Don’t panic, it’s all organic

Bowling Green food businesses have found different niches to accommodate the growing demand for organic products. There are a variety of organic contenders including a café, three grocery outlets, an organic coffee distributor and numerous coffee shops that serve organic coffee.

Organic is the largest growing sector of the food industry, with national growth rates of 20 to 25 percent per year for the last 12 years, according to the The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “Kroger used to have nutrition centers probably six or seven years ago and gradually weeded them out because there wasn’t a market for them,” head produce clerk at Kroger, Kari Gonder, said. However, Gonder said she has seen an increase in organic sales in the past two years.

“We were one of the test stores a couple years ago in this marketing area,” Gonder said. “We have a lot more products in now because the sales in this area are going through the roof.” “Nature’s Market,” located next to the produce section of Kroger, offers four aisles of health-related and organic products, plus a wall of organic produce, frozen foods and a cooler with organic dairy and dairy substitutes. “People tend to associate freshness and natural stuff with the produce section,” Gonder said. The aisles hold organic grains, breads and other organic dry good items.

Fresh produce comes in four times a week and must be kept separate from non-organic produce to prevent cross-contamination.

At Grounds for Thought coffee shop, 174 S. Main St., co-owner Kelly Wicks has been roasting organic coffee for retail sales to area coffee shops, fundraising companies and other businesses including Tony Packo’s restaurants in Toledo.

“Over-pesticiding and over-fertilizing is not the way to do it and [coffee bean farmers] recognize that,” Wicks said. He attributes around 10 percent of his overall sales to organic coffees.

On the north end of Main Street, Squeaker’s operates a vegetarian and organic grocery store and restaurant.

“Organic tastes better,” co-owner Heather Andre, said. “I know when we do our organic cooking, organic really brings out the freshness in the food because you’re not tasting the chemicals and the gases.”

Andre said the store aims to “promote a healthy, compassionate lifestyle” because she donates a percentage of proceeds from her products, to environmental organizations. “This store was opened to help save animals,” Andre said.

Around 90 percent of the products in the store are organic. “We use all organic produce in the restaurant,” she said. During the organic growing season, Squeaker’s carries produce from their own garden located behind their Findlay location, and buys mostly from local sources and growers.

East of I-75 on Bowling Green Road, Meijer carries one refrigerated section with organic produce. Around the cooler are stacks of non-refrigerated organic produce like potatoes. “It seems like it’s gaining more and more popularity,” said Edwin Fernandez, produce and bulk food leader of five years, said. “I’ve been running out of room for places to put it.”

Fernandez special orders some items. “Once in a while, there will be a customer that wants something organic that we usually don’t carry and I’ll order it for them,” he said.

Some Meijer locations have already expanded the number of display cases and organic products in stock. The Bowling Green location plans on expanding soon, said Fernandez, but no date has been set for the expansion.

Many consumers have opted to go organic because of the dangerous effects of pesticides. “Organic food is free of all chemical pesticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilizer,” owners of Garden Spirit Farms, Russell and Judy Chester, said in an online interview. The 10-acre organic farm outside of Mt. Blanchard, Ohio, was founded in 1999 and supplies Andre with some of her organic produce.

“Regular produce contains carcinogens and are especially dangerous on young children,” Andre said. “It can be hard on their developing immune systems.”

Squeaker’s, named after Andre’s pet guinea pig, tripled his life expectancy, Andre said, because of eating organic vegetables. “Shortly after I got him, he developed a tumor on his spine that covered most of his back and I took him to the vet to have it removed. Since then, I have only fed him produce from the store and he is now nine years old.”

“When I started eating more organic, my body felt better,” Squeaker’s café client, Terri Opperman, said. Opperman, a freshman studying computer aided drafting at Owens, eats at the café around twice a week, buys organic face scrub and deodorant from Squeaker’s, and says the products are comparable in price and quality to grocery stores like Kroger or Meijer.

Organic products tend to cost slightly more than non-organic products due to increased labor cost and a heightened risk of loss because no pesticides are used.

“Unless we’re talking dairy or frozen, I think the costs have become very comparable in probably the last six months because the demand is there and the shelf life is just about as long,” Gonder said. Organic and non-organic broccoli florets are priced the same at Meijer. A cup of coffee at Grounds for Thought is $1, organic or non-organic.

However, because organic produce only has an average of one day to be sold, cost is higher for some produce. Organic lettuce and broccoli are 30 cents more than their non-organic counterparts at Kroger. Bananas are ten cents more per pound. “The increase in cost is not an issue for our organic shoppers because they know they’re eating products without harmful pesticides,” Gonder said.

Andre said that organic produce prices flux just like normal produce. “If they’re in season, they will be very competitive in price. If you buy avocados right now, it’s going to be outrageous.” All grocery locations said their top-selling item is bagged salad. Broccoli slaw is a second hot item at Meijer, according to Fernandez. At Squeaker’s, the avocado bagel and cookies are popular while organic Guatemalan coffee is pouring faster than other organic coffees at Grounds for Thought.

“I’ve started to take a chance with some of the really perishable items like berries,” Gonder said for Kroger’s selection. “In those particular items, you get one day to sell them.”

“This fall we are constructing a high tunnel greenhouse to grow mescaline mix,” Russell of Garden Spirit Farm said. “We have gotten requests from several restaurants including Squeaker’s.” New standards adopted in October 2002 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) require anything labeled organic to contain 95 percent organic ingredients.

The USDA has also created a seal that makes identifying organic products easier.

“People who typically buy organic produce are looking for those seals,” Gonder said. “They want fresh and a guarantee that there’s been no chemicals.” She said around half the organic products carried at Kroger carry the new USDA organic certified stamp, but that number is expected to rise.

The new guidelines also state growing methods must meet heightened USDA standards to be a USDA certified organic farmer. Farmers must apply to grow USDA certified organic produce.

“The land must be chemical free for three years before you can be considered for certification,” Russell of Garden Spirit Farm said. Compost temperature and water testing are only two of many items checked by the new USDA standards.

“Up to this point, specialty coffee has been self-regulated,” Wicks said about their organic coffee. The OCIA, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, had overseen the legitimacy of coffee beans sold as organic in the international market. “Because coffee has a one-year turnover rate, all coffee claiming to be organic will be USDA certified by 2004.”

Bowling Green does offer several outlets for organic consumers, but each one offers its own unique characteristics. Squeaker’s donates to environmental and animal rights groups, offering personalized service and the café. Grounds for Thought distributes and serves four types of organic coffee. Kroger offers around the same selection in groceries as Squeaker’s, but has the benefit of one-stop grocery shopping with non-organic products in the next aisles over. Meijer will special order produce and is looking to expand soon. No matter where one goes for organic produce, the statistics show the popularity of this food sub-segment will continue to grow. “It’s just healthier for you,” Andre said.