By Stephanie Pierce
My husband and I recently finished a summer-long adventure in which we toured the northern half of the United States. Even though we were living out of our 1998 minivan — sleeping on a futon we'd equipped with leg-risers to fit in the back — we were determined that one part of our lifestyle would not change: how we ate. We brought a laptop with us on the trip and with the combined triple power of Local Harvest, Eat Well Guide (which now has a cool trip planner feature), and Google Maps, we ate almost exclusively from farmers markets, food stands, and food co-ops. We covered more than 9,000 miles across 31 states, and managed to shop in a conventional grocery store only a few times. (If you’re curious for more details of where we went, check out our trip blog.)
After sampling so many of the country’s food co-ops, I got a pretty good feel for what makes an outstanding co-op experience and what kills any joy I may have had about grocery shopping. There were five outstanding co-ops that I thought provided the best foods and the best experience of the 20 or so we checked out (sometimes to shop, sometimes just to investigate!). In chronological order, our five favorites were: Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais, Minnesota; Bozeman, Montana Community Food Co-op; the Moscow Food Co-op in Moscow, Idaho; Belfast Co-op in Belfast, Maine; and Hunger Mountain Food Co-op in Montpelier, Vermont.
I think it’s worth looking at what characteristics made these five seem fantastic to me:
The people that worked there were excited about and valued good food; they were not just employees. When we went to a co-op where all the people working there went out of their way to be helpful because they seemed genuinely interested in what the food co-op stood for, we were reinvigorated. Our ethical food sails got a new puff of wind because someone else helped confirm to us that it was worth the time we took to find where the nearest one was, that it was worth any extra expense, any extra effort. On the flipside, we hated co-ops that seemed to hire bodies for the store, or even worse, where the employees seemed snooty or outsider-unfriendly. Not only is this irritating as a shopper, it worried me that curious newcomers facing this kind of attitude problem could be driven away for good.
The co-op had some kind of gathering place. We loved places that fostered a community atmosphere, rather than simply a shopping atmosphere. For example, the Bozeman, Montana co-op had an amazing deli and coffee shop on the second level of its store. It added a flurry of activity and festivity to the co-op that made it a place you might want to go just to hang out and gab.
The store was stocked differently from a conventional grocery store, but was just as well organized. Co-ops that are stocked chaotically or erratically are unpleasant, regardless of mission. Sloppily stocked stores screamed disorganization and haphazardness, while stores that were well-organized looked like places people cared about. We also noticed that we tended to like the places that had their foods organized differently from the conventional store. We really liked the co-ops that had a dry goods section where we could use our own bags or dishes, instead of an aisle of packaged dry goods. And we started to expect that there would be a wider variety of superior dry goods in co-ops than there are in the bulk foods section of conventional grocery stores — things like old-fashioned candies, different varieties of rice, noodles, nuts, grains, beans, spices, granolas, etc. The Montpelier, Vermont, co-op was adding on to its store when we were there, as they had outgrown their space. It looked to us like they had made the right choices: they had a great deli of meat and cheese, a good produce section, and a huge selection of bulk goods. This meant they didn’t have a whole lot of shelf space left, then, for prepackaged stuff — but we hardly noticed and didn’t feel like we were missing anything. In fact, it was nice seeing only a slim selection of those prettily-wrapped prepackaged “health foods.”
The produce section of the co-op was well-stocked and well-labeled, and the items were not pre-bagged “for convenience” in a plastic bag. This meant different things in different places as one would expect, but when so much space went to prepackaged food that the produce section had to be squeezed into a corner, that’s a thumbs down. I know the ethics of food selection differs for everyone. My husband and I prefer local and organic first and if only one of those two criteria are available to choose from, we do the best we can. The co-ops we loved had a produce section full of local and organic fruits and veggies, even if it meant that they did not have many of the items we’re used to from conventional stores because it wasn’t available in that area at that time. We weren’t overly bothered if co-ops had local organic plus a mix of far-off organics, or included items the region was known for growing but that weren’t necessarily organic. But when it looked like nobody had bothered to even try to highlight local and/or organic food, didn’t label how the food was grown, or where it was from — or just didn’t bother with produce at all — we were really turned off. Why shop at a co-op? The same principle applied to meat and cheese, although we didn’t buy much meat on the road as we really prefer that to be a direct exchange between us and the farmer. (That's how we know we're not buying food from a CAFO. We passed some of those on the road, see picture above right with the nice welcome sign.)
Take it from us and try it for yourselves: it is possible to travel pretty much anywhere in this country (at least the northern half!) and with a little planning, eat well and eat sustainably, organically, locally, and ethically. Plenty of awesome people have done the hard work of making this possible. Use Local Harvest, Eat Well Guide, and Google Maps to your advantage and you will never be stuck with gas-station foodlike substances on a trip again.
Stephanie Pierce spends part of her working time teaming up with Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. As she settles back into life after six months of travel, she is looking to spend another part of her working time away from the computer getting her hands dirty. She works for trade on a farm in her area, putters in the kitchen and writes while on long walks. A native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why she believes Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce "sauna."