Ten great food co-ops in the western U.S.

food co-opsIf the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.

One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.

Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).

No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.

Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:

1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.

[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]

food co-ops2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.

3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.

4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
food co-ops
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.

6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
food co-ops
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.

8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.

9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
food co-op
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.

For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.

[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]

Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento opens new extension

The Crocker Art Museum has been showing the people of Sacramento fine art since 1885. Now it’s finished a $100 million extension that’s added 125,000 square feet of exhibition space. Previously the museum only had 40,000 feet. While the elegant Victorian building has been preserved, a large modern extension behind it allows for much more of the museum’s collection to go on display as well as serve for hosting traveling shows.

Members got a sneak peak yesterday and there’s a free day today. Current exhibitions include Tomorrow’s Legacies, showcasing 125 works that will be bequeathed to the museum, a show about Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud, and a collection of Old Master drawings.

The museum is especially noted for its paintings by California’s leading artists, drawings by the Old Masters, and an expanding collection of Asian art.

[Image of old Crocker courtesy user Amadscientist. Image of new Crocker courtesy user ronb76. Both via Wikimedia Commons.]

Galley Gossip: A flight attendant responds to the first class orange juice debacle

If you haven’t already heard, there was some sort of debacle involving a flight attendant and a glass of orange juice on an American Airlines flight recently. I read about the story first on the Consumerist web site. Wait, take that back, I tried to read the article but couldn’t quite make it through due to the fact that the story was just way too over the top with emotion and drama. It was! But they usually are whenever there’s a flight attendant or an airline involved. Haven’t you noticed?

Then when I heard our very own Annie Scott had covered the same story here, I dreaded pulling it up. I really didn’t want to read it. Only because airline bashing seems to be a new sport and…well…I knew it couldn’t be good. But I took a deep breath and began reading Annie’s post anyway. Two seconds later I found myself laughing because Annie’s right, your mother would tell you to go get your own dang orange juice! And I’m glad she brought up that old magazine ad featured along with the Consumerist post. That was the first thing that turned me off about the article. I mean what the heck were they thinking using a milf-y photograph of a stewardess curled up in a chair? Really, I need to know.

Anyway, here’s my response to David and what he had to say about what went down on that crazy American Airlines flight from Sacramento to Dallas…

Dear David,

Slow your roll. By my arithmetic, you and your group of 130 people fly 27,300 trips collectively. Each of you having a unique traveling experience based upon where you’re sitting and who your flight attendant is. I would love to have one bad experience for every 27,300 legs I’ve flown. I would say you and your group have had a good run. And now I must welcome you with open arms to the human race. I can’t imagine that you have gone through an entire career without once having a bad day.

Whoever Helen was, it’s obvious she needs a day off. Maybe even a medical type intervention. She’s obviously off her game. Instead of complaining, whispering, and giving her the feeling that a mutiny is about to take place, being the frequent flier that you are, you should have known that this was not normal behavior – from not just a flight attendant, but from anyone in the service industry. You and your group would have done Helen a favor by reporting her irrational behavior to someone in a position of authority at American Airlines instead of continuing on with your flight.

I, too, have noticed a decline in customer service on most every airline, not just American. I also know that flight attendants have longer duty days and shorter rest periods so that airlines can maximize their profits and provide you and your group with cheap three hundred-dollar tickets. This while our compensation remains the same and we’re all just lucky to have a job. Flight attendants work ten hour days without a break, not even a meal, yet any type of complaining to the airline by an employee may guarantee a front row seat at the front of the unemployment line. That’s the way it is these days.

If I were the passenger who had asked for orange juice and the flight attendant gave me what boils down to a federal warning with criminal and civil penalties, I would have insisted that police or gate personnel meet the flight. I would have also asked that my cabin mates confirm her irrational and abusive behavior. While I agree it was absurd that the flight attendant issued a written warning in this situation, don’t kid yourself, David, those terrorists, the ones you mentioned, very well could be sitting right next to you in first class drinking orange juice.

Sincerely,

Heather
A Flight Attendant

Photos courtesy of Justin Timperio and Paalia

Photo of the Day (4/22/09)

With today being Earth Day, images of waterfalls and green came to mind. This luscious shot by Buck Fuller is just what I was looking for. The intriguing quality, not only lies with the shades of blues, greens and grays, but also with the perspective. From seeping Mossbrae Falls water flows into the Sacramento River. I hope that it is as pristine today as it was in April 2006 when Fuller captured its loveliness.

If you have shots of lusciousness, send them our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool where one might be picked as a Photo of the Day.