Hearty, healthy and authentic: Growing up ‘co-op’

Maia Pugh at New Pioneer Food Co-op

Digging in at the bulk bins at my own local co-op, New Pioneer Food Co-op in Coralville, Iowa.

By Maia Pugh, Frontier Co-op marketing intern

I didn’t always feel lucky to be raised by parents who were concerned about the importance of wholesome, ethically sourced food.

My family lived in northeast Tennessee for the first ten years of my life, and we weren’t exactly surrounded by a booming community of people seeking to live “all-naturally.” I was likely the only one in my elementary school to have been born at home with the help of a midwife (whose small, organic farm we visited often), and certainly the only one whose placenta had been planted under an oak tree in the front yard. While other kids in my neighborhood learned how to train their talking Furbies and went on exhilarating adventures with Mario and his brothers, I learned how to tell an earthworm from a grub worm and helped my mom with the deliveries for her cloth diaper service.

When I went over to friends’ houses, I remember enviously browsing through what seemed like endless cupboards of delectable snack foods — Rice Krispies Treats, Doritos, Cocoa Puffs cereal and double-stuffed Oreos. At my house, we got organic carrot sticks and whole grain crackers with unsweetened peanut butter.

I didn’t look forward to my turn to bring refreshments to share at school. Why couldn’t my mom just get that all-natural, homemade Pop Tarts just weren’t as good as the real things, coated in high fructose corn syrup and vanilla frosting, and oozing with artificial cherry filling?!

Maia Pugh at La Montanita with Frontier Co-op spices

Pointing out my favorite spices during a visit to La Montanita Co-op in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this summer — proof that my family’s vacations always include at least one stop at a co-op!

My first co-op: La Montañita Co-op

When I was ten years old, my family moved from good ol’ rocky top country to “the city different” — better known as Santa Fe, New Mexico — where all things funky are eagerly embraced, and countless bumper stickers preach the importance of wholesome, natural living: “Let food be your medicine,” “Say no to GMOs,” “I’d rather be gardening,” and, my personal favorite, “Eat more kale.

After working in conventional retail food stores for more than twenty years, my dad had accepted a position as general manager of La Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque. Although my parents had always been committed to making sure the house was stocked with nutritious food, they hadn’t previously been members of a co-op.

I remember the first time I walked into La Montañita Co-op. Instead of the bright white floors and clean-cut symmetry of the conventional grocery stores, I was greeted by natural light streaming in through the large windows and a rustic, somewhat eclectic atmosphere of earthy colors and smells and light-hearted chit-chat between customers and employees.

I can’t say this very first experience brought some sort of overwhelming tidal wave of awe over me. I was, in fact, quite skeptical. Where were the service clerks in their pressed white shirts and ties and bright white smiles? Where were the big yellow signs screaming for my attention, “SALE! SALE! SALE!”? Where was the brightly colored candy aisle with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Skittles that never failed to trigger wide eyes and salivating cheek glands? And what on earth was all that food doing in huge plastic bins for people to just scoop out as they pleased?

But I do remember it feeling so real. So hearty and healthy and authentic. And over time, I stopped wishing for pressed white shirts and brightly colored candy aisles.

Familiarity and comfort

Since those first steps inside the co-op, I have done my fair share of co-op perusing — after my dad’s job with La Montañita, he worked with the National Cooperative Grocers Association (which prompted a move to Iowa in 2008). It’s somewhat of a running joke in my family that we can’t go anywhere without stumbling upon at least one, and often two or three, co-ops that we have to check out. Although each co-op has a distinct personality, there are several shared characteristics that have really come to define my co-op experience.

When I walk in the doors of any co-op, something that immediately invokes a sense of familiarity and comfort is the smell. Of just-ripe produce. Wooden shelves. Fresh-baked bread and steaming soup. Wild-caught fish. And pungent spices from the bulk jars.

Then the vibrant produce displays snag my attention. There are no enormously oversized apples — you know, the ones that look like they might have dropped straight out of the evil queen’s hand to draw the same sense of awe and skepticism that Snow White probably experienced before indulging in the perilous bite. Instead the produce has a real, authentic beauty — a wholesome attractiveness that GMOs and pesticide cosmetics simply cannot achieve.

Stories in store

When I look closely, I can find stories all over the store. In the carton of eggs that was delivered to the store just hours before from a farmer who lives just down the road. In the bottle of cinnamon that was ethically-sourced from Vietnam. In the milk carton that has been filled by family farmers who are committed to pesticide-free practices despite the challenges. In the beef from cows that happily grazed in open spaces. And at the organic peanut butter station, where I turn on the grinder and create my own little story to share.

And then there are the bulk sections. Often in the grocery store, we can pass by numerous strangers and barely exchange glances, dodging each other as we maneuver through the aisles and monotonously move items from the shelves into our carts. But not in the bulk section. You simply can’t accomplish getting a container or bag, finding a scoop, choosing a bin or jar, retrieving the product, finding a twist tie or sticker and a pen to write down the PLU#, and putting everything away without a social interaction of some kind.

More often than not, interactions that begin with, “Excuse me,” or “You go ahead first,” or “Would you mind passing me a twist tie?,” turn into, “Wow, this paprika smells so good!” or “Have you tried these almonds yet? They’re incredible!”

And before you know it, you’ve got yourself a new friend with whom to share your co-op experience.

Why I shop the co-op

There may not be a flashy, manicured smile in every aisle, but when I ask the customer service clerk about a new product and where it comes from, she passionately reveals another story. She educates people all day long, truly believing in the value of her work. And at the end of her shift, her genuine grin goes out the door with her.

And believe me, she can tell you why she loves her co-op.

And the food. If they’re offered, I can’t walk out the door without trying the free samples. Whether it’s a new dip, cheese, salsa, nut or cookie, they always delight my taste buds. And when I choose to buy one of the products, the action becomes more than an indulgence in great taste — it nourishes me and has a positive impact on a wider community, too.

So I shop the co-op. To support quality, ethical, sustainable food practices. To find the stories. To learn. To make friends in the bulk sections. To indulge. To make an impact. To have a truly authentic experience.

Oh and by the way, organic carrot sticks and whole grain crackers with unsweetened peanut butter are oh so good. And the oak tree in the front yard? It’s growing beautifully. As for me, well, I still have a lot to learn, but I feel pretty darn lucky to have grown up co-op.

October is Co-op Month! Tell me why you love your co-op in the comments!

About the Author: Maia Pugh is a senior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, pursuing a degree in Communication Studies and Spanish. When she is not studying, she can be found playing Ultimate Frisbee with Luther’s traveling women’s club team, volunteering with various student organizations, biking or running on one of Decorah’s beautiful trails, or shopping the local food co-op. Maia interned with Frontier Co-op’s marketing team throughout summer 2014.

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