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Shopping wisely

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 19, 2004

Most of the food I eat is organic. Despite this fact, contrary to what many might think, I am far from chic. I would also make the claim that I am not what New York Times columnist David Brooks would classify as a “bobo.” I make too little money, I dress too poorly and my car can claim well over 100,000 miles. I am a poor graduate student willing to pay what others might think is a ridiculous amount of money for food grown without the use of fertilizers and pesticides. And while I honestly feel most of this food tastes noticeably better – compare Annie’s Organic Macaroni and Cheese with Kraft and you will clearly see what I mean – I also feel this decision is one grounded in social justice.

Rather than a “bobo,” I place myself among those simple-living quasi-hippies from the Pacific Northwest who eschew giant corporate grocers and prefer small “natural food stores” or local coops owned by a collective of people. Perhaps we are the communists of the food chain, but our numbers are growing. It was not always this way. I grew up on a subtle combination of home cooked Italian-American meals and Stouffers TV Dinners, packed with the preservatives without which any American childhood would seem incomplete. I thought nothing of this.

Then I started to learn about the genetically modified organisms placed in most non-organic food, about the unsustainable agricultural practices often used to produce such food and about the chemical residues left on the produce I ate. The food I found in most supermarkets simply did not seem like food anymore, more a product of science than a product of the Earth.

Making the switch to organic food was easy when I lived in Portland, Ore., a place where old Volkswagen vans are resurrected and where more people probably know where to find a good veggie burger than could point you in the direction of a decent hamburger. I found an organic diet more difficult when I arrived in South Bend. That is, until I happened upon a tiny place known as the Garden Patch, tucked away a few blocks off Grape Road. Its nondescript sign is unlikely to attract attention from anyone not intending to find it.

When you walk in the door, it might feel like you have stepped back in time. The doors do not open automatically, no one greets you, there is one checkout station and the whole place is smaller than most homes. Since 1956, the Garden Patch has survived under the ownership of the same family and is run today by Jay Freterickson, the original owner’s son. Ironically enough, the Garden Patch sells few fruits and vegetables, a sad concession to the fact that, as the owner remarks, “few people eat produce today,” but also because many of its customers buy their produce at South Bend’s nearby Farmer’s Market. Instead it provides a wide variety of organic or naturally grown packaged and bulk products.

One of the store’s greatest virtues, contrary to the common suspicion of natural food stores, is its prices. The Garden Patch offers many products at prices below those of larger supermarket chains. This is in part because of a conscious effort to buy large amounts of products from distributors during sale periods and pass those savings on to customers. Over the years the Garden Patch’s business has stayed steady, despite competition from two new natural food stores in the area and the addition of such products in the aisles of the larger markets.

Strolling the aisles of the Garden Patch, I am led to conclude that part of the reason for this continued success is the sheer civility of the shopping experience. It lacks the frenzy of crazed shoppers in every aisle, the long lines at checkout, the feeling that your senses are being barraged at every moment by a display trying to sell you something you really do not need. But I think the deeper reason, and one which I share, is the desire of many shoppers to support a local business in an age when such places are quickly disappearing. The Garden Patch boasts a character sorely missing from the chains of every sort that spread like a virus across our country. Shopping there is a way to support the kind of independent local businesses whose existence prevents America from losing any sense of local and regional charm. It also provides a way to buy foods that are good for the Earth, often better for the people who produce them, and most important better for one’s own body.

The prices might seem high the first time one steps into such a store, but the fact is that Americans pay far less for their food, as a percentage of income, than citizens of any other industrial nation. This perspective reveals places like the Garden Patch provide wholesome food at a reasonable price. And frankly, the taste can’t be beat.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.