how to start a produce cooperative (or let’s eat our way to a new social paradigm – it’s easy and fun!)

By Hynden Walch of the Hillside Produce Cooperative

I was asked to write an article about how to start a produce cooperative, but maybe I should start by explaining a little bit about mine.

The Hillside Produce Cooperative is a once-a-month FREE exchange of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in North East Los Angeles. My objective in starting this project was to feed everyone on my hill for FREE with all the gorgeous local organic produce we grow in our yards that would otherwise go to waste.

Here’s how it works: once a month I send out an email asking who among our 250 or so members is interested in participating in the next exchange. If they are, they RSVP by email, letting me know roughly what they will have to contribute food-wise, or if they’d like to volunteer to bag or deliver. Once the tallies are in, I put my energies towards higher mathematics (!) and discern how many volunteers we’ll need versus how much food we’ll have to go around. Once that’s done, I cross my fingers and send out an email with the final details.

The final details are always the same: First, the exchange is always on a SATURDAY and takes place at my house ( – I was given use of the neighborhood community center at one point, but quickly realized the exchange needed to be held in a place to which I had the keys. )

On the chosen SATURDAY, food contributors drop off their grapefruits and rosemary, their apples and avocados, their tomatoes and bay leaves, spring onions, beets, and celery, their lemons and lemon verbena and lemon curd, their homemade bread and jam, their persimmons and kale, their Thai chili peppers, their burning sage, &tc before NOON. When I open my door Saturday morning it’s like Christmas – my steps are covered in bags and boxes of this incredible fresh food – smelling like a spicy feast of citrus, earth, herbs, and generosity. Wow. It always takes my breath away.

At NOON the bagging volunteers arrive. I’ve found that about seven volunteers can easily sort and bag the contributions of 25-40 participants. First, we bring everything inside: herbs go in the living room, “hard foods” like oranges and pumpkins go in the dining room, “non-edibles” like flowers and lavender go in the office, and once, we had so much food that we had to use my bedroom to sort the leafy greens (don’t tell my husband.)

Once all the food has been sorted, it’s counted and divided by the number bags we have to fill (one for each participant.) Again, more higher mathematics (!) and the house is filled with the voices of volunteers loudly counting different things, while sharpies squeak out totals like “122 tangerines,” “59 grapefruit” and “6 squash.” My bright red calculator chirps away, dividing all those totals by the number of bags (aka “the magic number”), and somehow, everyone ends up with the same amount.

Of course there are always deficits. In those cases, I try to give every bag at least one special thing – a jar of homemade loquat jam or a book on LA Restaurants or a bunch of daisies. This is the “playing God” part of the exchange: “Hmm… I they didn’t get an artichoke so I’ll give them some asparagus… They didn’t get a brownie, so I’ll give them the extra blood oranges…”

Everyone’s empty cloth bags line up and down my hallway awaiting fulfillment, with a “shopping list” of what is soon-to-be-inside taped to the wall above each one. When someone fills a bag with its quota of lemons, they check “lemons” off the list. This is our attempt to keep track of what’s going on with a wild ton of fabulous food being hurtled around, out of bags and into other bags. It’s actually really fun.

Meanwhile, in the living room the herbs are divided equally and wrapped up in newspaper cones like gorgeous bouquets of culinary flowers. The fantastic-smelling herb bouquets are then added to the bags along with the “non-edible” and “salad green” bundles. Believe it or not, all this bundling and counting and wrapping and sorting only takes a little more than an hour.

Finally at 2:30 the 3-5 delivery volunteers pick up the bags and deliver them to the door of each participant. With planning, I [try really, really hard to] make sure each volunteer’s deliveries are all in the same neighborhood and rarely does anyone deliver more than five bags.

It’s astonishing just how much food we see in our bags each month, not to mention the variety. The contents of our bags looks like we just dropped about $65 at a really great farmers’ market. But instead all the food is FREE. – You might notice, I’m very big on FREE. I could tell you why – but then this would be an article on my personal idealism, my disenchantment with the agribusiness leviathan, and my desire change the social paradigm by simply implementing that old-timey tradition of sharing excess garden wealth, while adding a little 21st century organizational spin of my own.

I know! I was supposed to write about how to start a co-op, but really, that part is easy. Just get the email addresses of interested people in your neighborhood and start. Or if that seems daunting just get oneemail address from one person you think might be interested in exchanging their excess produce,or email me – I bet I have the names of a lot of people in your neighborhood who would love to start an exchange with you.

So, to start a co-op, you’ll need a space to have it – a small space, an outside space (the Ventura chapter sets up tables outside), reallyany space will work – , a few organizational skills, and some positive energy. Do you have to be a master gardener? No! My heavens no! I was born with a black thumb. All my fruit trees just grow by themselves, bless them. – Then write ONE email about the produce exchange you plan to host THIS SATURDAY (always best to act now) and send it to someone. Sell them on the concept: no waste and shared food; free means free. Oh, and feel free to plagiarize:

“Dear neighbor, [My New] Produce Cooperative is a free neighborhood monthly exchange of all the FRUITS, VEGETABLES, HERBS and FLOWERS we grow in our yards; a collective in which we all get to enjoy some of what everyone grows in exchange for contributing what we don’t want or won’t use ourselves. Then no food is wasted and we all get a variety of fresh local produce to eat for FREE.”

Then that person will forward it to someone else and by Friday you’ll have a co-op. On Saturday just follow the steps above. You probably won’t even need any helpers until you have more than ten participants, but of course it’s always nice to have company. I started this way: with a big idea and one email to my neighbor Betsy. By the end of the day my email had come back to me after having been forwarded again and again and again. Our first exchange had five members. And even then I felt lucky and grateful for all the incredible food we had and the incredible people I met who grew it. A year and a half later, we have close to 300 members and 6 chapters.

Would you like to start a co-op? I’ll be happy to help you any way I can, just write me at hillsideproducecoop@gmail.com or visit our website: hillsideproducecooperative.org. I would love to link to [your new] chapter or post your email address so potential members can find you.

Let’s change the way people get and eat food in this country. We can, you know. As I say at the end of each co-op email, who’s in?

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