April 07, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

The smell of fresh vegetables and the flapping of brown paper bags filled the air.

"Anybody want sweet potatoes?" shouted a woman.

"Yeah, I'll take some sweet potatoes," answered another.

The scene could have been the bustle of a farmers market or the chaos of a grocery store the day before a blizzard.

Instead, it was the usually peaceful basement of Meadow Branch Church of the Brethren near Westminster. Every two weeks, the church activity room becomes a produce market, when members of the Westminster Co-op gather to pick up cases of fresh produce and to place their next orders.

Led by Virginia Stoner, 72, of Westminster, the co-op is a group of about 54 families that banded together to flex the muscles of consumer power. The members order produce, eggs and seafood every two weeks. Four times a year, they buy cheese and dry goods such as flour and pasta.

The co-op keeps its prices low because it buys in bulk -- for instance, up to 1,700 pounds of cheese at a time. And the members eliminate middlemen by doing most of the work themselves.

Where else can you get mozzarella cheese for $1.39 a pound, hamburger patties for $1.47 a pound, or lettuce for 50 cents a head?

"We try very hard to save at least 15 percent [on retail prices]," said Mrs. Stoner. If an item is not going to save the group at least 10 percent on store prices, she said, the co-op won't buy it.

Thursday, the co-op did without new red potatoes, which would have cost them $22 for 50 pounds. "That's too much," Mrs. Stoner said.

The group buys from the produce and fish markets in Jessup, and from local producers. Many members say the co-op food is fresher and of better quality than what they could get in the stores.

"The oranges and things are really nice," said Alice Roche, the co-op's membership chairman. "We get the pick."

Mrs. Roche said she buys enough vegetables and fruit to last her family of five for two weeks -- about four boxes of produce -- for less than $20.

"The quality's better," said Bob Meusel, who comes from Baltimore County to the co-op. "We get the broccoli absolutely fresh and the bunches are always big."

His family's membership started as a way to save on groceries, Mr. Meusel said, but it "turned into something else."

He said he and his wife teach their children at home. Thursday, Mr. Meusel took his 11-year-old son Derek to the food pick-up. He said the co-op provides opportunities for Derek to practice math skills and have social contact with people.

Each member is expected to contribute two hours of work a month. Chores include weighing food, packing orders, serving as a cashier and comparison shopping at local grocery stores. Some people put in extra time.

Mrs. Stoner spends one day every two weeks supervising the regular food pickup, and about another half-day on administrative tasks such as signing checks, training workers and checking with committee chairmen on the buying and work assignment schedules.

Eight times a year, a distribution of cheese or dry goods will add an extra two days of her time.

"Every other Thursday is devoted to co-op, and that simply is in our lifestyle," Mrs. Stoner said.

Her husband, Raymond Stoner, 84, helps by carrying cases of food and doing other chores. "I guess it could be considered a family affair," Mrs. Stoner said.

The Stoners have been members since the co-op was founded in 1981. They had seen a co-op in action in Canisteo, N.Y., where Mr. Stoner's sister was a member.

"I said, 'Raymond, I'm going home and start a co-op,' " Mrs. Stoner said.

But when they returned to Maryland, the Carroll County Home Economics Cooperative Extension Service was already working on starting a co-op. Mrs. Stoner has been co-op coordinator, on and off, for nine years.

"You have to be fair and honest," she said.

The co-op has had a few problems with cheating, Mrs. Stoner said, so nobody is allowed to pack his own order and orders are double-checked.

Mrs. Stoner has a degree in dietetic technology, and worked in state food services for 26 years, most recently as manager of food services at a hospital near Pikesville. She is president of the Maryland State Dietary Managers Association and past president of the national association.

"What we do, we do together," Mrs. Stoner said. "I'd never be able to do what I do if he didn't help me. We operate as a family."

There is a one-time fee of $13 to join the co-op. It is refunded when the person leaves the group.

There also is a $1 charge for a membership manual, and annual dues, which this year are $4.

The membership is limited to 60 families. Mrs. Stoner said the co-op has a few openings. For information, contact the Westminster Co-op, P.O. Box 182, Westminster 21157.

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