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Shelf Life: Keepin' It Fresh

Last month, the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) recognized our Produce department as the top performing produce department in the country among its 148 members for the 2009 fiscal year. We’ve all worked really hard to earn this achievement and are very proud of it, especially considering what a rough year ’09 was.

While we didn’t see a tremendous amount of growth, we did manage to adjust our labor and purchases, and minimize our losses during tough economic times. At a time when many businesses were laying off employees and struggling to stay open, we did our best to accommodate for the sluggish economy, and the recognition of our efforts was greatly appreciated by staff!

We use a number of key metrics to evaluate the state of our operations at the Co-op and are able to share and compare those metrics with other co-ops to see how we’re performing and if we’re keeping up with industry standards. One such metric is “turns,” which is defined as the number of times your inventory is sold annually. And, since we’re going to be talking about the shelf life of produce and how you can keep it fresh, I thought it would be interesting for you to know that the average number of turns in the produce department is—180 turns a year. Why is this important? Well, because everything we offer is perishable. You want to be assured that we’re managing our purchases to get you the freshest product we can and that it’s not sitting around in our coolers for a week before it hits the shelf and ends up in your shopping cart. Basically, 180 turns per year means that the longest a product has been in our possession is 48 hours. Most produce departments are doing well if they can reach 90-100 turns per year. At 180, it’s clear we excel in this category!

Keeping your produce is fresh is the key to maintaining is nutritional integrity. The longer it sits around, the more nutrients are lost to oxidation. It’s also no secret that organically grown produce can often cost a bit more than its conventional counterpart. As a consumer committed to organics, I expect to pay more. I’m not looking for a bargain; I’m shopping for a high quality product. Fortunately, it’s the local season, and we’re able to offer really fresh produce at a great price.

So now you know what we’re doing on our end, here are some handling tips for some seasonal favorites and every day staples to ensure you’re protecting your investment and keeping it fresh.

Cherry season is just around the corner. Cherries have a shelf life of 10-14 days. Our favorite cherries come from Oregon and Washington, so by the time they arrive at the store, they’ve already burned 4-5 days, so don’t let them sit around for a week until you get a craving. Eat them up! Pulling off the stems and washing them promotes decay, so if you’re going to store them, keep them intact and in a bag. They store best at temperatures close to freezing, but since it’s hard to regulate different sections and compartments of your refrigerator, anywhere in the fridge will do. Cherries can pick up flavors, so don’t store them near stinky cheese.

Unripe peaches and plums can be stored at room temperature. To speed the process, you can put them in a paper sack with a ripe banana. The ethylene from the banana will promote the ripening process. If you purchase ripe product, it’s going to continue to ripen until it is rotten, even in your refrigerator! Shelf life on these items is dependent on several factors: stage of maturity at harvest, sugars, and water content. The sweeter and juicier it is, the less shelf life it has.

Stored properly, grapes should last for a couple of weeks. Keep them in a bag or container in your crisper or any low spot in the refrigerator. Like cherries, they like it cold and store best when kept on the vine. Pull off and wash only what you plan on using for the next couple of days. And as a side note: Always wash your produce before you eat it! There is a sink in the bulk aisle; use it! If you or your child just has to have a few grapes or couple of strawberries while shopping, always wash them first.

Blueberries are the hardiest of all the berries we offer, and can be stored for a couple of weeks if in prime condition. My feeling on organic berries is: don’t buy them if you don’t plan on using them within a couple of days. Depending on the time of year and origin, organic berries can be fairly costly. Shelf life for fresh strawberries is a week, and for blackberries and raspberries, it’s 2-3 days.

Apples can be stored for months under refrigeration. They are all harvested in the fall, and shipped out of refrigerated warehouses while supplies last. This year, we finished our locally grown apple season in April, six months after they had been harvested.

Good quality citrus can be stored for 4-6 weeks under refrigeration. I’d recommend consuming specialty citrus (tangerines, mandarins, kumquats) with a couple of weeks of purchase.

Tropicals are a tough one. They come in ripe and have hardly any shelf life at all, or they come in green (unripe), and take forever to ripen properly. Our rule of thumb: if it’s ripe, eat it! You can put them in the refrigerator to keep them for a couple of days, but after that, the fruit will start to turn brown and is not at all appealing to eat. Like ripe bananas, any tropical that has reached its peak ripeness does not have more than a day or two left before it’s rotten. If your purchase is ‘green,’ leave it out at room temperature, and check it daily for ripeness. If it has the feel of firm butter, it’s ready to eat. At home, you can go beyond this point and ripen it even further. We use this method as a means to control our losses. Avocados suitable for guacamole have no shelf life, while avocados that have the texture of firm butter have a couple days, and are perfect for slicing and dicing onto sandwiches and salads.

In general, fruits are like fine wines; their flavors blossom at room temperature. And, for those of us with sensitive teeth, eating cold fruit is an unpleasant experience. To help keep your fruit fresh, keep it in the refrigerator, and bring only what you’re planning on eating up to room temperature.

Local sugar snaps and snow peas should be arriving soon! Because they’re local at this time of the year, they’re going to be super fresh and will have a pretty good shelf life. They can be stored for up to a week in a bag in your crisper drawer. Green beans won’t be far behind and can be safely stored in the same manner for up to five days.

Industry experts claim greens have a shelf life around 14 days, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Stored in a bag in the crisper drawer, I’m recommending a week. I’ve done some experimenting with greens and lettuce and have kept them looking beautiful and crisp for over a month. It takes a little work, but it can be done with a technique called “crisping.” Here’s the process:

  • Give the stem end(s) a fresh cut.

  • Submerge entire product in lukewarm water.

  • Let product drain for a few minutes

  • Place in an airtight container of bag in your crisper drawer.

That’s it! It can be done. I had to prep and crisp my subjects weekly through the month and there was a little loss. I suppose if you shop once a month, this would worth giving a try!

Well, we only recently ended our season with the Tipi carrots, and we’re still working with King’s Hill celeriac. Harmony Valley over-winters sunchokes and parsnips for a super sweet treat in the spring. Root vegetables store well. Keep them moist and in a bag or airtight container in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for months.

Shelf life depends on how ripe it was when you purchased it. If it’s fairly ripe and you’re not planning on using it for a couple of days, store it away from ripening fruit. The ethylene from the fruit will accelerate its natural ripening process. If you want them to ripen, then it would make sense to do the opposite.

Mushrooms are perhaps the most sensitive of all items that we sell. Keep them dry, and in a paper bag. Because of their high respiration rate, they need to be able to “breathe.”

We keep a supply of small brown paper bags near our mushroom display for this reason. You can wash them just before using them, or, you can buy a mushroom scrubber. Don’t wash until you’re ready to use them or else they’ll turn brown and slimy. Properly handled, I’d suggest using them within four to five days of your purchase.

If you plan on eating your purchase within a few days, then by all means, leave them out. If not, then refrigerate them! Organically grown potatoes are not treated with a sprout inhibitor. Once they are harvested, they are stored in huge warehouses that maintain a temperature just above 40ºF to prohibit sprouting. They are then washed, sized, graded, packed, and then shipped under refrigeration to a distributor who then also stores them in refrigeration. When they arrive at the Co-op, we continue the refrigeration chain. Once the chain is broken, the potatoes will start to sprout! Most unfinished basements do not maintain a temperature low enough to prohibit sprouting. Your kitchen counter certainly is not cold enough. I set aside five pounds from my garden and store them in a plastic bag in the crisper, and use them for seed the following year. I actually have to pull them out a few days prior to planting to start them sprouting. On your counter, they’ll hold up for maybe a week, in the refrigerator, 10-12 months. If you keep them on the kitchen counter, keep them out of direct sunlight, and never eat them if they’ve turned green.

Well, my shelf life on this article is just about up. There are so many items we weren’t able to cover, and lots of little tricks of the trade that just wouldn’t fit! As someone who loves to eat, cook, garden, and is a Produce Manager, it’s easy to ramble on about produce. If you ever have a question about a particular item, look me up in the store, or send me an email (

)! Enjoy the local season, and have a great summer!