As the discussions on healthy eating continue, an old concept is beginning to be popular once again. Batch cooking, cooking clubs, and co-op sources for food are beginning to see a resurgence in popularity, and are helping thousands of families to begin eating healthier, more wholesome meals.
Author Andrea Belcham has recently released the book Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community, which goes into great detail on these subjects plus much more. She joins us here to shed light on how to come together as a community to change the way that we all eat.
The first part of your book talks about creating both a buying club and a batch cooking club. Tell us a bit about both.
It’s hard to remember which came first – my buying club or my batch cooking group – but that’s probably because they’re so intertwined. All of the women who cook in my group are also members of the buying club. We share a passion for good food, and a desire to feed our families as economically as possible. Our buying club counts about ten members, and our batch cooking group, six.
I came up with the idea of the buying club because of what I saw as limited access in my city to the kind of groceries I wanted to buy. I’m talking about organic pantry staples (dried beans, coconut milk, soymilk, flours, spices, sweeteners, et cetera). If a local store had such items it was at such an inflated price that I really couldn’t afford to eat the way I wanted to. At the time, I was also a vegan, and so was seeking out foods for the basic nutritional building blocks of my diet that the majority of the local population had less interest in.
After some research, I found a distributor based in the next province over who supplied a wide range of products to health food stores in my area – products that came from across Canada, and the U.S. Here was the access I wanted! Many of the products, for whatever reason, were not carried in local stores. The prices were near wholesale. The distributor offered to deliver to my home every two months, provided I met a minimum order. I gathered some friends, neighbors, and colleagues with similar tastes and we formed our club. We’ve been ordering regularly for five years now, saving money together, splitting cases, swapping cooking tips. Since that first buying club formed, I’ve helped organize other, more specialized buying clubs. I’m also a coordinator of a coffee buying club (coffee roasted according to our order one day, delivered the next – heaven!) and a flour buying club (organic specialty flours grown and milled not far away). Buying clubs have helped me understand that I don’t need to accept the selection and prices a mega-retail chain offers me. With friends, I have the buying power to order from distributors or, better still, directly from the producers.
The batch cooking group started out of a similar need. Being a vegan in the ’burbs is not easy: it seemed like I never had a night off from cooking. Sure, there was convenience food for me at the grocery store – if I wanted frozen food high in sodium and low in taste. Restaurant fare was meager: I was tired of ordering a pizza without the cheese. I started thinking about getting together with friends who were willing to experiment with vegan cuisine. Like me, these friends had busy weeks and perhaps not enough time to commit to dinners made from scratch each night. They loved the idea and so I found a church whose kitchen we could rent on a monthly basis. I had taught a vegetarian cooking class in a church basement kitchen and I’d appreciated how spacious (albeit not up-to-date) it was. Our members each have smallish kitchens, so we really needed a bigger one to accommodate bulk cooking with many chefs. With six of us committed, our plan was for each member to choose the recipe for, bring the ingredients for, and prepare a 12-serving vegan entrée. Once the meals were divided, each member would come away with six different two-serving entrées. We’re still sticking to that outline, several years on. And how wonderful it is to reach into the freezer one night a week and pull out a healthful, delicious, meal prepared by a friend.
Our models for the batch cooking and buying clubs are tuned specifically to our needs: others starting their own groups can design ones complementary to their lifestyles – for instance, a meat buying-club that buys direct from a farmer, or a batch cooking group in which members collectively prepare one or two meals in bulk.
How do you believe community is created through food?
No doubt about it, food plays a major role in the community I’ve built for myself. I’m not from this city and moved here knowing only my husband. Through food – growing it, acquiring it, preparing it, serving it – I’ve managed to build a supportive community for myself and my family. My family shops through buying clubs, we get together to cook with others on a regular basis, when we host or attend a party it’s always a potluck; we go to our local farmer’s market, we hang out a lot at our local food co-op, we’re members of a CSA and we’ve co-founded a community-supported kitchen; we swap vegetable seeds, seedlings, and bumper home-garden crops with our neighbors. We’re always exchanging recipes but also tips with other members of our food community: how to prepare this odd vegetable that came in our farmer’s basket this week, in which store to find such-and-such a spice; we give each other kitchen appliance reviews; we even give each other appliances when one of us upgrades! I could go on. When you band together with others who share a similar basic desire – to feed themselves and their families in a sustainable way – you increase your food security and help to increase theirs.
Give us some example of the best ways to connect people through food.
My initiatives have always started by recognizing a need and finding others to help fulfill it: you don’t have to do it alone, and it’s more fun to do it with others, anyway! You’ll meet such a diverse group of people when you begin looking for others who have a similar need – people whom you wouldn’t know from your other social circles. Assembling around a food-related project can bring you the kind of support you can’t find elsewhere. For instance, a buying club or batch cooking group specifically designed to help those who can’t (or whose families can’t) tolerate gluten can be such a help for a lifestyle that often clashes with the mainstream.
Besides batch cooking groups and buying clubs, my book describes some other ventures to help bring people together through food, including garden-sharing (collectively cultivating part of a neighbor’s yard to grow food when that neighbor is unable to do it themselves but wishes they could), meal-swapping (regularly preparing a meal in double, giving half to a friend for her and her family, then having her do the same for you another night of the week), even using food to barter for services or goods with someone else.
I think it’s essential when you unite with others that you establish a framework that is as democratic as possible if everyone is to benefit. Members need to feel that they’re contributing, and that their input is being received. Of course it sometimes makes sense that one person remains the constant contact with a food supplier, for instance, or that someone else who’s good with numbers remains a buying club’s accountant. But many roles can be traded between events, keeping experiences fresh for members. I also think you need to keep an open mind when looking for others to contribute to a project: you’ll broaden your own perspective when you invite people from outside your immediate circle of acquaintances. And don’t forget to value and welcome the contributions of children, who have so much to gain by learning more about the food they eat.
Finally, I think it’s so important to get as close to a food source as possible to truly understand and appreciate what we put in our mouths. With a buying club or a CSA membership, or by shopping at farmer’s markets, food producers and their knowledge become important parts of your community.
What was one of the best experiences that you have had in a batch cooking group?
Our batch cooking group has given me – and I think all our members – so much. Getting together with these five women gives me food, yes, but also a chance to gab, to share information, to lend and receive advice. Some of the women I only see when we cook together once a month. When one of our members gave birth to her twins and missed a couple of our get-togethers, we cooked for her in her absence, helping to fill her freezer with much-needed meals. When one of us can’t come to a meeting for whatever reason, they’ll cook something in advance or after the fact for the rest, and we’ll still cook for her: the group is so important to everyone that we don’t want to miss the benefits even for one month! Once in the summer we diverged from cooking meals to experiment with making preserves and that was wonderful: instead of a freezer full of entrées we had an equally welcome cupboard shelf filled with jars of pickled cauliflower, apricot-vanilla jam, and other such delights.
What advice can you give to those who want to start their own buying clubs or batch cooking groups?
Here are a few pointers:
1. Identify a need and find others who have a similar need. Maybe you’re a family with severe food allergies and you’re looking for ways to put safe food on the table without breaking the bank. Locate other families with similar restrictions and begin planning what you can do: maybe it’s a batch cooking group, or maybe it’s a buying club with a specialty grocery list. Tailor your group to your specific needs, but ensure that those needs meet every member’s needs too.
2. Organize yourself as democratically as possible. Rotate roles whenever possible to keep the experience fresh for all members. All members need to treat the food project and fellow members with respect if it is to thrive.
3. Do your research. If you’re a buying club looking for suppliers, compare various distributors’ rates; also try to buy direct from the producer as much as possible for the best prices. Find out about minimum orders, return policies, delivery options, et cetera. If you’re a batch cooking group, look into rental opportunities in your area (or you may even opt to cook in one member’s kitchen, or a different member’s kitchen each time). Keep a file of available distributors if you’re a buying club, or available kitchens if you’re a batch cooking group, so you have options at hand should a choice fall through. Batch cooking groups can also keep a file of recipes they’ve used (with a rating system) and recipes for future get-togethers.
4. Wherever you hold your get-together, be respectful toward the hosting venue. Be sure to find out what the venue has available for use before you show up for the event. For instance, when a buying club order is unpacked at a member’s house, you may need box-cutters, scales, new packaging material once bulk packages are broken up, sticker labels, and so on. When a batch cooking group meets, you’ll need multiple pots, knives, recycling/composting facilities, measuring cups, large bowls, cleaning supplies, and so on. Make a list of exactly what you’ll need for the event and check it against what’s already there. Also make sure that the equipment already in place actually works! Clean up thoroughly after the event and everyone will be happy.
My book Food and Fellowship is filled with more advice about organizing and managing buying clubs and batch cooking groups.
How do batch cooking groups or buying clubs help to promote healthy eating?
Both give you increased control over your own food security. With a batch cooking group you’re not tempted to put out money for expensive convenience foods from the grocery store or fast-food restaurants (food high in calories, fat, preservatives and additives, sodium, you name it). With a buying club, by banding together with others you suddenly have the financial clout to deal directly with producers and distributors; you’re no longer subjected to the choices retail stores have made for you about what you should eat and what you should pay for your food. I know that the ingredients in the food produced by my batch cooking group are fresh and of good quality, that members are monitoring the risks of cross-contamination, and that waste is diverted responsibly – all greens are composted, other materials recycled or reused. Purchasing through a buying club requires that you do research (into distributors and their vast choices, into producers and their food production methods) so that you become more informed about how food makes the journey from the earth to the plate; with our buying club, for instance, any of our members can tell you which company’s tomatoes are packaged in BPA-lined cans! Each food project makes the consumer an activist.
To sample a delicious recipe from Food and Fellowship, try Andrea’s Coconut Granola recipe in this issue of Rhythm of the Home.
Andrea Belcham is the author of Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community, as well as the co-founder of Stone Soup Cooperative, a community-supported kitchen in the Montreal area. She lives in Quebec with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.