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"We take turns cooking dinner."
Three days a week, Jennifer Folsom, of Alexandria, Virginia, picks up more than just her children at the school bus stop. The working mother of three also gets a fully cooked homemade dinner complete with side dishes, ranging from slow-cooked barbecued ribs to spinach-feta cheese pie.
It all started two years ago, when Folsom read an article about meal-swapping and mentioned it to three moms she knew from the school bus stop. From a few casual conversations, a system was born that they called the "Bus Stop Meal Swap." Folsom says that it changed all of their lives. Monday through Thursday, one mom cooks dinner -- if she makes grilled pork tenderloin, for example, she also includes sides such as a green veggie and rice pilaf -- for each family and hands off the food at the bus stop.
Just as it is with cooking for your own family, not every meal is a hit, but since the moms see each other at least twice a day, there's a lot of honest discussion about what worked and what didn't. "If in doubt, you can always ask the kids, who have no trouble being honest," says Folsom. One member, who's from a Pacific island, makes curry dishes that have helped Folsom's boys become more adventurous eaters.
The women don't have a formal system, but they decide what they're making at least a month in advance, buy ingredients in bulk when they go on sale, and put together a calendar of all the meals for the month to avoid repeats. They also rotate their glass and plastic containers and reusable shopping bags for deliveries. Meanwhile, not having to plan and make dinner each night has given them each a gift: more energy and time for their kids. "I can sit down with the big kids and work through homework after school, and I have a lot more time for fun stuff like evening bike rides or just kicking the soccer ball around the yard," Folsom says. Sharing the cooking duties has also brought the families close. "We're so in tune with the minutiae of each other's lives that I don't feel like I'm doing it alone anymore," says Folsom. If you're inspired to try it with friends, check out dinnertrade.com for a start-up guide and swap-friendly recipes.
"We buy healthy food in bulk."
Rebecca Andersson, of Portland, Oregon, rarely steps inside a supermarket. As the founder of a buying club called Know Thy Food, she gets organic produce, milk, eggs, meat, dried fruits and grains, cleaning products, and more -- direct from wholesalers and farms every week -- and saves 25 to 50 percent off what it costs at the store. But it's not just about the money. 'I can't begin to explain how much easier it is to make sure my kids have a healthy diet," says Andersson.
The club started in 2008 when Andersson and a few other moms who were part of a local "meetup" on green parenting started chatting about how they were all searching for easier and cheaper ways to put organic, local, and healthy food on the table. About 20 families in the group said they were interested in getting together to buy in bulk as part of a food-buying club. Unlike food co-ops, which must meet specific legal requirements, food-buying clubs are more informal. The moms began contacting wholesale food distributors, focusing on local produce. Andersson hit the farmers' market to meet farmers, searched online, and e-mailed manufacturers to ask who distributed their products. At first, the members focused on dry goods like beans and grains. Then they moved on to buying organic produce wholesale, but the club quickly grew. With 860 members and three employees, Andersson now runs it out of a local warehouse that she leases in her neighborhood.
Members order online and help unload and divide deliveries once a week. "Everything is unprocessed and unpackaged," says Andersson. "We get 25- to 50-pound bags and cases. People bring their own mason jars and bags to put their stuff in."
Andersson, meanwhile, hasn't stopped looking for ways to leverage the group's buying power. When Cirque du Soleil came to Portland, for instance, she recruited parents from the club and bought tickets through the group-sales office. The result: Each family paid $55 a seat instead of $105.
If you're interested in starting a food club, Andersson suggests food-hub.org as a great resource for finding local food distributors and the sites foodclub.org and localfoodcoop.org for free software to keep it all organized.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.