March 12, 2010

Locally growing

— On a rainy Wednesday night in the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street, John Reece is busily packing quarts of yogurt, half-gallons of apple cider and dozens of eggs into a large cooler.

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: An order of locally-grown foods waits to be picked up at the Portland Food Cooperative Wednesday, December 10, 2008.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Mark Barnette weighs potatoes as he packs orders at the Portland Food Cooperative Wednesday, December 10, 2008.

Jack Milton

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Near the cooler, waiting to be packed into a box, there's a bag of small red cabbages, a few butternut squash and a huge bag filled with enough garlic to ward off an army of vampires.

Why so much? ''It's a stockpile for the winter,'' Reece explained.

Reece, a geographic information systems specialist who lives in Portland, pointed to a 1-quart container of Jersey Milk Yogurt from Smith Family Farm on Mount Desert Island.

''This is really good yogurt,'' he said. ''They have it in Whole Foods.''

The difference? Reece is paying just $3.88, a bargain compared to what the yogurt costs in local grocery stores. It's one of the perks of belonging to Portland's Food Now Buying Club, a fast-growing group that is purchasing local, organic foods in bulk from two distributors, Crown of Maine and United Natural Foods.

GOOD THINGS IN STORE

Food Now is part of a larger effort to establish a storefront organic food cooperative in Portland, something the city hasn't had since the Good Day Market closed its doors.

''The group came together around the vision for a storefront,'' said Emily Graham, one of the organizers. ''I think for all of us, that's our long-term hope. As much fun as the buying club is, as a consumer it's a lot easier to just walk into a market and buy what you need.''

A steering committee of 13 members has been meeting twice a month to share potluck meals and ideas for the storefront project. They hope to develop a specific plan by the end of January with the help of people who have experience in the natural foods business.

In late winter, there will be a community-wide meeting to present the plan and get public input.

Meanwhile, there's Food Now. The buying club started last January with about 10 families.

''We wanted to have a way for people to have more access to some good local food while we're in this process of making something bigger,'' Graham said, ''and so we called it Food Now.''

The club initially met in a small space on Munjoy Hill, joining with a small food-buying club there called All Good Things. But the group grew so fast -- there are now 75 paid members -- the organizers deliberately slowed things down a bit until they could find a larger space for food pick-ups.

A $15 membership allows people to order local organic food online at a 10 percent mark-up, compared with the 40 percent or more mark-up typically found at grocery stores. The mark-up helps pay the rent at the group's new space, the Meg Perry Center.

It's not always cheaper to buy through Food Now. Graham points out that at Hannaford you can buy store-brand yogurt that's not organic for much less than you could get organic yogurt through Food Now. But comparing organic-to-organic, it's a good way to start buying more local foods. A quart of that Smith Family Farm organic yogurt will cost about the same as the national brand Stonyfield Farm.

CONNECTING WITH THE SOURCE

It's also a good way to get more connected to your sources of food. Co-op members learn a little bit about the farms they're buying from and become more aware of what's going on around the state.

When the group couldn't buy oats for a while, for example, they learned it was because the only mill that processes local grains had broken down. And there was no asparagus last spring because of the heavy rains.

''This is not the industrial food system,'' Graham said. ''The industrial food system is really very efficient. The local food system has not developed that level of efficiency. You've got to be kind of flexible.''

John Reece, who heard about the co-op from his girlfriend, has been a member since the beginning of summer. He estimates they've been saving ''at least a couple of hundred dollars a month'' by buying through Food Now.

''Compared to going to the store, it's just so much cheaper,'' Reece said. ''And you don't spend all the time in the store, either. You save a lot of time on food shopping.''

While Reece packs his cooler, Wanda Stahl of Scarborough stands in line, waiting to pay. In the box she's holding, there's a 5-pound bag of carrots, 5 pounds of apples, six dozen eggs from Misty Meadows Family Farm in Grand Isle, 5 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes, a few pounds of tomatoes, and three half-gallons of apple cider.

Stahl heard about Food Now from a friend and joined because she wants to support local food producers. What about saving money? It depends on what you buy, she said.

''The eggs are a dollar a dozen cheaper than I get at Whole Foods for the same exact thing,'' Stahl said. ''The yogurt's, like, $3 a quart cheaper. And then the tomatoes are running about five bucks a pound, so I can easily save $20.''

Stahl said she's all in favor of a storefront operation in Portland ''to make this more accessible to more people.''

How quickly that happens depends on what people tell the steering committee they want at the group's January meetings.

''If we really focus on development of a buying club, it will probably mean that our store will come later,'' Graham said. ''And if we really focus on the store, it will probably mean that the buying club will have to just go in really slow growth.

''We want to get feedback from the community: Are people willing to wait for the store if we really expand our buying club, or do people really prefer having more regular access to buying products rather than just ordering once in a while?''

Folks who are interested in joining the buying club or learning more about the Portland Food Co-op storefront project and the twice-monthly planning meetings can go to:

http://can-so.org/wp-foodcoop.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Nathan Eldridge weighs an order of organic bread flour at the Portland Food Cooperative Wednesday, December 10, 2008.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Johanna Franzel and Jon Courtney, of Cape Elizabeth, pick up their order of locally-grwon food at the Portland Food Cooperative Wednesday, December 10, 2008.

Jack Milton

 


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