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]

Five incredible sights in Idaho

On your next trip out West, forget about Colorado or California. Visitors in the know are heading for Idaho. There’s lot more here than potatoes. In fact, the state’s wild, unspoiled terrain is dotted with natural wonders, a intriguing range of activities and loads of hidden finds. Wondering where to kick off your Idaho adventure? Give these five great sights a look:

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
You feel you might be on the moon’s surface at Craters of the Moon National Monument, covering 618 square miles of desolate volcanic wasteland bearing lava tube caves and cinder cones southwest of Arco. Apollo Astronauts visited in 1969 to practice exploring the moon. The visitor’s center has exhibits and films. Take a hike on one of the many trails or enjoy the stark scenery along a 7-mile loop drive. Admission: $8 autos, $4 cycles or by foot, under 15 free. Campsites are available.

Hagerman Fossil Beds
More than 200 specimens of the Hagerman Horse, along with mastodons and saber-toothed cats are still being found at the Hagerman Fossil Beds, a quarry north of Buhl. Be ready to do some walking but no digging. A couple of miles away, the Hagerman Valley Historical Museum houses this zebra-sized replica which has become Idaho’s state fossil. Kids can apply hands-on activities with the pre-historic displays and sign up to be a ranger. Donations are welcomed. Hours: May-October, Wednesday-Sunday, 1-4; November-April, Saturday-Sunday, 1-4.
Balanced Rock
It’s nearly a 200 foot climb to Balanced Rock, the camel’s head-shaped rock perched on a pedestal only 3 feet by 17 inches. As you feel very small underneath this 40 ton monster, you’ll be treated to a view of the spectacular Snake River country below. Less than a mile from the rock, nestled between two walls of volcanic rock, free camping is available in the small and narrow, yet peaceful state park south of Buhl.

World Center of Birds Of Prey
Located south of Boise on Flying Hawk Lane, the World Center of Birds of Prey and interpretive center breeds birds of prey in captivity to release to the wild. Viewing our nation’s Bald Eagle or Idaho’s state bird, the Peregrine Falcon, from only a few feet away makes you realize what large birds they are when you see them soaring through the air hundreds of feet above. Live bird presentations are regularly scheduled. Hours: November-February, Tuesday-Sunday, 10-4; March-October, daily, 9-5. Admission: $7 general, $6 (62+), $5 (4-16), under 4 free.

Warhawk Air Museum
Getting up close to real air planes can make you feel mighty small. World War II History of Aviation, right up to the space age, is depicted in the aerial displays of Warhawk Air Museum, located in Nampa on Municipal Drive. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10 to 4; Saturday, 10-5. Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors and military identification, $4 (5-12), under 5 free.

Old Idaho Penitentiary

Old Idaho PenMy big day in Boise went out with a bang as I ended up behind bars at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. This was another attraction that appeared in my Google searches and ranked pretty high on the list of things to do. Prior to my trip to the Old Idaho Pen, I’d never been to jail with the exception of a never-ending game of Monopoly. The minute me and my pal walked into the old cells which haven’t housed an inmate since 1973, the temperature dropped about 4 to 6 degrees cooler. It was like an icebox. We walked the halls of death row and read about those who once lived, breathed and eventually hung to their death in the prison. Old weapons and a variety of shanks were displayed. A tattoo gallery explained the meanings behind common tats on inmates and gang tattoos. The gallery was actually very pleasing and nicely done.

Then there was solitary confinement… Dark, cold, teeny-tiny boxes, no bed, no nothing – just enough space to pace ten steps, turn around and do it all over again. I imagined long days of misery and then I quickly stepped out. It gave me the heebie-jeebies being there for only two minutes. It was only as we were leaving that me and my friend decided to watch the 18 minute film on the history of the Old Idaho Penitentiary. For some reason it didn’t sound all that great in the beginning and come to find out it wasn’t really worth our 18 minutes on the way out. If you go, skip the film and read up on all the history in the actually prison buildings.

2445 Old Penitentiary Rd, Boise, ID 83712

Idaho’s Black History Museum

IBHMAs you may have noticed by now most of my travel over the last few weeks has been throughout the Mid-West and in the Mid-West you tend to find nothing, but museums built around the history of the Mid-West. Makes good sense right? Well after so many stops at these places the history all starts to sound the same and another buffalo or Indian tale begins to become a little on the played out side. For this reason I decided to skip any state focused museum and check out a more specific one. That is how I found myself at the Idaho Black History Museum.

The museum which used to be an old church is nothing huge, but the little information found tucked inside the four walls goes a long way. Their current exhibit, the Invisible Idahoan 1805-Present shows how few Blacks there are in Idaho and highlights the major achievements made by many of them. One of the things that stood out in my mind is a map showing all the active hate groups across the U.S. as of 2004. What I saw was not only shocking, but incredibly sad. It was the first time I had seen a map with such information. On my way out I was told by the curator that I must return next year as some very exciting things are planned. There will be a big Black History month celebration in February, an evening with the Regina Carter Quintet and the 49th Annual Ebony Fashion Fair will all be happening next year.

So far Idaho has not popped up on my 2007 radar, but just in case it should come up on yours you may want to look at their event calendar now.

The Idaho Black History Museum is located at 508 Julia Davis Dr. (Julia Davis Park), Boise, ID 83702. Ph. 208.433.0017

Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial

Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights MemorialWhen I did a search for Boise attractions I was totally caught off guard to see this Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial pop up. I wondered what connection the young Jewish girl who seemed to have became the voice of human hope through her diary kept during the Holocaust had with the state? While there is no direct connection the reality is a site like this one should be placed on every corner of every city. The memorial was constructed to promote respect for human dignity and diversity and was inspired by Anne Frank’s faith in humanity. As I strolled along the walkways I soaked in the uplifting words of Helen Keller, Maya Angelou, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglas and Anne Frank to name only a few. The memorial is not huge, but it is certainly quaint and serves the public some food for thought. Located next to the public library and human rights educational center, delving into the minds of great dreamers and fighters doesn’t have to end after a 20 minute jaunt on the memorial grounds.

The Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial is located at 801 S. Capitol Blvd, Suite 102, Boise, ID 83702. Ph. 208.345.0304