"Authentic Food" at WSM

Weaver Street Market has taken an important step forward in the movement toward realizing a more sustainable food system. Calling the new development “authentic food”, the market is looking beyond the organic pedigree of a food product to incorporate additional elements such as the production environment, working conditions, and transportation.

WSM's initiative is in response to the entry of the likes of Wal-Mart into the organic food market, which “mean we risk losing important values traditionally associated with organic farming, such as improving the environment, keeping family farmers in business, and treating farm workers fairly. We also risk losing a labeling distinction that has helped us make meaningful choices on your behalf.”

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma” and who recently visited the area puts it like this:

“We're taking organic lettuce, grown with great care, terrific cultural practices, and we put it on a truck and we keep it cold from the moment we pick it, 36-degree cold chain all the way across the country for three to five days, and that takes 56 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of organic lettuce. Now technically that product is organic. In any meaningful sense of that word, if you think back in the values embedded in that word and its history, I have trouble calling it organic. So organic has become less sustainable as it's gotten bigger.” [emphasis added]

I learned recently in The Nation of the appalling working conditions in many large scale organic operations (“Hard Labor: for farm workers it's not easy being organic” by Felicia Mello, 9/11/06):

Dozens of machines fill the chilly air with a deafening noise. Employees wade through pools of water several inches deep on the plant's rubber floor… Supervisors stand by to time bathroom breaks of no more than seven minutes and to scold the women if they speak or glance up from their work. Here, surrounded by the rhythmic thwack-thwacking of the machines, Beatriz Gonzalez stands for eight hours a day and sorts… Years of performing the repetitive motion have swollen her forearms and left her with arthritis in her knuckles. When she started working in the Arvin plant, she earned the state minimum of $6.75 an hour. Four years later, she makes $7.30.

Weaver Street's take on authentic food is laid out in it's 2006 Annual Report that just came out last week:

Our response to this trend is to continue to emphasize products that meet a higher standard, those that we call ‘authentic food'. Authentic food means organic products from small farms that embody the spirit of organic farming, rather than factory farms that do the minimum to get by. Authentic food means products from local producers who contribute to a sustainable food system, retain artisan production techniques, and allow family farmers to stay in business. Authentic food means Fair Trade—fair payment to farmers in the developing world who produce crops such as coffee and chocolate that can only be grown in warmer climates. Authentic food means products from our own kitchen and bakery, where we can control ingredients, quality, and freshness.

For details on WSM's planning in this regard, go to page 7 of the report.



It's interesting that Weaver Street is doing this. Overall, a good concept. However, the produce manager drives down to the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh to purchase bulk quantities of certain items. Yes, it can be called "local" since the crops are grown in NC, but let's think about the many abhorrent labor practices played out on the migrant farm workers right here in our own state.

If Weaver Street wants to get serious, they should get involved at the grassroots level and support the farm labor movement. Forget the big chains: help improve the production environment and working conditions at home.

The growing seasons, when you can buy foods that have not been packaged and transported across the country, are what distinguishes WSM from Whole Foods and Earth Fare. WSM makes every attempt to buy from local farmers. So if you can't get what you need at the farmer's market, WSM is the next best option (IMHO).

I read something recently by Michael Pollan that describes how Alabama arms factories from WWII were converted into making nitrogen rich fertilizer that stimulated the corn industry and led us to the nutritional and farming crisis we face today. Everyone is aware of the negative impact carbon has on the atmosphere, but nitrogen from fertilizers is killing our waterways and corn is invading every aspect of our lives.

Here's a few of Pollan's facts about corn (it loves nitrogen rich soil):

• Of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form during production or processing.

• Your bacon and egg breakfast, glass of milk at lunch, or hamburger for supper were all produced with US corn.

• Besides food for human and livestock consumption, corn is used in paint, paper products, cosmetics, tires, fuel, plastics, textiles, explosives, and wallboard – among other things.

• In the US, corn leads all other crops in value and volume of production – more than double that of any other crop.

• Corn is America's chief crop export, with total bushels exported exceeding total bushels used domestically for food, seed, and industrial purposes.

• Corn acidifies cattle's digestive system in such a way that these bacteria can survive which explains the E.coli 0157 problem.

• It takes the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline to grow every bushel of corn.

Michael Pollan advocates avoiding anything that contains high fructose corn syrup. Not that corn syrup itself is necessarily so bad but it tends to indicate a degree of processing that does not make for a healthy meal. Also, Pollan is critical of the extent to which corn products dominate our diet (whether directly or via livestock).

As someone who shops only at Earth Fare, Whole Foods, and WSM - I can tell you that they all offer their advantages and disadvantages. We are in a position where we can't really shop anywhere else, so I spend a lot of hours browsing the shelves and reading labels. Whole Foods definitely has a lot of things that look very organic, but when you get right down to it, they aren't. Same with WSM though.

All in all, I think it is the products you carry that make the difference. Whole Foods products tend to have more "hidden" ingredients in their own foods and since much of it isn't organic, it makes you wonder what is in there.

That said, this summer I was forced to shop at Food Lion down at the beach and was just blown away by what passes as food in the "main stream stores". Based on a great line I heard once (If it has added sugar it is a desert), pretty much everything in those stores should be served after a proper dinner with a cutesy little fork and a cup of coffee.

Let's not conflate Whole Foods and Earth Fare. Whole Foods is a transnational chain with locations in the US, Canada, and the UK, and a national headquarters in Austin.

Earth Fare is a regional chain with 13 stores, all but two of which are in the Carolinas; the other two are in Georgia and Tennessee. In Asheville, where Earth Fare first opened, Earth Fare functions very much like WSM does here and serves the entire region of southwestern NC.

I'm a WSM co-op owner and would encourage folks to shop there. But if you are on the other side of town, Earth Fare is the better choice of the other two.

Weaver Street Market hasn't changed its policies or politics by labeling its products "authentic." This branding strategy appears to take aim at such local competitors as Whole Foods and Earth Fare -- giant stores with organic sounding names.

Terri - thanks! I'll pass that along to folks (though they're probably getting tired of my proselytizing... I spend a lot of time writing about the evils of WalMart.) Right now, I do most of my shopping at the Teeter, because it's 15 minutes closer than WSM. But when the new store opens in early 08, that'll change. I mentioned I'm excited :)

One interesting idea that the Orange County EDC is working on is trying to partner with surrounding counties to build a small processing center where local farmers could can, flash freeze, or otherwise minimally process their food. For example, the school system might be a great potential customer, but they need year round supply and an extended shelf life for many items. Many small farmers do not have the capacity to process their food to the standards required by the USDA, which then has this ripple effect in terms of suppling certain kinds of institutions like the schools or hospitals. This processing center could be certified organic and helpful to opening up markets that are currently not accessible to our local farmers.

C. Diane--you might consider sharing this article, The Sad Death of Organic with your friends.

We jeopardize the movement toward sustainability when by ignoring the fact that 'organic' has become big business. Before the USDA decided to 'certify' organic, it meant more than meeting criteria--it held value above and beyond the cash register price. It addressed the cradle to grave production of human food.

I have nothing against Earth Fare or Wellspring--I shop at both occasionally. But shopping at a locally owned business that sells locally grown food/products is the best way to ensure the physical and economic health of our community.

I can't wait until the Hillsborough branch opens up! That it finally got approved was the impetus for me to (finally) become an owner, with a founding share in the new store, after living in the area for 7 years.

But I was talking to a couple friends, one of whom works a block from WSM, they were saying that Earth Fare has a broader selection and better prices. And is now open 24 hours! Even people who like buying organic can't always be bothered to choose local. Sometimes it's a matter of economics; sometimes laziness.

Buying local. Once again it comes back to buying local produce. It is sickening that family farming in North Carolina continues to die while the potential for local farming has never been greater. I don't understand the logic behind:
1. Growing huge amounts of tobacco.
2. Shipping it out of state for production into products (lost jobs).
3. Shipping it to other states, which have higher tobacco taxes (more income for those states).
4. Shipping it back into North Carolina with a low tobacco tax.

We create farm goods, lose the production jobs, and allow other states to create tax income off our products. With that money they create better infrastructure (roads, bridges, community colleges, ports) to compete against us for other corporate headquarters. In the end, the state loses out on most of the economic benefit of growing tobacco.

We should tax the heck out of cigarettes and put ALL that money into grants for organic/sustainable family farms. No mega-farms. With that money we could create a state-wide array of family farms that would bring with it infrastructure jobs like packing plants, shipping, trucking, picking, farm supplies, etc.

Good article by Ruffin Slater in this week's edition of WSM's newsletter, The Beet, on the current state of organic.


Giant dairy farms are making a sham of the requirement that cows have access to pasture. The Cornucopia Institute has demonstrated that Horizon and Aurora Dairies, which operate large factory farms of over 5,000 cows in the arid west, do not offer viable pasture as required for certification. (Photographs of these farms can be viewed at Cornucopia's web site www.cornucopia.org.)

Another casualty in the rush to increase organic production is the erosion of important values traditionally associated with organic farming, such as improving the environment, keeping family farmers in business, and treating farm workers fairly. Many large organic farms are starting to operate in a manner strikingly similar to large conventional farms, including shipping product nationwide and relying on migrant farm workers.

Read the full article for more and to learn WSM's commitment to navigating these increasingly muddy waters of just what constitutes organic.


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