Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Letters from around the country describe your favorite food institutions.


Editors Note: A few weeks ago, we invited Nation readers to tell us about their most beloved food institutions, so many replies poured in that we could only print a small fraction in the magazine. The overflow was just as rich, running from family-owned restaurants to community-owned farms–from a taquería in California to dumpsters across America. Here is just a taste.

Portland, Ore.

Out here we have a treasure in the person of Brian Rohter, the guiding light behind New Seasons markets. New Seasons is one of the only places in Portland at which I can shop knowing that the folks who work there are treated well and actually care about what they are serving to the public. They have locally-grown produce and meat from Oregon producers who guarantee the treatment of animals and the quality of the meat (no hormones, range fed). They also take seriously their commitment to their workers and their consumers by refusing to stock items from companies that misrepresent their products (they have pulled items for misrepresenting nutritional information, for instance). There are classes offered in nutrition for seniors, new parents, people with blood sugar and adrenal problems, and it’s all for free. The result is that these stores are community assets that greatly improve the quality of life.


Oberlin, Ohio

Web of Life in Westlake, Ohio has an incredible vegan deli. It is family-run, they take great care in their product line and their customer service is superb!


Leesburg, Va.

My family loves the family-owned Wegmans grocery chain. The Wegmans regularly visit to meet the employees and customers and pitch in and do the work. It’s not some Safeway operation, where the board makes 100 times or more than the new employees, but more in line with that prescription from Plato’s Republic, that the richest should earn no more than four times the poorest.


Laguna Beach, Calif.

Ah, the all-American supermarket dumpster: our greatest symbol of plenty. Feelings of nostalgia well up whenever I overhear youths bragging about their latest haul. Genuine recyclers, dumpster-divers are rewarded with a cornucopia that is all the more enjoyable because of its illicit origins.


Chicago, Ill.

My favorite food institution might be El Coqui, a lush community garden named for Puerto Rico’s beloved tree frog. Once a littered vacant lot, El Coqui is now an oasis where residents tend raised beds of vegetables, have picnics, marvel at the butterflies and build community.

Or maybe it’s the Howard Area Community Garden, where low-income families grow fresh foods they couldn’t otherwise afford. Or Fulton Garden, growing fresh food in one of Chicago’s “food deserts”–predominantly African-American communities with few if any grocery stores. Or Gingko Organic Gardens, where gardeners donate their harvest to local nonprofits. These and other community gardens are in diverse communities across Chicago.

What they all have in common is that they will never be destroyed by a landowner with other plans. Each garden is protected by NeighborSpace, one of the nation’s few “urban land trusts,” which holds the deed, provides insurance, conducts environmental due diligence to keep gardeners safe, and monitors and stewards the land year after year.

Executive director, NeighborSpace

Washington, DC

Calvert Woodley at the Van Ness-UDC metro stop pleases neighbors and tourists alike. When you enter the small shop, the best wines and champagnes await you on your right. To your left, delectable cheeses and deli delicacies are displayed delighting your eye and nose. Spirits, coffees, fresh bread and other delightful surprises dot the rows as you pass along. Knowledgeable staff give you a taste so you can choose exactly what you want. It’s a delightful neighborhood spot as well as our own little treasure.


El Cajon, Calif.

My garden is my most beloved food institution. If it had a cistern it would be even more beloved and closer to sustainability.

I live in the suburbs but have chickens and goats for fertilizer as well as eggs and milk. I have to buy their feed, so they are only a small part of a sustainable equation, which should be every thinking person’s goal these days. The goats do sometimes eat tree trimmings from trees that produce fruit, and the chickens mow the grass and scratch for bugs, so there is some circularity here.


Eastsound, Wash.

I live on a small island in Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest. Orcas Island is full of fiercely independent people who desire to live in health amid others who cherish the idea of sustainability. Topping the list of fabulous food institutions is my personal favorite, Maple Rock Farm. Growing organic food, selling it to our schools, restaurants and under orange umbrellas at the weekly farmers market, Maple Rock is fabulous. I support MRF through Community Supported Agriculture wherein I send a few hundred dollars to MRF in the dead of winter so they can buy seed and equipment. All year long, I select wonderful fresh produce and just have the cost deducted from my CSA account. I always get to eat the best food!–“Know your farmer, know your food!”


Coral Ridge, Iowa

Last year my wife and I joined the New Pioneer Co-op in Coral Ridge, Iowa. New-Pi, as the members call it, is a blue oasis in a red desert. My fellow co-op members and I share an awareness of the health, cultural and environmental consequences of food choices. You can pick up a veggie burger patty or an organic lamb chop, or sign up for one of the many outreach classes on anything from yoga to yogurt.

The foods at New-Pi are unique, ethnic and local. Local farmers benefit as do the consumers. The fresh-baked goods and delicious chocolates are a welcome diversion from too many days of disciplined eating. And as a member of the cooperative, we invest in the community! New-Pi has helped Hospice, Free Lunch, ICARE, Domestic Violence Intervention Project, Free Medical Clinic, Table to Table and other local groups. My-oh-my, New-Pi!


Camarillo, Calif.

La Cumbre is a taquería located on 16th and Valencia in San Francisco, in my old neighborhood. It’s just a little corner dive in not the best part of town, but I believe its following is now international. When I went to San Francisco recently, I had the opportunity to eat at some of their fabulous new restaurants. But when I got back, an e-mail from an old friend asked only this: “I assume you got a burrito at La Cumbre?” And the answer was: “Yes, of course I did.”


Boston, Mass.

The food institution I most admire is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF). WKKF provides millions of dollars every year to fund dozens of innovative and promising sustainable food and agriculture projects across the country that promote community, social and economic development. In 2000, WKKF started its Food and Society (FAS) initiative based “on a vision of a future food system that provides all segments of society a safe and nutritious food supply grown in a manner that protects health and the environment and adds economic and social value to rural and urban communities” (see Almost anyone involved in sustainable food and agriculture work has some link to this program and its activities.

FAS annual conferences convene over 500 advocates and leaders in the sustainable food movement, from farmers to policy makers, and its FoodRoutes newsletter reaches thousands of readers. FAS Policy Fellowships each year support up to a dozen leaders to engage in creative media communications on food and agriculture topics; their messages reach millions. WKKF takes risks to promote social change. No one else comes close to providing both the funding and the structural support this movement needs to grow and succeed.


Santa Fe, N.M.

Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe has the best chili in town!


Sacramento, Calif.

I have worked for twenty-two years at the Sacramento Sunday Farmers’ Market, which makes available all the produce grown in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. With Sacramento being one of the most multicultural cities in the world, the market reflects many vegetables and fruits that can be used to prepare fresh ethnic and fresh gourmet dishes. One can choose from produce grown within a 60-mile radius, thereby helping farmers to survive and allowing people to have fresh fruits and vegetables all year long. Much of this produce is organic or unsprayed. It is beautiful to see all the different customers, young and old, sharing the weekly ritual of purchasing produce, fruit, fresh bread and wines of Northern California in a market atmosphere.


Ann Arbor, Mich.

I can’t imagine that I am the only one who has mentioned Zingerman’s: a deli, bakery and food emporium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember well my first taste of a Georgia Reuben (turkey breast, Swiss cheese and cole slaw grilled on a crusty sourdough rye) in the spring of 1982 and have been hooked ever since. The business has expanded into a much larger gourmet deli with numerous sandwich combos, salads, fresh cheeses, all kinds of olive oil, mustard etc., as well as a thriving mail order business and a more upscale restaurant on the other side of town. But my favorite is still the Georgia Reuben, usually split in half with a friend.


Austin, Tex.

Trader Joe’s is my favorite food place, despite the fact that it has only mediocre produce. It has thoughtful and humorous advertising, offbeat products, and lots of attention to nutrition and wholesome ingredients–all of which fit a modern lifestyle well. They usually have a good selection of relatively inexpensive wines, not the least of which is the notorious Two Buck Chuck.


Florence, Mass.

In Hadley, Massachusetts, there is an organization called the Food Bank Farm. The community-supported not-for-profit farm allows family members to purchase shares in the local organic farm. Half of the farm’s food is donated to Food Bank, which provides food for free to the low-income families in the area. The other half of the food is consumed by the people who purchase shares. It’s a win-win situation for people in need, for the land and for the shareholders who receive a bounty of organic food.


Ad Policy