Those who appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a pyramid of perfectly–piled red tomatoes might go weak in the knees at the palette of edible color on display at 2 p.m. every other Thursday in an unassuming warehouse space off Waters Avenue.
Golden Vidalia onions nestled together in mesh bags, deep green bunches of curly–leafed kale, regal purple eggplants, rosy pink potatoes, indigo stacks of blueberries — it’s a feast for the eyes that will very quickly become parts of actual feasts.
The minute the doors open at the Savannah Food Co–op’s bimonthly storefront, the rainbow of fruits and vegetables begin to disappear into canvas bags and soft coolers wielded by Co–op members, all eager to collect their organic and locally–sourced bounty.
“I so look forward to Co–op days,” says Paula Kreissler, a local business owner and sustainability student who’s been a member since last March. “I’m big on buying local, and it’s just amazing to see all these fresh, organic vegetables from nearby farms.”
Every two weeks, farmers drop off their wares in the morning as volunteers organize, readying the “store” for members who have placed their orders up to two weeks in advance online.
“It can be a challenge to figure out what I want to cook a week beforehand, but I make the time because I feel like this is the right thing to do,” says Kreissler.
The Co–op also consolidates fresh produce from a variety of sources, allowing for people to have a level of eco–consciousness as well as convenience.
“We’ve always tried to eat sustainably and as locally as possible, but with three kids, it’s hard to drive to a bunch of different farmstands,” says Heather Thompson, a Co–op regular who moved to Savannah three years ago. “This is so much easier. Plus, it helps us eat what’s in season.”
Conceived in 2007 by a trio of moms seeking affordable organic options in a land without a Whole Foods Market or a Trader Joe’s, the Savannah Food Co–op launched its first pick–up of local vegetables, ground beef and milk for 20 families in May 2008.
Since then, the number of families served has grown to 200 and the variety of products has expanded to include the aforementioned paradise of produce, artisan cheeses, free range eggs, pasture–raised meat, wild–caught seafood (including Alaskan salmon hooked by a local who travels north twice a year), raw honey (from hives possibly pollinated with the same flowers in your backyard), locally–roasted free–trade coffee, dry goods like granola and nuts, natural cleaning products and beauty items.
“We’ve come a long way with what we can offer, and our goal is ‘grow more,”’ says Carmen Vazquez, who along with partners Melissa Beauchamp and Julie Scott, coordinates and manages the Co–op’s orders, vendors and volunteers.
Thanks to an upswing of available information in the last decade, most of us are aware of the benefits of buying organic: Less toxins and pesticides going into our bodies, a more ethical treatment of animals, support of farmers and ranchers using methods that don’t degrade the environment or human labor.
The downside is that these positive practices often translate into higher costs for the farmer, putting a higher price tag on organics in a retail setting and giving organic a reputation for being “elitist” or only for those with money to burn.
Through partnering directly with farmers as well as established organic distributors, the Co–op is able to keep the prices of organic products comparable to their conventional counterparts. Costs are also kept low by a yearly fee ($24) that goes towards rent and the many refrigerators and freezers needed to store perishables.
While Savannah’s sustainably–minded community does support a natural foods store and a seasonal farmers’ market, the Co–op provides more options for more people.
“Everyone should have access to clean, sustainably–raised food,” says Vazquez, whose skills acquired working in the non–profit sector are put to good use at the Co–op. “We want to make it accessible to middle–class Savannah.”
“We realized that in order to have this for ourselves we had to provide it for others,” adds Scott, a native of Columbia, S.C., who moved to Savannah in 2006. “It’s become a very meaningful part of our lives.”
The three managers all have small children, and there is a cozy, “mother hen” conviviality that arises as the Thursday market revs into full swing.
Parents collect bags of quinoa while little ones draw rainbows on construction paper in the dedicated kid space.
Volunteers clad in white aprons swish by carrying boxes and delving into refrigerators full of carefully categorized dairy items.
Members greet each other and trade recipes as they sort through baskets to fill their own orders.
“I’ve been thrilled to be a part of this going on three years,” says Ginger West, a Wilmington Island resident and one of the Co–op’s earliest members. “It makes me feel connected to a community of like–minded people, and of course, the food tastes great.”
Part of the sense of community is fostered by the relationships the Co–op has with the farmers, notes Beauchamp, the designated “tech wizard” responsible for the website’s streamlined ordering system.
“It’s so gratifying to know the people who grow your food,” she says. “We have one farmer who drives her truck here herself.”
The Co–op’s mission is to source USDA–designated organic and all–natural (raised without pesticides, hormones or antibiotics) items as locally as possible, though that can sometimes be more of an ideal than reality, evidenced by a gorgeous pile of organic mangoes from Mexico.
“We work hard to get what we can regionally, but we also want to provide our members with variety,” explains Beauchamp.
A few tiptoes of carbon footprinting aside, the Co–op remains true to its commitment to sustainable farming and healthy lifestyle as it has expanded.
The recently updated website allows easy sign–up and faster ordering as well as a forum to share comments, recipes and information about vendors.
In addition to constantly sourcing new products and produce, the managers have also added options for pre–sorted orders and late pick–ups for busy members, while those with napping children can utilize the drive–up service.
“We listen to our members as well as think about what we want for our own families,” says Scott as she rings up a member’s cornucopia on a laptop.
“It’s much more than just grocery shopping.”
For more information, see savannahfoodcoop.com