Author Archives: Veritable Vegetable

What is Rhubarb Anyway?

Rhubarb is often considered the darling of the spring season. While it’s technically a vegetable, it’s often prepared as a fruit in culinary practices. Rhubarb is sold by the stalk, similar to celery. It is well known for its beautiful crimson stalk color but can often be found in varying shades of light pink and pale green. Color is not an indication of ripeness or flavor. Only the stalks on a rhubarb plant are edible; the large leaves are extremely high in oxalic acid which can cause severe illness.

Rhubarb is naturally very tart and crisp in its raw form. Commonly, it is cooked or baked into desserts with some sweetener to balance the tartness. However, it can be used in savory dishes, pickled or made into a refreshing fruit wine. Rhubarb has a short season that only lasts April through June so get your fill of this uniquely flavored veggie before it’s gone!

 

*Keep a lookout for our staff picks noted in orange.

 

Fruit

Apple and Pear

Many of the early apple varieties are finishing up. The last of Ambrosia and Cameo are in house and Red Delicious is winding down. Granny Smith is very limited with not much available besides 88 count US Extra Fancy. Fuji, Gala and Pink Lady are in better supply. Fuji prices are on the rise.

But as apple choices become more limited, the wonderful world of pear offerings is expanding. New to the pear gang are Durondeau pears. These pears have rosy flushed, golden skin with juicy white flesh that offers sweet floral flavors and simply melts in your mouth. Delicious fresh, their texture is similar to the Bosc, and also works wonderfully in dessert recipes, cheese plates or salads. Argentinian imported D’Anjou pears have arrived and we’re still seeing great pricing on red Anjous from Daisy Girl. Bosc and Bartlett are also available. Lots to choose from on the pear market right now! Try offering customers a few different varieties on the sampling table and talking up newer varieties to create buzz around the program.

Avocado

More of the same on the avocado front. The market is tight overall and prices are going up again. Mexico production is limited due to the labor shortages in observance of Easter. California growers are experiencing a down year, reporting as much as 30% less crop than prior seasons.

Berry

Supply of raspberries remains a little tight but is forecasted to improve this month. Supply and price on blackberries has been steady although berry production out of Mexico has slowed. Strawberry season is in full swing! The sporadic rain in Northern California will impact some Watsonville production, but with berries coming in from both Southern California and local growers, supply should be strong. The blueberry market is steady. Homegrown Organic Farms is expecting to start San Joaquin blueberry production in the second half of April.

Citrus

Build up your citrus display with the last of the season’s bounty. We’re loving the juicy navel oranges from Buck Brand and gorgeous blood oranges from Beck Grove. Buck Brand is winding down fast on their fruit so get them while you can. B&J Ranch Valencias are done but supply will be steady with fruit from other California growers who are just starting along with Mexican Valencias .Some oranges may have a tinge of green which is caused by chlorophyll to help protect the oranges from sunburn. Green tinged oranges are ripe and still taste sweet!

Ojai Pixie tangerines from Shore Packing are winding down but there should smaller sized fruit available to keep the supply steady for a bit. Check out murcott tangerines from Wild River and Schellenberg Farms. Murcotts are juicy and sweet and perfect for juicing due to its high seed content.

Sporadic rain followed by periods of heat this year has caused lemon trees to produce large fruit. There are lots of large size lemons on the market; pricing is attractive for now. Overall, lemon prices are expected to go up. When nature gives you large lemons, you make a lot of lemonade!  Preferably with Maple Valley Co-op maple syrup, a great spring cleanse!

Grape

Exciting news from our grape growers. Early reports are indicating that we may see some red grapes as soon as the second week of May! Check back soon for updates.

Mango

Tommy Atkins supply is steady. Prices are holding for now, although trending higher than past seasons. Ataulfo mangoes are in good supply with sharp pricing on the 20 counts. Quality on both varieties is high. April is a good time to promote mangos, when citrus is winding down and stonefruit is not fully up and running. Get in on mango madness before prices creep up!

Melon

At long last, melon supply is starting to stabilize. Harper and watermelons should be coming in regularly over the next few weeks. Del Cabo will be coming into orange-flesh honeydew, Crenshaw and Piel de Sapo in a week or two. Now is the time to start planning for seasonal menus and retail displays changes. As the weather warms up, we’re dreaming of frozen melon balls and watermelon slushies!

Peach

The first trickle of stonefruit has us feeling peachy! California stonefruit season is starting a bit early this year with yellow flesh Amber Crest peaches. Quality is good and they are tasting sweet and tart, called ‘sugar/acid balance’ in the produce trade. Mexican Alta Kirsty peaches have started, too, with more aggressive pricing than California fruit.

Pineapple

The pineapple market is finally steady and imported Costa Rican pineapples are in good supply. Time to stock up on this delicious and popular tropical fruit! Did you know pineapples also offer a myriad of health benefits such as their ability to boost eye health, improve digestion, cure coughs and colds and increase circulation? A word to the wise, the bromelain in pineapples, primarily a meat-tenderizing enzyme can cause tenderness on your lips, gums and tongue if you eat too much of the fruit!

 

Vegetables

Artichoke

The artichoke market is very unsteady and demand is high. Production is picking up slowly; we’re getting all the ‘chokes we can get our hands on!

Asparagus

Recent rain in Northern California may put a damper on the asparagus market. Green asparagus is limited but steady. The uncertainty around supply combined with increased demand for the Easter holiday may cause prices to go up. We’re starting to see California purple asparagus come in but prices are still high. Imported purple asparagus from Mexico is steady.

Bean

Green beans are in good supply with new crop coming in from Rico Farms and Good Life Organics, both coming from Mexico. We should see some California grown green beans from Rundle Family Farm in May. Supply is expected to remain steady going forward. The arrival of spring means we get to enjoy everyone’s favorite springtime treat—fava beans! Prices are down on favas. Add these to your favorite dishes for a bright pop of color and a healthy dose of nutrients.

Bok Choy

Bok choy supply remains tight and prices have crept up on baby bok (mei qing) and bok choy. Unpredictable wet weather followed by periods of heat have made the transition from desert growing regions to local regions much more difficult than prior seasons.

Broccoli

Broccoli is on everyone’s most wanted list this spring season. Supply continues to be limited and prices are high. Quality is fair as we’re seeing some minor knuckling or uneven formation of florets on product available in the current market. With many growers’ harvest delayed two weeks to a month, we do not anticipate much improvement in supply at least through April.

Cabbage

The cabbage market is still tight during this transitional period of the season. Bad weather and delays in production have aggravated normal fluctuations. Prices on red and green cabbage have gone up and are changing often.

Carrot

Givens Farms and Sunrise Organic Farm are back in supply with Nantes carrots.  Coke Farm is offering a psychedelic purple carrot called Purple Haze. The carrot has dark purple skin and bright orange interior. It has excellent flavor, raw or cooked. Cooking will cause the color to fade.

Cauliflower

Growers are beginning to harvest new fields of cauliflower. Some growers are waiting for proper sizing on their heads so supply is steady but still a bit limited. Demand will likely outpace supply and prices are expected to remain high.

Celery

California celery is delayed due to the rainy January and February. Supply of Mexican celery has been steady but prices have risen. Quality is strong with clean green stalks and crisp flavor. Fun Fact: you can grow more celery by planting the base that is cut off from the bunch.

Cucumber

It’s not easy being a cucumber right now. Persians are still limited. Slicers are becoming in even more limited and prices are inching up. English hothouses production is down as our main grower transitions between greenhouses.

Eggplant

Graffiti eggplant is very limited and may experience a gap in supply. Globe eggplants are holding steady with excellent quality globes—firm and plump!

Garlic, Ginger and Turmeric

Spring marks the arrival of green garlic! Green garlic is harvested while still immature, usually before the bulb fully has a chance to develop so it’s not uncommon to see it at various stages of growth. It has a mild garlic flavor that’s bright and fresh tasting. It’s quite sharp raw, but mellows greatly when cooked. You can use both the white and the tender green parts of the stalk. Yellow ginger and galangal are in good supply. Hawaiian turmeric is winding down so grab some of this powerful health promoting herb before it’s gone!

Greens

Many varieties of bunched greens are still tight in supply as growers make their seasonal transition to local growing regions. Green kale, dino (aka lacinato) kale, and red chard are faring better than most with plentiful supply.

We’re in the final stretch of the transition back to the Salinas Valley for many varieties of boxed greens. Supply has been increasing and should be back at normal levels soon. Quality is strong with no major issues to report. We’re happy to announce that we’ll be offering boxed baby spinach, spring mix and wild arugula from Josie’s Organics starting April 18th. Josie’s has been growing out of the Salinas Valley since the 1920s by the Braga family and maintained the same high standards for quality, integrity, and sustainability.

Leek

Local California leek supply is tightening up with Terra Firma Farm located in Winters, California hanging on as the main supplier. Prices are increasing but with Arizona product coming on to supplement supply, the market should hopefully level out soon.

Lettuce, Retail Greens and Herbs

The lettuce market is slowly beginning to stabilize. We’re seeing regular supply of green and red leaf lettuce from Foster Ranches in San Juan Bautista, California, in the Pinnacle label.  Givens Farm is coming through with red butter, romaine and leaf lettuces.

Retail romaine hearts are still tight, which is not abnormal for this point in the season. Retail hearts are usually behind the rest of the romaine market in terms of catching up on volume after a shortage. New to our retail offerings are fresh baby leaf and salad blends from Josie’s Organics. Baby arugula, baby spinach, baby kale, half & half, power greens, and spring mix are available in 5 ounce clamshells. Baby spinach and spring mix also come in 16 ounce clamshells.

Prices on iced bunched herbs remain high but as more growers start up, the prices should come down. Italian parsley continues to be tight in supply. All other bunched and clamshell herbs are steady with good supply.

Onion

Spring is a transitional time for onions. Storage onions are done and we transition to short-day onions, first imported then domestic as they are ready.  The first onions of the season are short-day varieties, which unlike onion varieties harvested later in the season, have thin, fragile outer layers and do not store well long-term. Yellow onions are in good supply with Mexican onions coming on to supplement until new crop California onions are ready at the end of the month. California red onions are gapping due to an abrupt end to the season. We’ll be bringing in Mexican red mediums, which will be the first harvest of the season. Expect some minor cosmetic flaws, but taste and quality are solid. White onions are steady with imported supply Mexico. California shallots are winding down so grab some while you can!

Pea

California peas are starting up with snap peas, snow peas and English peas coming eagerly onto the veggie scene. Supply is still a bit limited this early in the season but with beautiful peas coming in from Mexico to ease supply, there should be plenty of peas to go around! Peas are a staff favorite around here, especially the versatile snap peas which are sweet, crunchy and oh-so-addicting!

Pepper

Other than green bells, which are in good supply with strong quality, all peppers are still in short supply as growers wrap up production in their fields for the season. Both yellow and orange bells are limited with prices on the rise. Choice and Large/Extra Large red bells continue to be limited and prices are up. Most chili peppers are limited, especially jalapenos. Serranos and anaheims are more stable. Sweet peppers are experiencing a gap in supply with no indication yet on when they will be back.

Potato

As with every spring, storage potatoes, in their search for sunlight, start developing a few sprouts. This is a normal process and can be hindered by storing potatoes in a cold and dark environment. It’s how nature spreads the joy of potatoes. Spring is also the time when we begin welcoming new crop potatoes. New crop California yellow “A”s are starting with reds following close behind. Russets are a little ways out, but fortunately there are plenty of quality storage spuds available at attractive prices.  Specialty potatoes are very limited; we’re bringing ‘em in as we find them.

Roots

Foster Ranches is done with parsnips in the Pinnacle label due to carrot blight damaging their last planting. Willow Creek will be closing down their production season when their parsnip crop is done. Bunched red radish is in good supply. Jicama is coming in strong with excellent quality. The samples we cut open were crisp and juicy. We love eating them raw with some salt, chili pepper and lime! Bunched red and gold beets are in good supply. Baby beets are back! These little guys are more tender than full-sized beets and just as delicious! Full sized bagged red and gold beets are holding steady but the jumbos are winding down. Chioggias from Duncan Family Farm are also winding down.

Specialty Veg

Rhubarb—the darling of spring is here! It is well known for its beautiful crimson stalk color but can often be found in varying shades of light pink and pale green. Color is not an indication of ripeness or flavor. Rhubarb has a natural tart flavor in its raw state. It is most often prepared for desserts with sugar to balance the tartness. Keep an eye out for nopales, expected to come in towards the end of April.

Squash

Many growers are coming on with zucchini. Supply is strong and prices will likely drop quickly. Take advantage of the flushed market and promote zucchini on ad or specials. Don’t forget about the ever-so popular zucchini noodle (“zoodle”) trend! In the world of hard squash, butternut and kabocha are both steady with good supply. Delicata, however, is limited.

Tomato

Heirloom tomato supply is tightening up as our growers are hitting some lulls in production. Del Cabo’s heirlooms are Fair Trade certified. Their availability is limited but we’re seeing beautiful color and variety. One and two-layer tomatoes are in good supply; the color has been spot on. Tomatoes-on-vine (TOV) supply is steady and prices seem to be holding. Sweet grapes are in regular supply and flying out of here faster than we can bring them in! Romas are limited but there are many other delicious tomatoes to fill your tomato needs!

 

Fresh-cut

Fresh and convenient are the name of the game and our fresh-cut program has everything you need to stay on top. Our list includes hundreds of items prepared in a variety of ways—peeled, cubed, julienned, sliced and more! We can even do seasonal custom mixes (think guacamole kits, mirepoix, or soup prep).

Check out joyloop retail packs of popular fresh-cut vegetables. Their items include zucchini spirals, sweet potato spirals, sweet potato “rice” and cauliflower “rice.” All items are sold as 8×8 ounce packages and have a long shelf life of 10-12 days. Talk to your Account Manager to see how we can support your fresh-cut program.

 

Grocery and Dairy

In addition to the freshest organic produce, we offer select grocery items from organic producers. A growers’ co-op, Maple Valley Co-op produces delicious high quality maple syrup and maple products using sustainable methods. Maple syrup is available in a variety of pack types—from 12 ounce squeeze bottles (no mess!) to 5 gallon pails. Yes, maple syrup is GMO-free, gluten-free and vegan!

Along with your maple syrup, check out organic biodynamic eggs from Stueve Organic, located in California’s Central Valley. Stueve’s chickens wander on pesticide free native ground, cohabitating with organic cows. Both the cows and chickens are moved to fresh pasture every two days—which gives all parties new fresh grass, clover, grubs and other insects. The chickens live, eat and lay eggs in a mobile chicken coop, which offers them a safe place to shelter and sleep at night. Their diet is supplemented with organic, methionine free feed from a local grain milling facility. Biodynamic pasture raised eggs are cleaner, loaded with Omega 3, fresher and incredibly tasty!

We also offer a variety of cheeses, yogurts and milk from local creameries, Mi Rancho tortillas, dried beans, quinoa and Hodo Soy tofu. Talk to your Account Manager to learn more about our grocery program.

Floral

Spring flowers have arrived! Full Belly Farm’s spring collection features straight packs of Agrostemma, Bachelor Button, Calendula, Ranunculus, Snap Dragon and mixed large bouquets. We love the whimsical name and showy blooms of the colorful snap dragons. These fragrant blooms are beautiful as a bouquet on their own or as part of a springtime arrangement. Sweet pea bouquets are still eluding us but should be coming soon. Thomas Farm is offering Dutch Iris and Watsonia in addition to cutie and seasonal mix bouquets.

 

Merchandising Corner

Spring Cleaning

Shoppers respond to a clean, well-stocked department and reflect that appreciation by having fuller shopping carts. A clean department (sales floor and backroom) also protects the quality of the produce by preventing bacteria growth on storage/display racks and cases. Reducing bacteria reduces product loss/shrink.

Simple steps to take include:

  • Set up a cleaning schedule and use a log to verify the schedule is maintained. A sample Cleaning Schedule is available electronically at veritablevegetable.com in the Customer Toolbox.
  • Carry a rag at all times and clean as you work in the department.
  • Clean mirrors on the wet rack with a mild vinegar solution (1 part water to 1 part vinegar) to prevent lime buildup without the use of caustic chemicals.
  • Sweep and mop floors once or twice each day.
    • Be alert to water on the floor from ice in the wet rack, ricochet from the sprayer hose and spills.
    • Utilize “Caution: Wet Floor” signs to warn shoppers of a potential hazard.
  • Keep a close eye on sample displays as they create waste. Frequently wipe display domes to eliminate fingerprints.
  • Don’t let produce boxes accumulate. Break down all but one or two boxes, which can be used for culling and rotating product. Carry boxes to dumpster or recycle bin safely and easily by placing all flattened boxes inside one of the saved boxes.

 

Green Film Fest 2017: “Evolution of Organic”

Join us for the opening night premiere of 2017 Green Fire Award Finalist, Evolution of Organic. on Thursday, April 20th at 7:30PM at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.  Filmmaker Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties; A Fierce Green Fire) presents a celebration of Californian organic farming told by the people that started it all thru to a new generation who continue to reinvent the food system. Interviews with VV owners, Mary Jane Evans and Bu Nygrens are featured in the film! Tickets are available here.

Stick around for a discussion with Mark Kitchell, filmmaker; Tonya Antle, Organic Produce Network; Brian Leahy, California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation; Willow Summer, City Slickers Farm, and other guests from the film.
Prior to the screening, meet the Festival filmmakers and special guests while enjoying local food & beverages to kick-off Green Film Fest 2017. Reception starts at 6PM and takes place on the Castro Mezzanine. Separate ticket required. 21+

Peas, Please

Snap Peas

Spring is in the air and we could not be more excited! One of the earliest crops that makes an appearance are California peas. Sugar snap, snow, English—we love all spring peas.  It’s hard to resist their vibrant green color and sweet flavor that reminds us of spring and sunshine.

Snow, snap and English peas are all climbing plants and members of the legume family. Although similar, there are notable differences among the three. Snow peas are also known as Chinese pea pods since they are often used in stir-fries. They are flat with very small peas inside; the whole pod is edible, although the tough “strings” along the edges are usually removed before eating. English peas, also known as garden or sweet peas, come in firm and rounded pods. The peas are inside and need to be shelled before eating (the pods are discarded.) The peas are sweet and can be eaten raw or cooked. English peas can get starchy and mealy if they sit too long in the pod or grow too large. Snap peas are a cross between English peas and snow peas. The whole pod is eaten and has a crunchy texture and very sweet flavor. There may be tough “strings” at the seams of the pod that need to be removed before eaten.

With so many delicious pea options, how do you choose? Try all three and let your customer decide!

*Keep a lookout for our staff picks noted in orange.

Fruit

Apple and Pear

The last of the Ambrosia and Cameo are in house now so get these while you can! Red Delicious are winding down for the season with Granny Smith following suit soon. Pink Lady and Gala should last through May and Fuji through June. Growers are starting to drop off so supply is expected to become more limited as we move closer to summer. Certain sizes are more limited than others. If you’re interested in volume Fuji we have plenty of bins available with excellent pricing.

In pear world, Abate Fetel pears have just arrived. These are the most uniquely shaped of the many varieties of pears, appearing oblong or banana-shaped with a yellow background, red blush, and some speckling. The slightly crisp flesh is white and aromatic with a rich, sweet flavor and hints of honey. Like some other pear varieties, Abate Fetel changes only slightly in color when ripe. Bosc pear prices are going up up up! Check out imported Bartletts from Argentinean Fair Trade certified grower Sol Bio as a tasty alternative. The last of domestic D’Anjous are in house now, although red Anjous are still in good supply with great pricing.

Avocado

We are running full steam ahead with domestic supply of Hass. Prices remain steady right now, but the market is still unstable due to Mexican supplies tightening up. The overall California crop is expected to be 30% smaller than last year, which explains the high prices. We are offering large quantities of #2 grade Hass from California’s Central Coast. Due to a pesky mite, called Persea, causing trees to lose foliage and exposing fruit to sunshine that normally would be shaded, we are seeing cosmetically challenged avocados with discoloration called ‘sunburn’. The interior quality and flavor are otherwise identical to higher priced #1 grade Hass. Check ‘em out. Perfectly good for ‘avocado toast’, the new healthy breakfast trend!

Berry

Recent rain in Watsonville and Santa Cruz have delayed local strawberry growers as they wait for the fields to dry out and get in there to clean. The rain did not reach Southern California so growers in Orange and San Diego counties are moving along with production at a heightened pace. The berries are firm with good color. Production of Arizona strawberries from Duncan Family Farm is winding down. Imported blueberry production is winding down while demand remains high causing prices to spike. Domestic blueberry supply remains limited as our main grower will not start California’s Central Valley production until mid-April. Raspberry supply has been very tight these past few weeks but is expected to improve. Blackberry supply and prices have been steady.

Citrus

Recent rain has slowed packing for several of our citrus growers. Some navel growers have ended or are ending but supply should still be steady. Arizona Valencias are just about done but Mexican Valencias are here. California Valencias are expected to hit the market in April so there should be plenty of supply as we head into spring.

Ojai Pixie tangerines from Shore Packing are going strong but last week’s rain has slowed down production. The season is still expected to last a few weeks with Churchill Orchard and other growers from the Ojai Pixie Growers Association coming on later. Keep an eye out for murcott tangerines from Wild River and Schellenberg Farms starting soon. Murcotts are juicy and sweet with bright orange flesh. Because of their high seed content, murcotts make great juicing tangerines.

Ruby grapefruit from B&J Ranch is going strong and expected to go into May or June. We love the consistent juicy sweet flavor of the fruit. Try cutting a few open to sample to curious customers. One juicy bite and they’ll be hooked!

Kumquat season is well under way and supply is steady. Nagami kumquats from Beck Grove are tasting sweet and deliciously tart. Add to any dish for a pop color and refreshing flavor.

Grape

Peruvian red globe grapes are back in supply. Quality is strong and the fruit is tasting sweet and juicy. Globes have large seeds in the center—so be careful before popping one in your mouth!

Mango

Ataulfo mangoes are in good supply with sharp pricing. The fruit has gorgeous yellow color and a rich, sweet taste. Add some to your morning smoothie for a tropical twist! Tommy Atkins are more limited and prices are up.

Melon

Harper melons are back in production but supply is limited. Watermelon and cantaloupe from Sunfed are projected to come on in mid-April, but unfortunately no honeydew this season.  Del Cabo will be having orange-flesh honeydew, Crenshaw and Piel de Sapo around the same time, so stay tuned for melon madness.

Pineapple

The pineapple market continues to be tight with limited but steady supply of fruit from Costa Rica. Sizes may be limited so don’t wait to order!

 

 

Nuts

We’re seeing great pricing on Braga Organic Farm’s roasted and salted almonds, grown in central California. Aside from snacking and using for recipes, the almonds also make delicious almond milk! Not crazy for almonds? We’re also offering cashews and walnuts, both sourced from local California farms.

 

Vegetables

Artichoke

We have beautiful artichokes from Coke Farms in various sizes. We’re getting everything we can but no guarantee on a steady supply. More growers should come on in a couple weeks.

Asparagus

The asparagus market is booming! Lots of green asparagus available with attractive pricing. Prices are expected to continue to drop. With several growers on the market, green asparagus should last through June or July, depending on weather. Imported purple asparagus from Mexico is steady and California crop should be starting in a couple weeks. Purple asparagus has 20% more sugar content than other asparagus varieties, giving it a sweet taste that really shines when eaten raw. It is also less fibrous and more tender than other varieties. When cooked, purple asparagus develops nuttier flavor reminiscent of artichoke, barley and almonds.

Bean

Fava beans are starting! We’re getting limited but steady supply from Mexico. Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are dense with nutrition. They have no saturated fat or cholesterol and have high amounts of dietary fiber, folate, iron, potassium and other vitamins. Fava beans can be eaten raw or cooked but the bean pods must be blanched and the mature seeds shelled before consuming. In other bean news, green beans are holding steady.

Bok Choy

Bok choy supply is limited as our main grower is experiencing shortages during the transition from desert to Northern California growing regions. Prices have increase accordingly.  We are doing everything we can to minimize disruptions in supply.

Broccoli

The broccoli market remains tight with spotty supply. Many growers are finishing up desert production and in the midst of transitioning to new fields in Salinas, California.

Brussels Sprout

Just like that, brussels sprouts are back in action! We’re seeing steady supply of imported ‘sprouts from Mexico. The sprouts are good sized and clean with no bugs.

Cabbage

Cabbage supply is limited and prices are high as growers finish the last of their desert production and transition to local regions. We’re seeing some fresh supply from local growers including Frazier Lake Farms and Riverdog Farm.

Carrot

Our carrot growers are still in process of transitioning from the desert but supply seems to be improving. Givens Farms and Sunrise Organic Farm are both still gapping for a week or two.  However, other growers are faring better so bunched, baby bunched and rainbow carrots should be steady.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower supply continues to be tight, especially for product from new fields. Many growers are still transitioning from desert production.

Celery

Prices are up for celery as the domestic supply is limited during the harvest transition. Mexican product is also available but has not alleviated increased prices. Supply and price should level out as more growers start up with new fields. Excellent pricing on processing grade celery for our juicing, deli and food service customers.

Cucumber

Persian cucumbers continue to be limited; we’re getting what we can. Slicer cucumbers are also limited and prices high. For those needing their ‘cukes, take a look at English hot house which are currently steady in supply.

Eggplant

Graffiti eggplant continues to be limited. Globe eggplants are in good supply with attractive pricing. When much of the market is in transition, take advantage of items like the globe which is steady and strong. Globes are a great meat substitute due to its fleshy texture. Delicious braised, deep fried, pan fried, pickled, roasted or grilled—they can be prepared any number of ways! Due to its porous nature, eggplant absorbs large amounts of oil or liquids when cooked. Pro tip: salting and draining sliced eggplant will reduce the amount of liquid it absorbs.

Ginger and Turmeric

Ginger prices are finally coming down but stormy weather and flooding in Peru may change this trend in coming weeks. Red and yellow turmeric from Hawaii is steady. White turmeric is now available by preorder only. Talk to your Account Manager if interested! Turmeric continues to be a popular and trending herb this year. Consumers are increasingly health focused; educate customers on the powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of turmeric.

Greens

The bunched dino (aka Lacinato) kale market is still tight. Most growers are still finishing up desert production or gapping in supply as new fields are not ready to harvest. As we move into April, more product will come onto the market with almost all growers up and running by the end of April. Limited amounts of Bloomsdale spinach are coming on with beautiful quality and a premium price to match. Green curly kale, collards and chards are in better supply with better pricing although experiencing similar transitions until mid-April.

The boxed greens market is faring slightly better than bunched. Supply on wild arugula and baby spinach is still weak but most of the other varieties of greens are back on. Due to the tumultuous desert season this year, you may come across cotyledon leaves in your spinach mix, which are not weeds or grass but early spinach leaves. Cotyledon leaves are the first leaves that emerge when a seed sprouts. In spinach, they grow as two long slender leaves that form a long “V,” like a seagull flying. They are perfectly edible and taste just like spinach. The transition back to Salinas and Hollister, California is just around the corner! We expect the market will level out in a week or two.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at the delicious nettles from Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz County. Nettles can be eaten raw or cooked and have diuretic and soothing properties when ingested or used topically. Nettles are also known as “stinging nettles” for the tiny hollow hairs on its leaves and stems which can produce a stinging sensation when touched. We recommend wearing gloves when handling! Stripping the stalks of leaves and wilting or blanching will remove the sting. Once blanched, it tastes and looks very similar to spinach and the leaf can be consumed.

Leek

It’s good to be a leek right now. Supply is strong from local California growers with great quality. Leek whites and light green parts can be used any place onions are used while the dark green leaves are perfect for soups and stocks.

Lettuce, Retail Greens and Herbs

The lettuce market is starting to stabilize with many small and large growers coming through with product. Prices are still on the high side but should hopefully come down soon. We’re seeing quality red and green leaf, red butter and romaine. Little Gems are a little further behind in the transition but we’re seeing some come in here and there. Don’t overlook green and red butter lettuce from Happy Living, which are grown hydroponically in Encinitas, California. These heads have excellent quality and long shelf life.

Cilantro prices and supply should stabilize as more product becomes available out of Salinas and Watsonville growing regions. Parsley has been stable and expected to stay there. Limes leaves are gapping in supply but should be available in a couple weeks. Nasturium edible flowers will not be available until late spring/early summer. Ask your Account Manager about other edible flower varieties available for preorder.

Onion

It’s a transitional time in the season for onions. Nevada grown yellow onions are completely done and California and the Northwest are winding down. New crop short day yellow onions are a couple weeks out but there should be no gaps in supply. Nevada-grown red onions are done but supply from the Central Valley and desert regions in California should keep us going through April and possibly May. California white onions are also done; Mexican onions will come on to supplement the market. Keep an eye out for red spring onions from Coke Farms which are starting to make their first appearance this season.

Pea

California snap peas have started! Supply is strong and pricing is competitive; California snap peas are in line with Mexican product. English peas and snow peas are still coming in from Mexico but California peas should be coming soon.

Pepper

The pepper market is tight with limited supply on most varieties. Yellow and orange bells are very limited and we’re getting all we can. Reds are tight, but check out the jumbos which are a hearty size and available at sharp pricing. Green bells are the exception with steady supply from Wholesum Harvest, grown in Mexico. The market shortage applies to specialty peppers as well; both chilies and sweet peppers are limited.

Potato

It’s a tough time for potatoes as many growers are running through their supplies of old crop (cured) potatoes and new crop potatoes are just starting up. Yellow potatoes are very limited but do have some supply from Stukel Mountain and Nature’s Pride. Red potatoes are in better supply. From the new crop, red lasodas and Bintjes from Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley are looking and tasting great. Purple sweet potatoes (stokes) are ending early this season and the price is up for Japanese sweet potato.

Roots

Supply is steady for bunched red and gold beets but prices are up. As for bagged beets, supply is strong on regular red and gold but jumbos are limited and sporadic. The jumbo size is only determined once the beet has been harvested which makes crop planning challenging. Chioggias are scarce and we’re running through the last of the supply from desert production. There may be a small gap in supply until mid to late April.

Bunched radish supply has tightened. Recent rain and hail has soaked fields and prevented several California growers from harvesting. Parsnip prices continue to increase due to limited supply. Our favorite roots: turnip and rutabaga are still here with great pricing. Try mashed root veggies or root vegetable gratin for an affordable and healthy side dish! With Passover around the corner, don’t forget to stock up on horseradish!

Sprout

Sunflower sprouts are extremely limited due to the weather. Pea sprouts are in good supply and wheat grass is steady but becoming more limited. Check out our full sprout offering which includes alfalfa, broccoli, clover and mung bean.

Squash

Imported zucchini is in good supply with excellent pricing. Take advantage of this price break and add ‘zukes to your ad or specials program. Straightneck squash, also imported, is limited. As for hard squash, we’re seeing amazing pricing on butternut squash from Mexico. Talk to your Account Manager for volume deals! Kabocha squash is gapping in supply but we have beautiful delicata squash and red kuri to hold you over.

Tomato

Tomatoes on vine (TOV) are plentiful with sharp pricing and beautiful color on the fruit. Grape tomato supply has tightened but we’re getting all that we can. Heirloom cherries are seeing an uptick in price. Heirlooms are holding steady with great low pricing.

 

Fresh-cut

Our fresh-cut program includes hundreds of items prepared in a variety of ways—peeled, cubed, julienned, sliced and more! We can even do custom mixes!

We’ve seen increasing popularity for retail packs of fresh-cut vegetables from joyloop. Their items include zucchini spirals, sweet potato spirals, sweet potato “rice” and cauliflower “rice.” All items are sold as 8×8 ounce packages and have a long shelf life of 10-12 days. Stay ahead of consumer trends by making sure your store, deli and walk-ins are stocked appropriately to take advantage of increased demand for healthy convenience items. Talk to your Account Manager to see how we can support your fresh-cut program.

 

Grocery and Dairy

Did you know we offer grocery items such as maple products from Maple Valley Co-op, Hodo Soy tofu, Stueve olive oil and eggs, Mi Rancho tortillas, dried beans, quinoa and rice? We also offer a variety of cheeses, yogurts and milk from local creameries. Cold brew coffee almond milk from Three Trees will have you replacing your morning joe with this “café au lait” that’s rich, smooth and refreshing. Made with real almonds, Madagascar vanilla, and Fair Trade cold brew coffee, this almond milk is delicious and addictive!

 

Floral

The Full Belly Farm spring floral collection is here! Anemone, Calendula, Ranunculus and Dutch Iris bouquets arranged with care are ready for pre-order. Big changes in the Thomas Farm bouquet offerings starting this week. All single bucket boxes have been discontinued, which could be good news for your floral department, show that abundance! Stay tuned for more varieties coming soon from both growers. Full Belly Farm predicts sweet pea bouquets to be available any day now.

 

Merchandising Corner

Customer Service 101

We have all heard the saying that the customer is always right but customer service is more than just that. Providing excellent customer service is going above and beyond to satisfy our customers. With so much completion out there, it’s important to not only bolster your reputation for offering the best fresh organic produce, but to also strive for the excellent customer service as well. How do you do that? There are several quick tips to quickly enhance your customer service.

1) Sampling – For most Produce Departments this is standard practice but if you’re not already doing this, consider starting. Sampling is a great way to form trusting relationships with customers, up sale other produce or product in the store and increase sales because the customer had a chance and was encouraged to try the product.

2.) Providing customers with verbal information- Signage is great and provides important information but actually having a conversation goes a long way. Spending a few minutes talking with a customer about the product and the farm that grew it, leaves a lasting impression and gives the customer a personal connection to the produce they are purchasing. This little bit of extra time and information leaves a lasting impression and creates a memorable shopping experience. Remember, you are that bridge that connects the customer to the farmer.

3.) Walking the customer to the product- Often while out on the floor working, you will get interrupted by customers looking for a product they are having difficulty locating. Most stores will point in the general direction or tell the customer what aisle the product is located on. It is better to actually walk the customer to the product. It may sound insignificant but it makes a world of difference to someone who may be new to the store or struggling to locate an item. It also pretty much guarantees a sale when a customer can find what they are looking for.

4.) Floor Sales- Having a body on the sales floor at all times is highly encouraged. If you have the labor to provide the coverage, make it a rule of thumb that there always be a person on the floor to be available to assist at all times. Nothing is worse than going into a store and having no one acknowledge you or be able to help you out. It leaves a negative impression.

These are just a few suggestions to get you started on you path to providing excellent customer service. If you have any questions or are interested in expanding your customer service, we can help. Contact your Account Manager and ask about our Merchandising program. We’ll come to your store!

 

Veritable Vegetable to Receive Prestigious Environmental Award

Acterra has announced that Veritable Vegetable has been selected to receive a 2017 Acterra bea-bug-2017-recipientBusiness Environmental Award in the Spare the Air Leadership Award category for its Green Fleet.

The Acterra Business Environmental Awards is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest and most prestigious environmental recognition programs. Initiated in 1990, it is considered a heavyweight among award programs due to its rigorous application and judging process. Executive Director of Acterra, Adam Stern, said, “At a time when environmental policy is being challenged at the federal level, these award winners send a powerful message that Bay Area companies, public agencies, and schools remain committed to cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable business practices. Acterra is proud to recognize the achievements of these innovative organizations.”

Veritable Vegetable will be honored at the 2017 Acterra Business Environmental Awards Ceremony & Reception on Wednesday, May 24th from 6-9 pm at Intuit Inc. in Mountain View. For complete information about the 2017 awardees and ceremony, visit acterra.org/bea. 

About Acterra: Action for a Healthy Planet

Acterra is a San Francisco Bay Area 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Palo Alto that brings people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet. Acterra focuses on what you can do locally to address current environmental problems. In the face of daunting environmental challenges, Acterra’s science-based approach instills hope while building community. For more information, visit acterra.org.

 

The Rise of the Modern Food Cooperative

Reprinted from SFChronicle.com, first published on March 16, 2017

At Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland, people sit at tables in the sun. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

At Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland, people sit at tables in the sun. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle.

The first vote was the easy one.

At last month’s official meeting of the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee in Benicia, 16 of its members were learning how to act like a cooperative.

Up until just a few months before, the co-op had existed only in the heads of a few organizers. It has no funding, no location and no paying members. In fact, at the start of the meeting it had a different working name: the Benicia-Vallejo Food Co-op. Piece by piece, though, the co-op was coming together. And now it was time for the first show of hands.

Wolfgang Hagar, a former Rainbow Grocery worker who moved to Vallejo last year, stood at an easel pad in instigator Paula Schnese’s family room, laying out a process for the steering committee to make decisions. “We’re building a structure on how to vote on proposals,” Hagar told them. “We want to bake this into the structure of the organization.”

The committee members, all with name tags taped to their shirts, gathered in clusters of chairs or leaned against the kitchen island. Glasses of red wine had dispelled the amiably respectful tone of the first 90 minutes, when representatives from each of the subcommittees reported on their progress.

Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

From the left, Bryant Acosta, Stan Zervas and Chuck Coleman participate on the first vote during Benicia-Vallejo Food Co-op’s second meeting at Paula Schnese’s house in Benicia.

Hagar walked the group through how to propose an action, debate it, suggest amendments and then vote, requiring only a simple majority to carry the day. Their first vote: Whether to adopt the process. Sixteen raised hands agreed. For all its insignificance, the group greeted the vote as an auspicious, unanimous start.

It has never been more complicated or more expensive for groups like Cultivate Community to start a food co-op, and yet co-op grocers are growing at the fastest pace since the 1970s, in rural towns and dense urban neighborhoods alike.

The National Co-op Grocers, an association of food cooperatives that buy collectively, has seen its membership rise from 106 to 151 since 2006, and natural foods co-ops that have been in business for 40 years have added third, fourth, even sixth locations — small numbers compared to 38,000 large supermarkets in the United States, according to a recent count by Progressive Grocer magazine, but a significant growth nonetheless. An 11-year-old national organization called the Food Co-op Initiative has come up with a startup guide for groups to follow.

Fresh produce at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Fresh produce at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

For Cultivate Community, help has also come in the form of Hagar, a real estate agent in Vallejo who worked at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco for 15 years. His task, that night, was to help the steering committee navigate the inclusive and often tedious territory of collective decision-making.

Perils to the spirit of unanimity emerged the moment Hagar brought up the topic of abstentions. One member challenged him: Why would anyone abstain from voting? Wasn’t that a cop-out? “We’re all going to get close, but you might have to vote on kicking someone out of a committee,” Hagar replied. “You want to support your B.F.F. but they’re terrible at their job. So you abstain.”

It was as if he’d flicked on the theater lights at the end of a rom-com. The other 15 steering committee members suddenly became aware: This was going to get a lot harder.

Worker Erin Clark stocks the dairy case at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Worker Erin Clark stocks the dairy case at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Over the course of the past 160 years, cooperatives in America have flared and died in 40-year cycles, each burst leaving its mark on the U.S. economy. We buy Land O’ Lakes butter and Ocean Spray cranberry juice without realizing that we’re supporting agricultural cooperatives. Some of us belong to housing cooperatives, mutual insurance companies and credit unions. Older Americans may remember shopping at grocery cooperatives founded in the 1930s, such as the Twin Pines stores or the Berkeley Co-op, whose 14 locations once spanned the Bay Area.

Most of us, though, think of co-ops as hippie holdouts: collectively run natural-foods markets such as San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and Other Avenues.

That last surge of food co-ops began quietly at first in the 1960s, with a movement to organize buying clubs and co-ops in low-income communities to lower food costs. Civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses particularly embraced the idea, promoting them as a way to give African American communities more economic independence.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the counterculture — predominantly young, white and college-educated — caught on.

In the Bay Area, starting in 1969, groups of young longhairs formed buying clubs that they called, in the spirit of the times, “food conspiracies”: hundreds of groups that would pool their money to pay for runs to the produce markets and wholesalers of dry goods. (See accompanying story for more on food conspiracies.)

The “buying club” idea took off all across the country, in rural towns as well as metropolises. Cheap food was definitely a core goal, but starting in 1970 and 1971, the new clubs specialized in hard-to-find unprocessed foods: brown rice, whole-wheat flour, lentils, even fruits and vegetables grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, if the club could locate a willing farmer. The rallying cry was “Food for people, not for profit.”

As the buying clubs grew, they moved from garages and church basements into tiny storefronts and became member co-ops. To join, members had to pay monthly dues and volunteer their time in exchange for discounts on price. Most of the new co-ops operated along non-hierarchical principles, too, which allowed any member to have a voice in every aspect of the store’s operations and required all decisions to be made by consensus. Meetings became tests of endurance.

The Cooperative League of the USA has estimated that upwards of 5,000 buying clubs and natural-foods co-ops opened in the 1970s. Their appeal spread far beyond counterculture circles once mainstream consumers discovered the low prices. (Funky ingredients, messy shelves and self-righteous volunteers turned off just as many.)

When the co-op movement hit its acme by the end of the 1970s, there were more than 500 stores and thousands of buying clubs, estimated Dave Gutknecht, editor of Cooperative Grocer magazine. By the early 1990s, he said, the buying clubs had disappeared, and just 300 retail stores were left. Many of those that survived were on the endangered species list.

Worker-owner Fekida Wuul weighs a customer’s fruit at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Worker-owner Fekida Wuul weighs a customer’s fruit at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Naivete and lack of financial expertise killed off most. Growing competition with mainstream grocery stores doomed many others, as did the fact that financial institutions and state governments offered little institutional support or financing.

The co-ops that survived, however, became professional operations. They paid workers (just) enough money to live and abandoned consensus in favor of strong management. They expanded the inventory on their shelves — even adding once-verboten products like vitamins and refined sugar — to become full-fledged grocery stores. They formed professional associations to share knowledge and increase their collective buying power.

When interest in co-ops resurged with the recession of 2008, the co-ops of America were ready to lend a hand.

Paula Schnese, center, opens up the meeting by welcoming and thanking the committee on their first step toward becoming a cooperative in Benicia. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Paula Schnese, center, opens up the meeting by welcoming and thanking the committee on their first step toward becoming a cooperative in Benicia. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Paula Schnese, a fine-boned, decisive woman with a nimbus of prematurely white hair, is a professional photographer by training. Before moving to Benicia three years ago, she and her husband were living in Richmond, an easy car ride from the Berkeley Bowl and other great markets. Schnese was flummoxed to cross the Carquinez Strait and find herself with access to two big-box grocery stores and few local foods.

“I got here, moved in, got the kids settled in school, thought, I really need to do something about this,” she said. “I know there are a lot of people who think the same thing that I do.”

Last January, Schnese held a public meeting to talk about the idea, and 65 people showed up. She and three other women printed up fliers explaining what a co-op is and handed them out at the farmers’ markets in Benicia and Vallejo, gathering email addresses and likes on their Facebook page.

Steve Souza of Vallejo, left, listens to opening remarks during the meeting of the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee in Benicia. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Steve Souza of Vallejo, left, listens to opening remarks during the meeting of the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee in Benicia. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Through Facebook, Schnese also learned of a defunct effort to establish a co-op in Vallejo four years before. In the organizers’ last, dispirited posts, they wrote that starting a co-op was a full-time job, not something that volunteers could do in their spare time. That galvanized Schnese. “You need a champion,” she decided. “Somebody’s going to keep this going.” At this point in her life, she could play that role.

At about the same time, she attended a conference in Indiana organized by the Food Cooperative Initiative and discovered that the co-op community would help her along.

The initiative, an 11-year-old national nonprofit based in the Midwest, trains co-op champions like Schnese by offering conferences, webinars and print resources to give co-ops a blueprint for opening. Over the course of its organizational life span, the initiative has helped more than 100 new co-ops nationwide start (see map), and is working with another 125 groups that have yet to open.

new-food-coops

 

Executive director Stuart Reid sees several reasons for the new boom. Champions like Schenese have been inspired by the longevity of the co-ops that did survive the 1990s, he says. Many of the people he has worked with, like Schnese and Wolfgang Hagar, have moved from another city with a thriving co-op and want to re-create what they left behind.

The local food movement that began just before the recession has given the movement its emotional and intellectual thrust. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has almost doubled from 2006 to 2016 (from 4,385 to 8,669). Books like Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” have galvanized shoppers in the same way Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Frances Moore Lappe’s “Diet For a Small Planet” did in the 1960s and 1970s. “People were becoming more aware of the industrialization of the food they were eating,” Reid said, “and there was a demand for more sustainable options for clean meat, for supporting local producers. All of that came together about the same time.”

But food has never been the only goal of the co-op movement. The new generation of organizers is focused on building — or rebuilding — local economies. Where new co-ops are forming has shifted as well, said Reid’s colleague, Jacqueline Hannah, broadening from the so-called “traditional” college towns and liberal enclaves to low-income neighborhoods in large cities as well as rural towns. “In the Southeast, Walmarts came in to close their grocery stores. Now the Walmarts are closing,” Hannah said. People are “looking for solutions so they don’t have to drive for an hour or more to get to a grocery store.”

Juice and drinks at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Juice and drinks at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

The variability of the new food co-ops makes the new movement hard to characterize.

“We’re not really a co-op culture in western Illinois,” said Margaret Ovitt, founding member of the 4-year-old Macomb Co-op in Macomb, Ill., whose population of 20,000 is half college students. For years, a working group interested in local foods struggled to accrue enough money to open a co-op grocery. Then they rethought what the nature of the co-op should be.

“We don’t have enough equity for a brick-and-mortar store, but we have producers who want to sell,” Ovitt explained. “We have 250 members and they want to buy. Why don’t we just do it online?” The group bought an e-commerce program from Local Food Marketplace to embed on its website. Now, farmers and producers list their supply for the next week, and the co-op’s 400-some members — who pay $100 a year in membership fees — place orders online and pick up their produce at a building owned by the local telephone co-operative, another holdout from the 1930s.

Worker-owner James Bell bags groceries for customer Bernard Bailey at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Worker-owner James Bell bags groceries for customer Bernard Bailey at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Online business, said Ovitt, has been good enough that the Macomb Co-op recently installed a few shelves and opened the storefront to the public a few days a week, selling regionally produced dry goods as well as hard-to-find products like fair trade coffee.

New co-ops are rethinking how to attract broader audiences as well. Durham, N.C., had lost its 1970s-era natural foods co-op in 2006, but a new coalition of people was able to open the Durham Food Co-op in March 2015, a 10,000-square-foot store housed in a new development downtown funded in part by revitalization money.

The old co-op, said general manager Leila Nesson Wolfrum, attracted an upper-middle-class, mostly white clientele despite being located in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood.

Key to changing that dynamic, Wolfrum said, was not to water down the store’s focus on organic and natural foods, much of which are more expensive, although the store does find ways to subsidize members who use Snap benefits (food stamps). “We decided this was going to be a co-op where everyone felt welcome, and we wrote that over the door,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work to make sure our staff represents the community — I can say with some confidence that we’re close to the most diverse staff in the country.”

The strategy has worked. Wolfrum anticipated that the Durham Food Co-op would reach profitability in its seventh year, but it’s already on track to do that in the coming year or two.

Pictures of Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis hang on the wall at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Pictures of Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis hang on the wall at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Most of the new food co-ops in the United States are owned by consumers, said Reid, director of the Food Cooperative Initiative. The Bay Area is distinctive in that its only surviving co-ops, Rainbow Grocery and Other Avenues, both converted to worker-owned enterprises decades ago. However engaged the stores’ customers are — and oh, are they — the staff makes all decisions and shares all financial risks and gains. It’s much harder now, Reid specifies, for a group to gather the seed money to make their own employment.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, as the Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland proves.

The 8,000-square-foot store, located across the street from the BART plaza, is heavily curated given its limited shelf space: a wall of fresh produce, most of it from a group of farmers in the Salinas Valley. Another of dairy, drinks and prepared foods. Dry goods stacked up on a bank of wire shelving, plus a small bulk-bin section. A separate business named Zella’s Soulful Kitchen operates out of a kitchen in one corner, selling sandwiches, salads and Southern food, all for takeout.

A group of community organizers, including Mandela Marketplace, a nonprofit that brings healthy food to low-income East Bay neighborhoods, provided the startup support to open the store in 2009. Now, though, Mandela Foods Co-op is owned and run by a five-person worker collective.

The store’s less-visible location in the middle of the block, as well as its small size and lack of a parking lot, have posed challenges. It took a few years for the cooperative to become profitable, which it achieved in 2015.

A sign asks customers to pay in cash at a register at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

A sign asks customers to pay in cash at a register at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

 

At the same time, the store has become rooted in the community in ways the larger 99-Cent Store next door never did; the discount chain recently announced it was pulling out of the retail complex. Last month, as worker-owners Adriana Fike, James Berk and James Bell sat outside the store with a reporter, the conversation was punctuated by greetings from passersby.

“The co-op is viable for the community here because it’s an asset, something that hasn’t existed here — not just in a grocery-store aspect but a cooperative aspect,” Bell said. “People can identify with it more than just coming to a Whole Foods because it feels like a family atmosphere.”

Fike recounted a recent conversation she had with a high school student who had never been inside Mandela Foods but recognized the murals of African American people on its windows. “She feels she knows the store. She can identify in some way,” Fike said.

Bulk bins at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Bulk bins at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Mandela Foods’ worker-owners reiterated the same themes that organizers in Illinois, North Carolina and Benicia have: Co-ops are a way for communities to sustain themselves. Local food. Local ownership. Self-direction.

“The one constant for all the co-ops I’ve been in contact with is equality — whether that be in pay or in profit-sharing or having a voice at the table, just a more equal distribution of the power of the business instead of funneling it all up to the peak,” said Berk.

“Culturally, worker co-ops can have a huge impact,” Fike added. “People really feel different when they come in (to work) and when they leave. My co-workers say, ‘My vibrations is lifted!’ Just by coming to work. That’s revolutionary — coming to work, you can be your best self.”

With the 99 Cent store departing, the cooperative is looking to take over its space, tripling its floor plan. The move will require raising a hefty sum, but will allow Mandela Foods to expand its selection, adding housewares, herbs and books. The collective also plans to build three kiosks that it can rent to other cooperatively run food businesses.

Worker-owner James Bell stocks sweet potatoes in the produce section at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Worker-owner James Bell stocks sweet potatoes in the produce section at Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

We will likely never see the grassroots food co-op boom of the 1970s and early 1980s repeated. At the same time, we are less likely to see the die-off that took place in the succeeding decade.

The continuing success of Northern California’s existing co-ops, such as Rainbow Grocery, Other Avenues and the venerable North Coast Co-op in Arcata and Eureka in Humboldt County, has proven that collectively run markets with professionalism and financial savvy — those that made the passage from innocence to experience — are viable. In fact, the 33-year-old Sacramento Natural Food Co-op, a consumer-owned enterprise, moved into a 46,000-square-foot, $9 million space in October 2016.

Yet co-ops both new and established continue to face stiff competition from grocery stores, who have latched on to the appeal of organic and artisanal foods. It’s hard for small, independent markets to compete against chains with buying power, and the profit margins in food never seem to get larger. Stuart Reid of the Food Cooperative Initiative says that 20 percent of the co-ops that have opened since 2006 have failed.

“Every year the cost of opening a grocery store increases,” said Luis Sierra of the California Center for Cooperative Development. He estimated that just 18 food co-ops currently operate in the state. The Food Cooperative Initiative tracks another nine in development, most of them in Southern California.

California efforts, Sierra added, are often stymied by the price of real estate and equipment. Endurance as well. “The organizing process can take five to seven years,” Sierra said. “That can be very taxing on community organizers. It takes a special kind of grit to be able to make it.”

Even as food co-ops of today have to compete on somewhat equal terms — price and selection — with regular grocers, they continue to offer additional, less tangible benefits like a sense of ownership and shared values that help compensate for hard numbers. Idealism alone won’t keep Cultivate Community in business. But it does have value.

Paula Schnese, center, opens up the meeting by thanking and welcoming the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Paula Schnese, center, opens up the meeting by thanking and welcoming the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

At the steering committee meeting, Paula Schnese laid out an ambitious plan, all based on the Food Cooperative Initiative playbook: For a 10,000-square-foot store — either in Benicia or Vallejo, another decision to come — they must raise at least $1 million. That means selling at least 1,000 member shares, at $300 apiece, and then asking their members to contribute another $400,000 in loans and preferred shares (the latter are paid back after the store goes profitable). Only then will they approach banks and cooperative lending institutions for business loans.

The events subcommittee is already organizing pub quiz nights and a movie screening. In April, the group plans to file papers of incorporation and start the membership drive, which means the marketing subcommittee has rushed to design a website, www.cultivatecommunityfood.coop, to give the fundraising some authority.

In telephone conversations, Schnese talked about how she wants the co-op to be a place that can host events and a commercial kitchen to incubate local food business. She wants the farmers and the people who make food to become community celebrities, and for all that money to stay in Benicia and Vallejo instead of going to Safeway investors. “This is going to sound silly, but I want it to be a happy place,” she said. “Co-ops are by definition about building community, not just about the great food.”

Hence the name the steering group voted into existence at the end of its second meeting, after a vigorous discussion: Cultivate Community. Next, Cultivate Community will have to write — and vote on — bylaws. Then come the feasibility research, the market studies and the financial projections needed to write a business plan for prospective members and investors. If the Benicia-Vallejo group gets to that point, it will have to look for a site and begin construction, hiring and all the bureaucratic duties that come with opening a new business.

It’s a daunting amount of work. Yet Reid of the Food Co-op Initiative said that two-thirds of the groups that “get serious” about starting a co-op succeed: “The commitment and the investment that people put into them usually keep them going.”