Culture and Community Meet in the Produce Aisle

For thousands of years people and foods from different cultures have been brought together at markets and the dinner table -- mushrooms from caves in France, apples from China. Melons, originally similar to a bitter cucumber, traveled with the Moors from Africa to Europe, were propagated in Mediterranean countries, then were brought to North America after Christopher Columbus.

Just as the food has migrated, so have the tastes and traditions of the people who make up our growing multicultural communities in the US. Co-ops have been blessed with many different cultures in their memberships. And these members bring their own piece of the world with them each time they shop.


City Market Triples Co-op Size

Burlington, Vermont

Old: Onion River Co-op New: City Market
Sq. feet: total 7,000 22,000
retail 3,400 16,000
Employees 45 140
Sales $470,000 (2/20/01-3/28/01) $1,280,000 (2/20/02-3/28/02)
Transactions 700/day 2,000/day

Co-op Meets Community:

In February, Onion River Co-op opened its new store, City Market, the only grocery store in downtown Burlington, Vermont. The project was over two years in the planning. The co-op needed a new site, and the city needed a new grocery store. But the co-op's proposal to build a new store provoked much public feedback and scrutiny. Responding to these challenges, the board of directors and management of Onion River Co-op decided to greatly increase the amount of conventional product the co-op would carry in the new City Market. The new store, with four times the retail space of the old, carries an extensive selection of conventional products stocked right next to organic products, plus a fresh meat and seafood department, hot/cold deli, and cafe dining. Having been open for almost two months, we taking a step back and refining our systems and procedures. We'll have a report in the next edition of Cooperative Grocer.

-- Chris French
Marketing and member services director


Produce managers may have one of community's most important jobs. They have the responsibility to provide a diverse collection of shoppers with the freshest, tastiest food and, even more importantly, the selection to provide for all the needs of the community. This means we are ambassadors in the "culture of food." We have to pay attention to buying patterns, provide valuable nutritional insight, and even sometimes be like a bartender and just listen to a myriad of problems that involve providing members with solutions to the daily chore of figuring out what to eat.

Many co-ops have wonderful programs to help in this endeavor. The Wedge has its "What's for Dinner?" program. Steve Moen of New Pioneer seems to know everyone in Iowa City and at a moment's notice can provide the best seasonal option. Andru Moshe of Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op has such a great local grower program that folks come from miles around to share in her excitement and taste her wares.

Recently I had the pleasure of working with Annie Harlow and her crew at the new City Market (Onion River Co-op) in Burlington, Vermont. Annie has successfully brought a program from her old store and incorporated it into her new, larger department. It exemplifies the idea of bringing food cultures together in the produce department and educating members to understand the joys and uses of unique produce items. This knowledge allows customers to think differently about what foods complement each other, and this makes shopping easier.

Besides dividing up her department with separate organic and conventional areas for fruit, dry vegetables, and wet vegetables, she has created a wonderful cultural section that has been embraced by the community. It includes a Mediterranean area, organic and conventional. Depending on the time of year this area would feature artichokes, asparagus, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, spinach, fennel, radicchio, and endive. Organic Mediterranean would also contain white, portobello, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms. With all the talk about the Mediterranean diet these days, wouldn't this make it much easier for people to understand what foods are included in this eating style?

Another area is the Asian stir-fry, which could contain snow peas, mung bean sprouts, lemongrass, a variety of hot peppers, and chayote squash. Organic Asian would also include galangal (Thai ginger), turmeric, Biker Dude ginger (flown in from Hawaii), and daikon radish. Vietnamese customers absolutely love this section. Another recent addition to this area is called "African stew," which contains taro root, sugar cane, batata (Cuban sweet potato), okra, and fava beans.

All the displays are attractively done so that the customer is drawn in to the shopping experience. Some customers from the Congo gave Annie advice on how to best store and display batata. They told her to take it from the dry rack (where most conventional sweet potatoes are kept) and put it on the refrigerated rack on top of a piece of damp burlap.

The idea of bringing the community together with food is really taking hold in Burlington. These examples may not be the perfect mix for you, but think of the possibilities that would work for the members of your community.

Annie also has beautiful pictures, post cards, and cookbooks for reference right above each section. Recipes are preprinted for easy dinner ideas, with great folklore and nutritional facts to make things fun. Many stores cross merchandise avocados and tomatoes, but take the idea little further. Have your deli or grocery departments work with produce to expand the idea. If you have the facilities, you could hold classes that teach people how to cook with the ingredients in each section.

No matter what your co-op's educational programs, any way we can bring our communities together is a good idea, especially when it involves great tasting food.

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