FORT KENT, Maine — According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household in this country spends about 13 percent of its annual income on groceries.
For many, making those food dollars stretch as far as possible is a priority that often means hitting sales at large chain or big-box stores.
Stacey Martin, manager of the Market Street Co-op in Fort Kent, believes there is a better, healthier alternative that is just as cost efficient.
“Shopping for local food at your local co-op is absolutely not a luxury,” Martin said. “Co-ops offer plenty of affordable options that are also often healthier than what you might find elsewhere.”
Martin said shopping at a co-op means consumers can participate in “buyers’ clubs” to purchase products at wholesale costs or join forces to buy items in volume, which often means lower prices.
“We can’t compete with [the larger] supermarkets and never will on variety of our goods or on some prices,” she said. “Their prices and selection are based on volume, but we do believe our customers believe in the value of supporting local farmers and producers.”
For her part, Martin said she feeds her family of seven by shopping at the co-op and said it really comes down to priorities and being a savvy shopper.
“I’m not a doctor or lawyer who makes a ton of money,” she said. “But we make it work for our family.”
According to one local economist, the co-op model is rooted in local commerce.
“Instead of a competitive model, you look at it as a community model,” Tony Gauvin, associate professor of electronic commerce at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, said. “If you buy local, your money stays local and supports local individuals. When you look at that competitive model, often the money is spent on items produced outside the community so the money goes outside the community.”
Martin says keeping food buying dollars local helps area farmers.
“Our culture often asks farmers to work at unfairly low wages,” she said. “If you look around [at the co-op] a large part of what we have comes from local farmers, and when people shop here their dollars support those farmers.”
Shopping at the co-op, where the food often is organic, also can have long-term cost and health savings, Martin said.
“If you eat healthy foods you are leading a more healthy lifestyle, and that can reduce your risks for illnesses,” she said. “It’s like health insurance in the form of food.”
Kristin Hartt of Fort Kent is a regular shopper at the local co-op and said the combination of healthy food options and supporting local growers brings her in.
“I have the ability to buy in bulk, buy organic and buy local produce,” she said. “I am supporting a local business that serves great food, meeting friends [and] most importantly, they have espresso.”
It costs $50 per year to join the Market Street Co-Op, but Martin stressed membership is not required to shop there, though members do receive a 10 percent discount on most purchases.
“Belonging to the co-op means you really support those core values of sustainability and community,” Martin said. “We hope everyone will stop in, check us out and join [because] we are here for the community.”
Market Street Co-op is open 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Its Horseshoe Cafe offers a small lunch menu and specialty coffees all day.