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

If 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]

2. 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!

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.

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.

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]

Galley Gossip: My Bollywood Valentine’s Day

There we were, the husband and I, standing up in a dark movie theater with a huge smile across our faces. We had gone to see the movie Slumdog Millionaire and were just about to leave, but when the credits began rolling the Bollywood dancers started to move their bodies in sync.

“Wait, I want to see this!” my husband exclaimed as I began to walk up the aisle.

“Really?” I asked, even though I already knew his response would be, yes, really! What I didn’t want to see was my husband doing those same Bollywood dance moves later that night. He can’t help himself. That’s why I love him.

As I stood there watching the dancers perform the “go away” dance move, as my husband calls it, a move that requires one hand to flutter from the front of the face to the back of the head, I immediately flashed back to another time in my life, back to the days when I was single and used to work the New York – San Jose route.

Why would an amazing film like Slumdog Millionaire remind me of a San Jose trip? Because we used to layover in Fremont, California – not San Jose, California. It was cheaper, I guess. Have you ever been to Fremont? Let’s just say I spent many layovers eating wonderful curries, drinking delicious chai tea, and checking out the local video store for a Bollywood movie I once worked on eight years ago called Mehbooba starring Sanjay Dutt, a movie I never did find.

Oh yes, that’s right, yours truly is not only a mother / flight attendant / writer, but also a not so famous ex Bollywood actress. In the movie Mehbooba, a film that was shot in New York City and other amazing places around the world, I’m just an extra. I’m the girl wearing the red dress on the boat, which is actually the same boat that was used in the movie The Mosquito Coast starring Harrison Ford. While I lounged on the wooden deck, Sanjay Dutt actually kissed me on the cheek. I do hope they didn’t cut that part out.

For the record, Mehbooba means my beloved. My husband actually had it engraved on my wedding band. Only he spelled it wrong – Mehabooba. Just a random fact about me.

Another random fact about me, I don’t like Valentine’s Day. There’s just to much pressure to have fun and fall in love and spend too much money doing so – just to be let down in the end.

My dislike for Valentine’s Day began in elementary school. That’s where, each year, I was forced to decorate a tissue box with construction paper in shades of red, pink and white on the day of love. A person can’t help but get excited about what they’re going to find in their box at the end of the day, even if that person is only ten years old! Of course my box never overflowed with hearts and candy the way those of my classmates did.

Then, years later, I gave my college boyfriend a special gift. I don’t remember what it was, but what I do remember is what he gave me. Nothing. He was too busy breaking up with me – not just once, but twice, on two different Valentine’s Days! What can I say, some people just have to be slapped in the face with rejection!

After college I dated an engineer who wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day the day after – on the 15th. Or the 13th would’ve worked, too. “It’s cheaper that way,” he’d said matter of fact. Of course now that I’m older and wiser I see the logic in that, but back then it only made me hate the day even more.

Though I do have many bad memories, there was one Valentine’s Day I did actually enjoy. It happened in Fremont, California of all places. And it may even have to go down as one of the most fun nights of my life. My date that night at the Bollywood disco after a scrumptious dinner at an Indian buffet was Katherine, the flight attendant working in first class with me that month of February in 2001.

I had just planned on having another not so great Valentine’s Day, which is why I had opted to work that day, but Katherine decided to take matters into her own hands. She started asking passengers if they could fix us up with someone – anyone! Who lived in Fremont. You have to understand that Katherine was the kind of person who could say anything and get away with it. I think the British accent had a lot to do with that. While we did make quite a few of our passengers laugh, we never did get set up, and eventually found ourselves alone drinking chai tea as we celebrated together in a coffee shop across the street from our Fremont layover hotel.

“Why don’t you two come along with me!” said the owner of the shop. He’d been eavesdropping in on our conversation. “Just pay me gas money.”

So that’s what we did. We paid our new friend gas money and he took us to a private party not too far away. Katherine and I danced the night away to music we’d never heard before, nor have I heard since, and we learned dance moves that only my husband could appreciate. Of course back then he wasn’t around to appreciate them. No one was. Just Katherine.

On the flight back to New York Katherine stood in the first class galley wearing her pin striped apron and looked me square in the eye, and said, and she said this very seriously, “Heather, you were the best date I’ve ever had.”

Of couse I felt the same way about her. The sad thing is I never did see my special Valentine’s date again after that wonderful month working together. I heard Katherine quit flying shortly after 9/11. A lot of flight attendants did.

So now that I’m married to a wonderful man who has spectacular dance moves of his own, a passenger I actually met on a flight from New York to Los Angeles just a few months after 9/11, and now that we have a beautiful two year-old son who travels so often he calls his belt a seatbelt and prefers to keep it fastened at all times, things have changed for the better. Valentine’s Day is no longer about me. It’s about us.

This year the three of us will be celebrating together at home. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I do know that mommy and daddy will be spending a romantic evening out alone on the 12th instead of the 14th this year. You better believe my husband will be getting a copy of the Slumdog Millionaire CD, as well as the just released Mehbooba DVD! Yes, it took eight years, but it’s out, the movie is finally out, and my poor husband will be forced to watch it!

Photos courtesy of (Bollywood dancers) Fikirbaz (Mehbooba) the official Mehbooba website (Valentine’s box) Msabcmom