On a Saturday late afternoon, people in Hinesville show up to participate in Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op. Extending before them are neat rows of white plastic laundry baskets, each filed with an identical collection of fruits and vegetables. At the convergence of these two lines is an Internet food co-op program that has exploded across the western United States in less than a decade.
Bountiful Baskets was launched by Tanya Jolly and Sally Stevens, two Arizona women who began buying produce in bulk and distributing to their neighbors in May 2006. In a little more than seven years, the program has expanded to 16 states with thousands of distribution sites and tens of thousands of co-op members.
Jolly said the program was conceived out of personal necessity after she and her husband moved to Arizona from the San Francisco Bay area. The Jolly family soon discovered obtaining the variety and quality of produce they were accustomed to was more difficult in Arizona, and changes in their personal incomes made it a greater strain on their household budget as well.
“I wanted a way to find fresh foods without breaking the bank,” Jolly said. “My whole point was getting food into my family for a bargain. From there it really became this kind of social experiment. It went from me and Sally, then we had a couple of other people, then it spread across Arizona and into Utah, and now it’s everywhere.”
In Montana, Bountiful Baskets has been in operation for less than three years, yet now has a presence in more than 120 communities, including those as small as Danielsville, Canton and Hinesville — each with less than 100 people. There are currently two Bountiful Baskets sites in Hinesville, but the program has become so popular that the baskets are often sold out within a few hours of becoming available.
“It replaces a lot of the not fresh foods that we used to eat,” said Lisa Romans of her motivation to become a Bountiful Baskets participant.
“This makes it a lot cheaper,” added Jennifer Nolan ass he loaded a cloth bag with produce. “I know we spend about half of what we would at the store.”
Obtaining food through the Bountiful Baskets differs in several ways from traditional purchases at a grocery store. Even the language of the program is substantially different from what grocery store customers are accustomed to.
Bountiful Baskets is operated as a not-for-profit cooperative, pooling the “contributions” of its “participants” to allow the co-op to buy food in bulk. Membership is free, but comes with the explicit understanding that all of Bountiful Baskets’ participants will occasionally volunteer their time to make the program function.
Contributions are made several days in advance of delivery, and participants have only limited discretion in the variety of fruits and vegetables they receive. There are no guarantees of what will be in baskets on any specific delivery date, and there are no refunds if you make a mistake in ordering or fail to show up in time to pick up your basket. Unclaimed produce is donated to local fire departments.
“If you get a basket, there will be some things in there that you know what they are, and there may be some things in there you have no idea what to do with,” Jolly said. “We try to do at least one really fun thing in the basket every week.”
Within any given delivery there may be jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, purple carrots, broccolini or wheat berries. Lisa Romans, a Bountiful Baskets site organizer in Hinesville, said that for most participants, finding out what’s in the basket is kind of like looking inside your Christmas stocking — you never quite know what’s going to be inside.
“I like it because I am eating new foods I probably wouldn’t have been introduced to otherwise,” she said. “Because it’s in the basket and I’ve already paid for it — now I have to research it and figure out how to prepare it.”
The Bountiful Baskets website includes preparation and recipe ideas for fruits and vegetables people may not be familiar with. Participants are also given the option of contributing for additional items like boxes of fruit, whole grain bread, tortillas, granola and honey.
Romans emphasized that Bountiful Baskets is more of a communal experience than merely an economic exchange between buyer and seller. Sites are limited to a maximum of 96 participants, which means the same people frequently meet once or twice a month to pick up their baskets.
“I’ve formed relationships with the people who come to my site every two weeks,” she said. “It may not be that I remember their name or even that they remember mine, but we recognize each other and we’re able to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’”
The Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op is not a program that will appeal to everyone.
Participants must be willing to wait in line for a mystery supply of fruits and vegetables, some of which they’ve never tried and may not like.
However, the impressive growth of the program is ample evidence of Bountiful Basket’s broad appeal — something Tanya Jolly still finds remarkable.
“When I sit there and look at it as a mom, it shocks me,” Jolly said of the program’s growth. “But when I look at the big picture I think what it was I wanted. I wanted a good idea of where my food is coming from, I wanted to know its fresh, I wanted to build community in my own town, and I wanted to meet people who are like minded. Bountiful Baskets allows for all of that.”
There are two locations in Hinesville: Willowbrook Plaza which is located at Frank Cochran and Hwy 196 behind Burger King and at the United Way location off of 84. If you are interested in participating in Bountiful Baskets Co-op you can check them out at www.bountifulbaskets.org
You can also find Bountiful Baskets on Facebook or email at
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