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Natural isn’t a niche anymore

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It’s gotten easier to shop locally for natural, organic foods in recent years
Shoppers enter the Medford Food Co-op off of Riverside Avenue in Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Fresh produce for sale at the Medford Food Co-op. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Fresh produce is for sale at the Medford Food Co-op. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

A rarity in Jackson County a few decades ago, natural food stores have become a staple throughout the valley.

The Ashland Food Co-op led the way in 1971 when several local families started a food-buying club that evolved into the region’s only certified organic retailer.

After its first successful year, the store became a cooperative in 1972, and it celebrated its 50th anniversary this past Valentine’s Day.

“The idea started because a group of local families had a hard time sourcing whole organic foods,” said Tracy Kaiser, marketing and education manager for the Ashland Food Co-op.

If anything, the store has gotten more committed to organic and local foods in the intervening years.

Unlike other grocery stores that commingle organic and nonorganic produce, the Ashland co-op shuns this practice.

“When the sprayers come on, the water from nonorganic produce can contaminate organic produce,” Kaiser said.

Only rarely does the Ashland co-op offer nonorganic products in its produce section, and then only when a product is unavailable otherwise.The kitchen and bakery contain 90% organic products, though it’s difficult to source organic spices or items such as Tabasco.

To meet its qualifications as “local,” the store now considers 100 miles as its target rather than 200 miles in the past.

“It’s also about the carbon foot-print,” Kaiser said.The store has a couple of organic meat vendors, and the recent wildfires affected many of the vendors who supply the store, she said.

In the past, the Ashland co-op has explored moving to a bigger space in Ashland.

Kaiser said the store is still looking at expanding within 30 miles of Ashland but remains committed to the city where it all started.Based upon the success and interest of the Ashland Food Co-op, a group of Medford residents started their own store.

The Medford Food Co-op opened in 2006, and the business has steadily grown to the point that supporters are considering expand-ing into a new space.

“What was once a niche market selling to a handful of people, it suddenly just exploded,” said Anne Carter, general manager of the Medford Food Co-op.

“We have been, for the last year and half, trying to find a way to get into a larger facility,” Carter said. The new location would offer a bigger selection and help keep up with Medford’s growth.In 2017, the Medford store expanded its kitchen to keep up with demand for food from the cafe.

The natural foods industry has gotten bigger since the two co-ops came on the scene. Now, Jackson County boasts two Market of Choice stores, a Natural Grocers, Cartwright’s Market came to town, and most grocery stores — notably Sherm’s Food 4 Less — have created natural products sections and added organic produce.

“By 2015 almost every single other grocery store had a complete organic section,” Carter said.

However, the labeling and mix of organic and nonorganic products can be confusing for many shoppers at more conventional grocery stores.

Also, throughout the country, small organic businesses have been bought out by larger corporations, Carter said.

The Medford Co-op continues its tradition of selling exclusively organic produce and organic meats. The Medford store strives to carry as many organic, local or sustain-able products as possible.

Local small businesses that produce food products in small batches are also highlighted.Carter said that in order to get a local designation, the food is limited to a 100-mile radius. Regional foods, particularly from the Willamette Valley, are also available.

The Medford co-op and the Ashland co-op both boast cafes and food offerings that strive to offer mostly organic and local.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.