by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer
Not so very long ago, organic food had a reputation as being “weird,” “for hippies,” or “only vegetarian,” and was sometimes considered to be a food group that contained only brown rice, beans and granola. Often organic food was almost an impossible challenge to find—if you did not have access to the Co-op, or another store of our kind, you were simply out of luck.
Today, sales of organic food are the fastest growing sector of the retail grocery market. The Organic Trade Association recently released figures indicating that U.S. sales of organic food would total about $14 billion for 2005, up from about $5 billion in 1997. The OTA is forecasting sales of $15 billion in 2006, or about two percent of U.S. food sales. It seems that almost everything a shopper would want is now available in an organic variant, and you might think that would spell success for all sorts of small farmers and food processors. The real story though, is not so simple or pretty.
Small businesses of all kinds have been swept up into the growing corporate, global economy and the food industry is no exception. The rapid sales growth of organic food has made it an attractive investment for even the biggest players in the conventional food industry. General Mills made its first foray into the organic market back in 1995 with the introduction of Gold Medal Organics. Kraft bought out Boca in 2000 and Heinz acquired at least 16.5% equity in Hain Celestial in 1999 and consequently in all of Hain’s many natural foods subsidiaries. When you trace the major shareholders in these food corporations, you find even bigger giants with names like Monsanto, Citigroup, Exxon/
The “corporatization” of the organic and natural foods industry has many people worried about how organic standards might be affected, as well as wondering about the spirit of the organic movement. There are also environmental and labor issues to be considered as huge retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco jump into the organic market in a big way. Wal-Mart is contracting with producers in China to bring in their private label organic foods at deep discounts, but many people have concerns surrounding China’s dubious record on labor issues and questions about China’s organic standards.
Bypassing “industrial-scale” organics
The good news is that there are still lots of independent organic food producers around. Many of them are located right here in southern Wisconsin. You may argue that some of these products are more expensive than the mass-produced versions, but they actually more accurately reflect the true cost of food. Often, when we choose products from independent producers, we are supporting smaller family operations or businesses that employ members of their local communities at fair wages. This helps keep local economies strong. Independents often have better track records on environmental and labor issues than their corporate counterparts. Many experts and organizations recommend that we consumers “vote” against corporate policy with our wallets. An admirable sentiment, but can you buy the foods you need and want without patronizing big corporations? One of the advantages the Co-op has over a conventional supermarket is the flexibility to purchase goods from a variety of independent producers, not just the standard fare from a single distributor. We also try to give you the information you need to make an informed choice. We believe Co-op shoppers can declare corporate independence, bypass “industrial-scale” organic food and still eat well. Care to try it for a week?
Let’s start with something easy—fresh produce is often a no-brainer when it comes to supporting independent growers and how lucky and grateful we are for that! Local growing season reaches it peak between August and September, and during that time, the Produce department is bursting with almost every color and flavor you might want. Our Produce department is proud to count 30 independent Wisconsin farmers among its vendors throughout the year. You will find changes in availability as the growing season progresses—if your favorite vegetable isn’t here right now, why not try something new while you are waiting. By supporting these local growers, you are assured of a product that comes to your table at the peak of freshness and nutritional quality. You also can rest easy knowing that you are supporting growers that nurture our waterways and soil and want a cleaner, safer environment for their families and yours.
Contrast this local bounty with the huge organic produce industry centered in California. There are more than 2,500 registered organic growers and processors in California, many of them independents, but almost all the produce shipped out of that state comes from four companies that control land in California, Arizona, Mexico and even further afield. You’ve probably seen some of their glossy ads—healthy looking kids and lush, green fields of vegetables. Consider that Earthbound Farms, a family-owned operation, has grown from two-and-a-half organic acres in 1984 to over 26,000 acres today. Earthbound is the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S., with more than 100 kinds of fruits and vegetables under cultivation. Their products can be found in at least 80 percent of grocery stores across the country. They control 80 percent of the organic lettuce and salad mix market, shipping 13.5 million servings each week—more than 200 semi-loads pull out of their warehouse daily! They also grow and process an average of 27 million servings of conventional salad greens each week, sold mainly to large-scale food service providers. Independent producer? Yes, but you can see that even when choosing independent suppliers, there are several factors to consider.
Dairy and cheese
The Grocery department also provides us with goodness from independent producers throughout the year. The Dairy aisle is anchored by Organic Valley, a cooperative of about 700 family farmers around the country and by Wisconsin Organics, which is a dairy supplied by regional family farmers. Although Organic Valley members farm all over the U.S., their milk is packaged and sold in the area where it originated to preserve maximum freshness. In addition to milk and butter, you can choose yogurt from several independent dairies: Sugar River, Whispering Meadow, Seven Stars and Nancy’s from Springfield Creamery are a few to look for. Cheese is another category dominated by regional independent producers.
Eggs, meat and meat substitutes
It’s easy to support independents if you are a consumer of eggs or meat. Our eggs are in a grocery category that consists solely of independent producers. The farms vary in size, and not all are organic, so you do have some variables to factor into your choice. The meat case is filled with many products from small, local farms. No matter what your meat preference is, you will find a product grown close to home—and don’t forget to check the frozen meats as well.
Maybe you don’t eat meat? If your preferences run to soy or seitan you are still in luck. Simple Soyman and Earth Fire Products are Wisconsin producers that have long been favorites with Co-op shoppers. A variety of their products can be found in the Dairy coolers as well as the Frozen aisle.
The Bulk department offers us food choices from independent producers too. Nuts and dried fruits come from Tierra Farm and Big Tree. Farmer-owned Heartland Mill and Grain Place Foods produce flour, rolled oats and other grains. Lundberg Family Farms grows several varieties of bulk and packaged rice. Riscossa pasta is a family-owned Italian company and Foulds Milling in Illinois manufactures pasta under a variety of commercial labels. Fresh granola comes down the street from Nature’s Bakery. A non-profit group manufactures Golden Temple granola, but Hain Celestial owns the Breadshop brand of cereals and granola. Don’t forget to pour a cup of locally roasted java to accompany that granola—have you tried Etes-Vous Prets or Just Coffee to jump-start your day?
Finding independent producers in the packaged grocery aisles is getting trickier all the time. Wholesale distributors tend to carry the big national brands that everyone recognizes. Unfortunately, that popularity makes those labels ripe pickings when it comes to corporate buy-outs. There are still some strong independents out there-look for products from Eden Foods, Bionaturae, Lundberg Family Farms, Eastwind, Pacific Natural Foods, Enrico’s, Nature’s Path and Amy’s Kitchen to name just a few. Amy’s has experienced rapid growth the past few years, but they still source as much local (to them) produce as possible. You can choose local independent producers too—try Nature’s Bakery, Natural Ovens, and RP’s Pasta for starters.
Choosing independently produced baking mixes and oils can be problematic. Spectrum Naturals was recently acquired by Hain Celestial, which also markets oil under the Hain and Hollywood labels. Loriva oils became a subsidiary of nSpired Foods in 2000. nSpired also owns Cloud Nine, Tropical Source, Sunspire and Maranatha Nut Butters, among others. You can choose oils from Eden Foods, Colavita or Oskri Organics for an independent source. Oskri Organics is located in Ixonia, Wisconsin, about an hour east of Madison. Try baking supplies from Dr. Oetker, Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour, or Wanda’s. There are several independent bakeries represented in the bread aisle. Most of them are also local. Enjoy fresh baked goodness from Kamm’s Farm, Stella’s, Madison Sourdough, Nature’s Bakery, Nokomis or Clasen’s for starters.
Are frozen foods the savior of dinner at your house? It’s tough to maintain your independence in this department. This is a category the big players dominate—probably because so many of us spend so much money in this area. In addition to products from Amy’s Kitchen, try pizza from A.C. LaRocco, or snacks from Ian’s Natural Foods, Health is Wealth, or Ling Ling’s. Don’t forget the pasta from RP’s Pasta here in Madison! Sno Pac Foods of Caledonia, Minnesota supplies a complete line of organic frozen fruits and vegetables to round out your meals when fresh isn’t on the menu.
You can keep your pets off the corporate carousel too. Independent producers manufacture most of the pet foods we carry. Wysong has manufacturing facilities in Lake Mills and Natural Life products are shipped from Kansas if you are looking for a midwestern source. Charlee Bear pet treats are from Madison—the liver flavor is tops with all the four-pawed members of my family!
We all need to spend some time cleaning our personal spaces and this is an area in which we can support independent companies and the environment at the same time. Cleaning and paper products from companies like Seventh Generation, Lifetree, and Ecover are all designed to be non-toxic and biodegradable and these companies are still privately owned.
After cleaning your personal space, you might be ready to clean your person! Try liquid or bar soaps from Dr. Bronner’s, Carrot Tree, Kiss My Face and lots more. Other body care products from independents include Burt’s Bees, Aubrey, and Four Elements and there are many others to choose from too. Try supplements from New Chapter, Enzymatic Therapy, Nature’s Plus and of course, our own Willy Street Co-op label.
That covers just about all the major categories that most of us need to get through the week—except chocolate! This important food group is an easy place to declare independence and you can support Fair Trade at the same time. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a nibble from Equal Exchange, Divine, or Dagoba.
Okay, I think my shopping list is covered for the week—how about yours?
Give it a try
It is increasingly difficult to live in our society without some dependence on corporations.More and more often, we hear about workers being forced to take cuts in wage and insurance benefits, record-breaking profits for oil companies make the news and corporate CEOs take home pension packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It may seem like a small thing to vote with your wallet, but give it a try.
The agri-business model that dominates the food industry dictates prices paid to farmers, often far too little for them to make any profit at all without an off-farm job or two. The typical American family now spends a much lower percentage of its income on food than in any other country in the world—much less than we used to spend when systems were more localized. According to the USDA, in 1929, the average household in the U.S. spent 20.3 percent of income on food. By 2004 that number had dropped to 5.4 percent spent for groceries. If you add in the money we spend eating out, the number rises to just 9.5 percent of income. In most places around the globe it is typical to spend 20-30 percent of income on food. A recent study by the Crossroads Resource Center indicates that if consumers were to direct just five percent of their annual grocery purchases to local, independent producers, it would be enough to begin to revitalize rural economies. This would help keep family farmers on their land and might help to break the cycle of corporatization. Imagine what could happen if we were willing to spend an extra five to ten percent on good food each month.
As member-owners of the Co-op, we have the privilege of choosing where our food comes from. Declare your independence and buy from independents.