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A&E >  Food

Organic appeal

Amy Klamper Correspondent

Eating organic on a budget might seem like an oxymoron, thanks to the premium most consumers pay at the checkout for produce and foods free of pesticides, preservatives and other chemicals.

But growing demand among an increasingly health-conscious population has led some larger supermarket chains to respond with competitively-priced organic and natural foods more commonly found at local farmers’ markets and specialty food stores.

No longer the exclusive domain of high-end groceries and hippie food cooperatives, organics are popping up on grocery store and mega-mart shelves nationwide beside their conventional counterparts, or in specialty sections devoted solely to natural and organic products.

Some companies even have their own organic labels. Safeway Supermarkets, for example, recently introduced its new “O Organics” product line, boasting more than 150 exclusive food and household items scattered throughout its stores.

The O Organics line was created in response to consumer interest in more healthful products, according to Teena Massingill , Safeway’s manager of corporate public affairs in Pleasanton, Calif.

“Our customers were seeking more natural and organic products and wanting to find all those products in one location, as opposed to going to different stores for their shopping needs,” Massingill said, adding that demand for organic products across the retail sector is the highest the industry has ever seen. “People are looking for healthier options, so as we expanded our fruit and produce, we still heard the demand for products that weren’t produce items – more center-of-the-store items,” she said.

Fred Meyer is another national chain trying to fill the organic foods niche with its “Natural Choices” specialty-section. Functioning as a “store-within-a-store,” the section is devoted to organic produce, dairy, canned and frozen foods, household products and more, with many items offered at reduced prices.

Spokane-based Rosauers Supermarkets also has kept abreast of the growing organic trend, expanding its Huckleberry’s Natural Market concept throughout the region. Although Huckleberry’s remains a higher-end specialty shop featuring pricey organic and gourmet foods, parent company Rosauers says demand is great enough to warrant a new location — the company’s 11th — inside their 29th Avenue Rosauers store on the South Hill in the coming weeks, according to Don Whittaker, Rosauers director for organic products and the company’s 10 Huckleberry’s locations in the region.

In addition, most Rosauers supermarkets have begun featuring a new line of inexpensive organic foods, dubbed “Natural Directions,” from their house brand, Western Family, offering everything from low-priced yogurt and apple juice to canned tomatoes and black beans.

Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s top grocery seller, offers organic foods, including milk, juice, baby food, produce and pasta sauce. The company hopes to become the mass-market provider of organic food and plans to double its organic offerings in the next couple of weeks, adding products ranging from pickles to macaroni and cheese, according to news reports.

Ultimately, for the thrifty buyer who is willing to shop around it all adds up to more organic goods in your grocery sack and more bang for your buck.

At Fred Meyer you can buy a 32-ounce box of Pacific brand organic chicken or vegetable broth for $2.79. At Huckleberry’s the same broth costs $3.39. Safeway sells the chicken broth for $3.19, though you can get Safeway’s O Organics brand vegetable broth in a 32-ounce box for just $1.99.

Organic Santa Cruz nectars in 32-ounce bottles are $2.79 at Fred Meyer, while Safeway sells the same juices for $2.99 to $3.69. At Huckleberry’s you’ll pay between $2.59 and $3.59.

At Safeway, you can find 14.5-ounce cans of Hunt’s organic diced tomatoes at two for $4, while Huckleberry’s offers a similar product for as low as $1.79 and Rosauers organic Western Family label diced tomatoes are $1.39. And while Fred Meyer’s three pounds of russet potatoes for $3.99 was slightly less than Huckleberry’s noncertified, pesticide-free varietals at $1.69 per pound, Huckleberry’s advertises their spuds as locally grown.

Although Huckleberry’s prices seemed consistently higher than the larger chain grocers, their semiannual, department-wide sales are generally worth waiting for, and their bulk organic dry goods section is hard to beat. Huckleberry’s organic black beans are a mere $1.29 per pound, compared to Fred Meyers’ $1.69 per pound. And at Huckleberry’s you’ll pay only $1.89 for organic whole grain quinoa, while at Fred Meyer the per-pound cost is $2.59.

But as organic produce and other foods move steadily into the mainstream, sustainable agriculture advocates warn that “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “eco-friendly,” and that any savings reaped from reduced-price organics could eventually compromise their quality and the potential health benefits they offer.

Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn., worries that demand for cheap organics will ultimately weaken government standards for organic produce and other items.

“I’m happy to see big corporations and grocery chains offer organic products,” Cummins said. “But I want them to play by the rules of strict organic standards and not beat down the prices they pay to organic producers.”

Consumers also need to consider the source of their organic products. Chemical-free foods, particularly canned produce and other goods produced in such far-flung locales as China, require a tremendous amount of energy to get them to the buyer.

Guillermo Payet, founder of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Local Harvest, a group that supports small farms and other local food sources, agrees. Payet said the whole idea behind the organic food movement was to offer a fresh, local, chemical-free alternative to the seemingly impersonal nature of agribusiness giants.

“If pesticide residue is your only concern, then organic produce from China is fine,” Payet said. “But if the buyer is concerned about sustainability then they have to make that choice.”

Payet said that while organic farms in China offer cheap, pesticide-free produce to the United States and other trading partners, the country does not place limits on soil degradation, a practice that erodes the nutritional benefits of its produce.

In addition, workers at organic farms in China and other countries are often treated poorly and paid little for their labor. Add in the high-energy costs associated with shipping organic foods halfway around the globe to U.S. consumers and it makes more sense to simply buy local, he said.

“We’ve lost control over what organic means, and now that some of the large chains are offering organic foods, they don’t really care about sustainability, they just do it because there is a demand.”

Payet admitted this does not apply to all chains and that some do support local farms by selling organic products purchased from them.

For example, Huckleberrys’ Whittaker said the specialty store’s mission is to buy local organic products whenever possible, despite their higher cost.

“We buy local to support local farmers, Whittaker said. “If we wanted to save money, it’s cheaper to buy it through regular sources of distribution.”

Safeway’s Massingill said the company uses seasonal produce based on what products are available and the standards that organic growers follow. In Washington Safeway buys apples, cherries and a variety of vegetables grown in the state.

Both Cummins and Payet agree that if consumers want to save on organic products without compromising quality, they need to rely less on over-processed convenience foods – even the organic ones ■ and make an effort to buy local produce and other food items in-season.

“Cut out the middleman and buy foods directly at farmers’ markets” or through community-supported agriculture programs, commonly known as CSAs, Cummins said. Most CSAs let buyers purchase a share in a local farm’s seasonal yield by paying for a portion of its operating expenses. In return, the shareholders get weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables from the farm’s annual harvest.

Thrifty consumers might also consider joining or creating a food-buying club. Cummins said some food cooperatives will let a group of shoppers order directly from their store. And some organic food distributors will work directly with food-buying clubs to purchase in bulk.

“It’s worth the struggle to find the time to eat in-season and buy in bulk and to cook from scratch,” Cummins said.

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