Food cooperatives organized by and for PWAs that help get better-quality, unprocessed, organic food for less money and provide nutritional instruction. Good idea, huh? Only one problem... there aren’t any. This is surprising since buyers clubs for nonstandard drugs and nutritional supplements are now well-established AIDS-community institutions.

But existing food co-ops remain excellent sources of whole foods, a means of stretching your food budget and more. Co-ops are nonprofit community buyers clubs designed to make available good food and produce -- usually but not always organically grown -- and increase individual buying power. Once a staple of rural life, food co-ops can now be found everywhere. Housed in neighborhood markets and storefronts, but also run out of people’s kitchens, they are listed in The Green Pages published by Co-op America.

“’Food for people, not for profit’ is what we used to call it,” says Ruth Molloy of the Hudson Valley Federation, a nonprofit natural-foods distributor that covers parts of the Northeast. Robyn O’Brien, general manager of the Common Market in Frederick, Maryland, goes further: “It’s not just food, either. It’s a great way to network, to get folks in touch with other folks.”

Although membership in co-ops was at one time dependent on participation in running the market, many co-ops no longer require work shifts to take advantage of the savings. “A lot of co-ops have had to adapt to people’s changing lives and tight schedules,” Molloy says. “It used to be necessary to work a shift to belong, but not anymore.”

Still, in many co-ops you can significantly increase your savings by working shifts. At Common Market, working three hours a month gives you a 10 percent discount; nine hours, 15 percent; and 20 hours, 20 percent. The work isn’t always strenuous, either. “People think they’re going to have to lift big boxes and unload trucks,” O’Brien says. “But there are lots of jobs to be done: Newsletter writing, committee work, answering phones. We try to make accommodations for everyone.”

The Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn is one of many that offer even more flexibility to people with health challenges. “We leave the decision to work, or not, up to the individual,” says general coordinator Ellen Weinstat. “And we will help people find a work slot that suits individual needs. For people with disabilities who need it, we allow ’designated shoppers’ -- nonmembers -- to shop for members. But working isn’t just about the discount, either. It’s empowering to help others gain access to whole foods.”

“We would love to have the funds to establish a food co-op for PWAs,” says Richard Pierce, director of the Whole Foods Project, a cooking-instruction and hot-meals program for people with major illnesses in New York City. “Creating conscious consumers -- people who understand the value of organic foods to their health and the planet’s health -- is what we’re all about. Food co-ops can be the backbone of a healthy diet in any community.”

This need is especially acute in cash-strapped communities. Betances Health is a clinic in a Manhattan neighborhood hard-hit by both AIDS and poverty. Like many other AIDS service centers, it manages a food pantry that provides prepackaged grocery parcels to PWAs in need. “We are seeing more and more people coming in who have lost their public-assistance benefits and food stamps, and need help with basic nutrition,” says Betances’ nutritional coordinator, Dagmar Ford. “Maybe if some of the service organizations banded together, we could start a co-op for people with HIV. It could work.” Molloy says that even a small neighborhood co-op is worth organizing. “As few as five people working together could significantly improve the quality of food they’re eating and reduce their grocery bills.”

If you are interested in forming a food co-op that focuses on the needs of PWAs, technical assistance is available from regional distributors (see below). Experts suggest that not everyone involved be HIV positive, since absences caused by illnesses and hospitalizations can easily sink a small enterprise.

Eating well. Saving money. Making friends. Now those are good ideas.

For a national list of food co-ops, obtain The Green Pages from Co-op America (202.872.5307). For help in forming a co-op, contact: Hudson Valley Federation at 914.473.5400 (New York state, western Connecticut, eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey), North Farms Cooperative at 608.241.2667 (Midwest), Ozark Co-op Warehouse at 501.521.4920 (Southeast), and Tucson Cooperative Warehouse at 520.884.9951 (Southwest). A video called “How to Start a Food Co-op” is available from the National Cooperative Business Association at 202.638.6222.