A hunger for food knowledge

More local consumers are asking questions about what goes into the things they eat

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

To learn more

Want more information on the people, businesses and issues in this story? Here are some websites to visit:

Karen and Casey Puyleart’s blog, Purely Primal.

Matt and Jen Schwab, Inspiration Plantation.

www.newseasonsmarket.com/our-story/welcome#gmo-foods-and-you; New Seasons Market, non-GMO labeling.

Initiative 522, Washington Secretary of State.

Salmon Creek Farmers’ Market.

Vancouver Farmers Market.

What it costs

More people are expressing interest in locally produced food, organic food, pasture-raised meat and poultry, and food free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But buying those items can cost more than conventional food.

Here are the price differences for a few items at New Seasons Market in Fisher’s Landing:

Milk

A half gallon of Portland-based Alpenrose brand 2 percent milk costs $2.79. A half gallon of Organic Valley brand 2 percent organic milk, which comes from Northwest farms, is $4.49.

Eggs

• The New Seasons brand of Pacific Northwest-grown eggs has two options. A dozen white, cage-free and antibiotic-free eggs costs $2.99. A dozen brown, free-range, organic eggs is $4.99.

• A dozen eggs from Inspiration Plantation — which are pasture-raised and given organic, GMO-free feed — costs $7.39.

Chicken

A New Seasons brand free-range chicken costs $2.49 per pound. A pasture-raised chicken, given GMO-free and soy-free feed, from Botany Bay Farm in Brush Prairie costs $4.99 per pound at the store.

Blueberries

A 6-ounce container of organic blueberries, grown in Washington, costs $4.99 (83 cents per ounce). An 18-ounce container of nonorganic blueberries, grown in Oregon, costs $7.99 (44 cents per ounce).

Did you know?

U.S. organic food sales are climbing. In 2004, organic food sales totaled about $11 billion. In 2012, sales were up to $27 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Five years ago, Karen and Casey Puyleart were WinCo Foods regulars.

The La Center couple shopped at the self-described "Supermarket Low Price Leader" because its groceries were inexpensive. They bought processed snack foods, such as Goldfish crackers and graham crackers, for their two daughters. They made tacos, lasagna and other dinner staples. Occasionally, they visited a fast food restaurant for dinner.

But those diet and shopping habits are long gone.

Today, the Puylearts eat mostly seasonal vegetables they purchase through community supported agriculture, or CSA, programs offered at Clark County farms. They eat grass-fed beef and pork raised in Eastern Oregon and Ridgefield. They purchase eggs from pasture-raised chickens in Ridgefield.

The change was sparked by Karen Puyleart's curiosity about food. The more she learned, the more she was convinced her family needed to make some changes.

"Once you have more knowledge, it's hard to go back to the way it was," she said.

The Puylearts aren't the only family taking an interest in the food they're putting on the dinner table.

Local farmers, grocers, farmers market directors and regional food system advocates say consumers are asking more questions than ever.

They want to know how their meat is raised and what it's fed. They want to know if seeds are free of genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. They want to know whether their produce is grown at local farms.

"People want to know what they're putting in their bodies," said Ryan Pullar, produce manager at New Seasons Market in Fisher's Landing. "People ask more questions because of that. They want to be informed."

The theories on what's behind the growing food consciousness in Clark County — and across the country — are wide ranging.

Documentaries examining our food sources are growing in popularity. Widespread food safety scares raise questions. Media attention surrounding the discovery of unapproved genetically modified crops causes outrage. Concerns about the health of Americans are spurring action.

But perhaps the most basic reason: They're becoming more knowledgeable about food.

Inspiration Plantation

Matt Schwab's quest for information led to the birth of Inspiration Plantation, a diversified family farm he and his wife, Jen, run in Ridgefield.

Matt Schwab has long had an interest in food and nutrition. He read labels. He avoided high-fructose corn syrup.

But then he read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. In the book, Pollan follows several food chains — industrial food, organic food and food people forage themselves — from source to final meal.

"That book reaffirmed my thoughts," Schwab said. "It's Pandora's box once you open it up and start wondering about where your food comes from."

After reading the book, Schwab did more research and read books by Joel Salatin, a farmer prominently featured in Pollan's book. The research convinced Schwab he should invest his time and energy in growing and raising food for his family.

The Schwabs decided to sell their Portland home and build on family-owned property in Ridgefield. They built a road, constructed a house and a barn, and put in a well.

"The next thing I know, I was buying chickens," Schwab said.

In 2009, the Schwabs started Inspiration Plantation with six egg-laying chickens and 150 meat birds. Matt Schwab taught himself how to butcher chickens with books and YouTube videos.

The next year, Inspiration Plantation had 59 egg-laying chickens, 800 meat birds, 15 turkeys for Thanksgiving, four pigs and eight lambs. They've continued to grow their farm each year since in order to keep up with demand.

Inspiration Plantation specializes in pasture-raised chicken, turkey and pork and grass-fed lamb and beef.

The animals are moved to fresh pasture regularly. Turkeys, chickens and pigs eat certified organic, GMO-free feed. The Schwabs use organic methods to grow fruits and vegetables.

At the farm, the Schwabs sell shares of meat and produce through their community supported agriculture and pasture programs. Earlier this year, they opened the Inspiration Plantation FarmStore. There, they sell meat, produce, eggs and other goods. About 90 to 95 percent of their sales are directly to consumers, Jen Schwab said. They also sell some of their meat and eggs to local stores, such as New Seasons.

When people visit Inspiration Plantation, they have lots of questions for the Schwabs. But mostly, they just want to see where their food is coming from, Matt Schwab said.

"People have an ideal and want to make sure it's true," he said.

They want to see chickens running around. They want to see pigs digging their snouts into the dirt. They want to hear the farmer say GMOs aren't used.

"I'm just glad people are curious," Matt Schwab added. "They just need to keep asking questions."

Questions for grocers

At New Seasons, produce manager Pullar regularly fields customer questions. Sometimes customers want to know which city, or on which farm, their food is grown. Sometimes they just want to hear the word "local," Pullar said.

More recently, questions about GMOs have been pouring in. Customers ask whether the corn sold in the store is non-GMO. They want to know if packaged foods contain GMOs.

"It seems to be more of an issue than I've ever seen," Pullar said.

In response, New Seasons has labeled every verified non-GMO product in its stores. At the Fisher's Landing store, that's more than 3,500 products, said Marta Majewska, the store manager.

The GMO initiative on this November's ballot has gotten people talking even more, Majewska said. If approved, Initiative 522 would require most foods produced using genetic engineering to be labeled as such.

But customer interest isn't limited to local produce and GMOs. Lately, customers have also been asking about the animals, Majewska said. They've taken an interest in pasture-raised beef and chicken. They want to know if the animals are fed grains, if they're given hormones, she said.

Eggs from pasture-raised chickens have also become increasingly popular, she said.

New Seasons gets its pasture-raised eggs from Inspiration Plantation. The eggs sell for $7.39 a dozen. Other eggs at the store sell for $2.99. Despite the cost difference, the Inspiration Plantation eggs are a big seller, Majewska said.

"We can't keep them on the shelf," she said.

While some may scoff at paying the high price, Majewska said the eggs are a perfect example of the community support behind local, GMO-free foods.

Buying local

Farmers markets — a popular venue for direct farmer-to-consumer sales — are also benefiting from the increased interest in locally produced food.

The Camas Farmer's Market, a midweek event, is seeing a slight uptick in attendance numbers, but officials estimate the market season will end with a 22 percent increase in sales. The final day of the market is Oct. 9.

The situation is similar in Salmon Creek. The Salmon Creek Farmers' Market, which has two midweek events, saw a slight increase in attendance numbers this year but overall sales increased by about 17 percent.

Ann Foster, director of the Salmon Creek Farmers' Market, is not only seeing more customers but more interaction between customers and farmers.

"The customers can be a little critical, but they're asking for the right reason," Foster said.

The increasing amount of fresh, local products available at farmers markets is helping to draw in more customers, said Jordan Boldt, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Market.

Shoppers often said they would like to buy certain items at the market, such as strawberries, but needed to go to grocery stores for other necessities, Boldt said. For them, the fresh produce wasn't worth making two stops, he said. But as markets grow, people find they can buy more items off their grocery lists at markets, Boldt said.

The shrinking price difference has also helped, said Eileen Cowen, director of the now-defunct Urban Growers Market, a small-scale farmers market that focused on backyard gardening. People may still go to the grocery store because it's more convenient, but they could purchase the same food for similar cost at a market, she said.

Cowen, a mother of three, said her kids can "destroy a flat of berries." But she would rather spend the money on better-tasting berries from a local farmers market than on berries shipped across the country.

"I feel like it's worth putting money out," she said.

But now, even the big grocers are jumping on board and offering more local products.

Grocers such as Fred Meyer, Walmart, Safeway and Albertsons now display signs encouraging shoppers to "meet the farmer." They advertise local produce. Their organic food sections are growing. They are purchasing highway billboards to promote their local selections.

"It's become kind of romantic to promote local produce," Boldt said.

A way of life

For Karen and Casey Puyleart, buying local and organic food has become a way of life. The family tries to get the most value out of what they're putting into their bodies and appreciates knowing where their food comes from, Casey Puyleart said.

"And knowing that the food you're eating had the opportunity to eat what they were meant to eat," he said.

One of the goals for Matt and Jen Schwab at Inspiration Plantation is to share that knowledge with families like the Puylearts.

"That's what a lot of this is about, is the truth," Jen Schwab said.

That quest for information is, after all, how the Schwabs came to start Inspiration Plantation.

"Ninety-nine percent of people have no clue," Matt Schwab said. "You can be an informed shopper and have no clue."

"I wanted to know more," he said. "I didn't want to delegate. I wanted to be knee-deep in it, literally, at times."


Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.