By Adrian Gerth
If we are what we eat, what does that make most of us? Fast food, processed meals, and preservatives dominate the grocery store aisles and restaurants across America, and truly fresh food can be hard to find — and even harder to afford. Recently, words like “fresh,” “organic,” and “all-natural” have become buzzwords that can be better for marketing than for your health. Combined with the ever-present genetically modified organism (GMO), it can be complicated if you want food that’s actually, well, food. Thankfully, there are more than a couple of entrepreneurs in our area who care about the nutrients in our meals more than their sales at the end of the day.
Lovey’s Market opened its doors in Landfall Center in 1990 as a small shop dedicated to local, organic foods. When the original owners went under, Maria Montenurro and Karen Stewart took over the business in 2002. Both were former Lovey’s employees with a long history in organic and holistic foods, and their experience really shows in the store. “We wanted to be a complete health food grocery store,” says Marie. Under their leadership, the store has expanded several times in the past twelve years, thanks to a growing customer base and Karen and Marie’s tireless work ethic. “We’ve had a lot of support from the beginning, and we’ve been very fortunate to have such enthusiastic customers,” says Marie.
Karen and Marie take great pride in every aspect of their business, and make sure that every palette can be satisfied. “The biggest surprise is how the consciousness level has risen; it used to be considered a joke that people ate organic. The alternative to organic is getting scarier and scarier,” says Karen. “We’ve always carried organic and natural, even before it was in vogue.” Whether you want vegan, vegetarian, or a hamburger with all the fixin’s, Lovey’s café caters to everyone, including those avoiding gluten and GMOs. “Number one, we always want organic, but if we can’t get that, we always make sure it’s natural and non-GMO certified,” says Marie. Their salad bar is the only one in the area with local shrimp, and their hot bar features North Carolina grass-fed beef for both hot dogs and hamburgers. Worried about the price? You shouldn’t be. “We run three flyers a month and probably have 2,000 items on sale each month,” says Karen, adding, “Members save an additional 10% right at the register.”
Just down the road, Tidal Creek Co-op is looking forward to their 30th anniversary this summer. They pride themselves on having an educated team dedicated to providing our area with all organic, local foods, as well as a little bit of food education. When it comes to knowledge, their new produce manager Mack has it in spades. Armed with a degree in plant science from the University of Tennessee as Knoxville, he is both very passionate and informed on what his customers eat and where it comes from. “Our produce department is one of the only in the Southeast that is USDA certified organic,” says Mack. “You can track the kale on our shelf back to the seed and see that it was organic all the way along.”
The plethora of local farms that the Co-op works with assures that consumers have a variety of local, organic foods, and also ensures that we all get the nutrient density that so much conventional food is missing. “Larger farms typically just use nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, which can strip the soil of its micronutrients and microfauna,” says Mack. “This can lower the natural sugar levels in plants, as well as creating calcium deficiencies.” Of course, not every local farm can afford the inspection and certification progress to become a fully organic farm. “We want to carry as much local produce as we can; if it’s conventional, it has to be pesticide free,” says Mack.
Organic foods carry with them the cost of doing business, so everything the Co-op carries will be priced accordingly. “We try to make it as affordable as we can,” says Mack, and using local producers helps cut transportation costs. Progressive Farms, a sub-city farm run by Progressive Gardens, recently started supplying the Co-op with mixed greens, and Mack is hopeful that more of their produce will soon be stocked on his shelves. One of the biggest problems that organic stores have with new customers is that there’s almost no difference in taste between organic and conventional; the only difference most people see is the price. Since most people don’t carry a refractometer (the tool used to measure nutrient density) with them on their grocery trips, it can be hard to understand why organic produce is more expensive. Think of it this way: nutritional density runs from 0-12. Most conventional foods sit around 4, while homegrown and organic foods range from 8 and up. When a bit of perspective is added to the equation, the price could take a secondary priority. “The education of the consumer can be tough,” says Mack, but he adds, “proper signage, keeping my staff informed of what we have, and just being on the floor really helps people make the right choices.”
Mack has the challenging job of finding the best natural foods for the Co-op to carry, but the hard work they do pays off to both customers and farmers alike. “When you support farms that run organic or pesticide free operations, you’re helping the whole soil preservation process,” says Mack. Once the soil has been stripped of that, there’s little left for future planting. Despite the workload, Mack thoroughly enjoys his job and the people that surround him every day. If you want to be a part of the Co-ops decade-long mission for true health food, you can be an owner for only $30 per year; owners receive discounts on different products and exclusive sales throughout the year. The Co-op is located at 5329 Oleander Drive in Wilmington, across from Jungle Rapids.
What happens when you combine a teacher with a love for local foods with a culinary expert? April and Max Sussman’s venture started out as a simple produce stand in the summer of 2009 and made connections with many local farmers to fill their Veggie Wagon with the freshest local produce they could find. The couple shut down the stand to return to their day jobs in the fall, though the love of community agriculture was still deeply embedded in their hearts.
Over the winter April and Max began to miss their connection to the local farmers and decided to start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business to keep their ties to the farms as well and provide their community with fresh foods. “It just kind of snowballed from there,” says April. After working with local farmers markets and taking part in the produce box program, the pair wanted to find a way to help the farmers year round. “When you get past the conglomerates and the big guys, you find the true local farmers, the true heart and soul of the local food movement,” says Max.
The high price of certified organic foods is probably the couple’s biggest challenge when it comes to production. “We work very hard to make sure that 99% of our products are all-natural; the ones that aren’t, we are constantly looking for an alternative that’s affordable for our consumers,” says April. Not being a large business certainly affects the couples ability to expand and fully meet customer demand; however they feel very strongly when it comes to the quality they carry. “Anytime you can create clarity in what you’re consuming, you know what is really in your final product,” says Max.
The Veggie Wagon produces many unique foods in-house, including roasting local vegetables to create their own hummus. With the help of a recent grant, the couple has researched ways to naturally preserve produce for use out of season. “This allows our farms to make more money and keep up with imported produce,” says Max. By using a cryo-vacuum seal, fresh vegetables can be kept for longer periods of time, also alleviating farm waste for produce that might not sell during the regular season. The Veggie Wagon also carries ten taps filled with North Carolina beers that are not available in bottles; you can either enjoy it fresh from the tap or grab a growler bring the suds home with you.
People hesitant of making the switch to local, organic foods will be very comfortable in the Veggie Wagon. “We have no necessity to market our products; our customer base trusts us because we trust our farmers,” says Max. The store’s homey atmosphere, combined with the couple’s knowledge of their food and how to prepare it will soon have anyone ready to wait for grass-fed beef from a local farm rather than then hormone-grown alternative. This is part of the struggle for everyone attempting to eat consciously, though the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Today’s hectic lifestyle can exacerbate this problem, but April and Max have a solution with their fresh produce delivery service. You can shop online at www.theveggiewagon.com; the delivery area currently runs from downtown east to Wrightsville Beach and as far south as Kure Beach. If you’re not in the delivery area, don’t worry; the Veggie Wagon is located just off South Lake Park Drive in Carolina Beach and is open year round. Max and April invite you to come see how fun and easy eating local can be!
If you really want to get as close to the source as you can, farmer’s markets abound from Jacksonville to Shallotte, each one of them carrying every type of produce you could imagine. Here’s a list of those in our area:
Shallotte Farmers Market
at the corner of Highway 130 & Main Street
Open Saturday 8 am-noon; May 1 thru October 2
Southport Waterfront Market
Wednesday 8 am-1 pm, May 25 thru October 26
Town of Oak Island
4601 East Oak Island Drive
Oak Island, NC 28465
Market will be open Mondays 7 am-1 pm, June 11th through September.
New Hanover County
Carolina Beach Farmer’s Market
Lake Park Blvd at Atlanta Avenue
Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Saturdays 8 am-1 pm, May 17 through October 4, 2014.
Wrightsville Beach Farmer’s Market
321 Causeway Drive
Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480
Mondays, 8:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. the first Monday in May through Labor Day
Poplar Grove Farmer’s Market
10200 US Hwy 17
Wilmington, NC 28411
Wednesday 8 am-1 pm; April 3 thru November 27