Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
- From Plate to Palate, with Amanda McGuire: October 2010
- Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney - Some Notes on Hunger
- Terri Griffith - Take Two Calf's Feet
- Gregory Byrd - The Zen of Restaurants
- Jeannie Kidera - Cleveland Doesn't Need LeBron to Bring Home the Bacon
- Arielle Greenberg - Oh You Can't Get to Heaven in a Cart from Whole Foods
- Anna Daly Kauffman - Why I Can't Eat Rabbit
- Katherine Willis Pershey - Le Petit Sous Chef
- All Pages
Arielle Greenberg is the co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press, forthcoming 2011), and author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of three anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (Iowa, 2010) and Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2010). Twice featured in Best American Poetry and the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, she is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv and is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Currently she is on sabbatical in Maine and is trying out Mark Bittman's Food Matters eating plan.
Oh You Can’t Get to Heaven in a Cart from Whole Foods by Arielle Greenberg
You know the camp song, yes?
Oh you can’t get to heaven
in a cart from Whole Foods
‘Cause a cart from Whole Foods
gives me the blues
If you’ve read my last columns here [hyperlink?], you’ll know that I spent the last year and a half on sabbatical from my job, living the Good Life in rural Maine and researching the new back-to-the-land movement there. This research meant I met a lot of small organic farmers, and meeting small organic farmers meant I ate a lot of amazing quality local food. And because the area where I was conducting my research has been long associated with homesteading, hippies, tourists, and food politics, it also means that I was in a place where good food, and good food sources, abounded: weekly farmer’s markets in every small town, farm stands, many CSA choices, independent gourmet groceries, and food co-ops. Midcoast Maine is a foodie’s dream come true.
But now I’m back in the Midwest, in Evanston, an urban suburb—a city of its own, really—five minutes over the border from Chicago, and I’m suffering mightily. Chicago has plenty of fantastic restaurants, of course (and too many mediocre ones), but with two small children and a budget, we hardly ever get to dine out. Besides, we love to cook and love to eat at home. So what’s an Evanstonian grocery shopper to do?
Here are the most visible options for food shopping in my neighborhood:
1) A pretty nasty-ass chain grocery store, Jewel/Osco, huge and pallid, replete with partially hydrogenated oils and shrink-wrapping;
2) A dingy “health food store” in a strip mall that sells overpriced vitamins and a small selection of outdated natural foods; and
3) Two—count ‘em, two!—Whole Foods stores within a three mile radius.
As someone whose regular shopping list includes items such as organic cashews, quinoa flour, local organic Swiss chard, free-range eggs and the like, of course the “best” option for me is Whole Foods. But I hate shopping at Whole Foods. I hate it.
I didn’t used to hate it. There was a time when I loved it: loved the good-looking but often bland deli fare, the beautifully arranged piles of exotic produce, the bulk granola. This was in my younger days, when I lived in places not chic enough to have Whole Foods, so that visiting a Whole Foods was a special thing to do on vacation someplace fancy. Whole Foods represented status, luxury of a mildly crunchy variety. Over time, though, I figured out that much of the beautiful produce that Whole Foods sells is not organic; I know that most of it is not local. I know that I can’t get eggs from small farmers, or raw milk, at my Whole Foods. I know that expensive and beautifully packaged does not necessarily mean high quality, healthy, or yummy. I also know that not every “organic” or “green” company is an ethical company (did you read the New Yorker piece about the founder last year?). And I know that Whole Foods is not a community cooperative.
Before my stint in Maine, I had never had the experience of shopping full-time at a local food co-op. I’ve been an erstwhile co-op shopper for a long time, and I even worked at my undergraduate college’s tiny little one-room collective, and at Syracuse’s long-running Real Food Co-op when I was in grad school. I’ve always liked the food co-op model and found groovy kinship there. But the food co-op was never my single, or even primary, source for groceries. The co-op was more for fun, for a change, for a specialty item, or for convenience. This changed as my politics around food solidified, and by the time I hit my 30s and started a family here in Chicago, I would have been glad to shop full-time at a local food co-op, except there is none. There is no food co-op at all in the city of Chicago or its northern suburbs.
There is an independent health food store called New Leaf in Chicago not far from me, and I try to shop there when I can, but it’s small and hit-or-miss, and it’s hard to justify driving there when I can walk or bike to Whole Foods, or drive over in five minutes to get sugar. And New Leaf’s still not a co-op. There is no place where I can join—literally, as a member—a community of like-minded folks who care about food the way I do, by investing some of my money and/or time.
In Maine, I shopped almost exclusively at the Belfast Food Co-op, the state’s longest running co-op. The Belfast co-op is a good-sized, friendly place, with five or so different local bakers providing bread, local grass-fed beef in the deli, and a beautiful array of organic produce brought over in minivans and trucks from farmers who also shop there. There’s a good selection of wine from all over the world, and fish fresh off the boats. It’s a place that does not bag its merchandise at the checkout—you have to bring your own bag, pay for one, or recycle a cardboard box they have lying around. It’s also the town hub, where I always ran into people I knew and got to have a nourishing conversation. When I’d order my vegetarian chili at the cafe, the cashier knew my name and member number without asking for them. And the incredibly popular and over-posted bulletin boards outside have everything you need to know about the town: the contradances and free movie screenings happening in town, who is hiring a babysitter, who is selling a motorcycle or a composting toilet. Shopping at the co-op was good for my pocketbook, my stomach, my health, my planet and my soul. I loved it. My whole family loved it—my oldest daughter would often spend our entire time there reading on a beanbag chair in the kids’ book nook—and we went often, as much as three times a day, as an outing, errand, social activity, and way to pass the time.
Back in Chicago, I struggle to find something equivalent. Food shopping occupies a huge place in the life of our family, in terms of our time and money: there is probably no other single activity we do more often. So I want to ensure that my family does as little of our shopping at Whole Foods as possible, because the Whole Foods experience—from the utter lack, often, of local vegetables or eggs, to the rushed and urban feel of the place, to the corporate model—does not feel good for my soul.
My current hunting and gathering plan for our family’s food sources is as follows:
Saturdays, when I can, I go to a nearby missionary church (the only time in my life I have ever set foot inside a missionary church!) where they have a once-a-week co-op with a very small selection of natural bulk foods, applesauce, olive oil, and other pantry items (no produce, few perishables).
Tuesdays I place an order for raw milk and butter through an underground CSA, which I pick up on Monday evenings at someone’s home, the drop-off point, nearby. I don’t even know the identity or whereabouts of my farmers: such is the seriousness of the crime that is distributing raw milk in Illinois right now.
Wednesdays from July through November, I pick up a CSA share from Angelic Organics, an organic farm about two hours away that also provides a fruit share from a national cooperative of small producers. We first joined Angelic years ago, when it was a pretty new operation, but by now it’s semi-famous (the founder, Farmer John, is the subject of a documentary film and the author of a cookbook). There are hundreds and hundreds of members, and over thirty drop-off sites around Chicagoland. From November to January I’ll pick up a winter share at a local drop-off point on Wednesdays from yet another CSA, this one in Wisconsin. As with Angelic, I will probably never know these farmers personally.
And every Sunday, I order food to be delivered from Fresh Picks, a local business that acts as a distributor for various area farms, bakeries, and others, so that I can get local organic and mindfully produced tofu, eggs, rosemary, chicken, plums and lots of other things. Fresh Picks also offers non-local staples like organic bananas, and from February to June, that’s where I’ll get as much of my produce as possible. I order through a website, and have a set shopping list that I work from. They deliver to our house on Fridays. (I should mention that we live in an apartment and have no soil of our own, so can grow no food.)
This plan is elaborate and complicated and decidedly urban, much more so than I’d like. We don’t have time, really, to access all these different channels for our food, and it means a constant juggling act of time-bound ordering and pick-ups and week-ahead meal planning: it’s not as easy as just running to the store.
And despite all these efforts, there are still gaps—children’s vitamins, mineral water, rice noodles—that we can’t get through any of these channels, which means I’ll drive down to New Leaf sometimes, or try to hit the Asian food market or fancy homeopathic apothecary, but that often enough—probably at least twice a month--I’ll still have to enter Whole Foods. And each time I do, jamming my cart past strangers who don’t make eye contact, foregoing my plan to buy fish for dinner because there is nothing that looks safe or sustainable, paying too much for some box of crackers, I’ll feel a little weepy and think about the heaven that is Maine.
Some amazing places to buy groceries along the coast of Maine, north of Portland and up to Acadia National Park, in order from South to North (not all of them co-ops, but all delightful in their own ways):
Royal River Natural Foods, 443 US Route One, Freeport. An oasis of healthy options in the land of shopping outlets.
Morning Glory Natural Foods, 60 Maine Street, Brunswick. Good selection in a charming college town. Try the local blueberry milk in the little glass jars!
North Creek Farm, 24 Sebasco Road, Phippsburg. A destination: very much out of the way, an enchanted place with a wacky, fascinating selection of gourmet and local foods, some from their own saltwater farm in season, and a cafe that serves the most delicious sandwiches, which you can eat in the fairy gardens surrounded by their free-range chickens.
Bath Natural Market, 36 Centre Street, Bath. Cozy little co-op-style store generally out of tourist range.
Rising Tide Community Market, 323 Main Street, Damariscotta. Newly expanded, bright and clean co-op with sweet posters of the farmers who grow the veggies you buy.
Treats, 80 Main Street, Wiscasset. Fancy little store with excellent baked goods, coffee, extensive wine and cheese selection, imported foods and pottery.
Good Tern Co-op, 750 Main Street, Rockland. Nice size and selection, especially of local dairy products.
The Market Basket, Route 1 and Route 90, Rockport. Long-standing and beloved gourmet grocery and deli, with excellent muffins and fancy take-out items. For the preppie set, but excellent quality.
Farmer’s Fare, 3 Cross Street, Rockport. Chic array of Maine products and produce plus a restaurant in a large, hip-rustic space.
Belfast Food Co-op, 123 High Street, Belfast. Maine’s oldest and largest food co-op, also serves breakfast and lunch. The real deal.
Rooster Brothers, 29 Main Street, Ellsworth. High-end coffee, fabulous cookware store, plus an interesting selection of imported teas, snacks, and sweets. Some meat, no produce.
John Edwards Market, 158 Main Street, Ellsworth. Yup—just up the street from Rooster Brothers, a more traditional health food store, with a good bulk section.
Blue Hill Co-op, 4 Ellsworth Road, Blue Hill. A sweet little co-op with a small cafe section and a great selection of teas, plus the only place I know of to buy small-batch, locally harvested seaweed.
A&B Naturals, 101 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor. Small but packed with healthy stuff and excellent baked goods. A great option in otherwise touristy Bar Harbor.