Archive for February, 2012

February 16, 2012

Redefining Convenience at the Organic Corner Market

The Organic Corner Market on River RoadDown the street from my house, next to the auto body shop and across the road from what my neighbor coyly refers to as the “naughty bookstore” is a small corner market. Now, you may be envisioning a 7-11 or similar joint, a reliable place to find chips, candy, cheap beer, and maybe a jug of milk, but this is a different sort of bodega.

My neighborhood lies between the center and the outskirts of Eugene – sort of a petticoat layer. It’s cut off from the center of town by the railroad tracks and bisected by the busy commercial corridor of River Road, which eventually leads you out of the city and into picturesque farmland where goats may roam. If it weren’t for our corner store, it could probably be called a food desert, especially for the many in the neighborhood who don’t drive.

In this very mixed residential zone, where one neighbor is building his own greenhouse and another distributes literature on the Second Coming, a run to corner market will not yield any kind of processed foods, unless you count locally milled flour. The friendly green building only offers fresh, antioxidant-loaded treats – all locally grown. That’s because this market is supplied by a handful of local food producers, chiefly Sweet Leaf Farm’s Penny Tyrell.

Fresh produce is the ultimate snack food, meal food, and survival food, and it seems that people in my neighborhood agree. Here, Penny literally found a niche in the market to peddle everything from pumpkins to flowers. The Organic Corner Market, as it’s officially known, has also become something of a community gathering spot, a place to carve pumpkins and run into your neighbor when fetching a last-minute item for dinner.

Detroit Fresh Healthy Bodega

Detroit Fresh - Urban convenience store offering fresh produce

While Penny has been building her market in my neighborhood, a Healthy Corner Market movement has been gaining speed across North America. Convenience store owners are tapping into the new market of health-conscious shoppers by offering fresh produce alongside Doritos and Pepsi. It’s hard to tell how many stores are doing it, but the industry is definitely catching on, with a little help from community grants and government programs like WIC, which offers food assistance to low-income mothers.

In Eugene, one organization, the Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth, convinced a branch of the local convenience store chain Dari Mart to park a produce truck with fresh veggies in front of one of its stores once a week all summer long. Customers lined up around the corner. Another mini martoff the freeway has been offering fresh, local and organic versions of the typical truck-stop options, to go with its plant-based ethanol and bio-diesel fuel.

The Organic Corner Market isn’t associated with the Healthy Corner Market initiative or any traditional convenience store, but seems to be approaching the quick-stop retail model from the opposite direction. Starting with fresh fruits and vegetables, it grew to offer a selection of locally produced foods like tuna, grain products and bread, plus flowers, seeds, and seedlings. It’s more than a farm stand, but not a place to find condoms and cigarettes, either.

The Organic Corner Market in February

The Organic Corner Market in February

I got hooked on the Corner Market this summer when I first moved to the neighborhood. Having the best quality organic produce a two minutes’ walk from my kitchen was a luxury I’d never experienced before, and I dreaded the onset of winter more than usual. When October rolled around, I casually asked the guy behind the counter when the market would close for the season. With kind matter-of-factness, he informed me, “We don’t really close.”

“What?” I said. “How will you keep this up?” I indicated the bins of fresh salad greens, ripe tomatoes, crisp apples and bright flowers.
He just smiled mysteriously. “We’ll be closed for the holidays, but we plan to open back up in January.”

Honestly, I didn’t really believe him. Come December, the market looked as deserted as my garden beds. I settled myself in for a long winter of trekking downtown or up River Road to the chain supermarket for groceries.

I wasn’t giving local farmers enough credit. In mid-January, I spotted the Corner Market’s colorfully hand-painted sandwich board sign out by the road. I went in immediately, not sure what to expect. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the garage-like structure, I started seeing food, and a decent amount of it. Greens, leeks, carrots, squash, garlic, potatoes, and the locally milled grains they started carrying this summer. Penny was behind the counter.
“This your first week back?” I asked.
“Nope. Third.”
“Wow,” was all I could say. Then I started picking out some thick, gorgeous leeks to take home.

I came back the next week to chat with Penny more (they’re just open on Wednesdays for now, more days as the season progresses). Penny sorts winter squash as I chat with her. Very moldy ones go in a box for compost. Slightly moldy in a different box for the cook at the local Mission, who is a big fan of her produce.
“Last summer, he took an entire box of wilted basil, pureed it, and put it in his freezer,” she says. “I asked him if he could use any more; he said he’d take all I’ve got.”

That’s the general neighborhood attitude toward the market, now in its fourth year. The fact that they’re out here in the middle of winter selling whatever they can grow speaks both to the strength of the local market and Penny’s dedication to her customers.

“I live here. I’m into it.” In fact, Penny lives right around the corner from the Market. Her 40-acre farm is a few miles up River Road. Although Sweet Leaf Farm sells produce at several farmers’ markets in the region, she has an obvious preference for selling at the Corner Market.

It all started, she tells me, with pumpkins.

Organic Corner Market pumpkins

Organic Corner Market pumpkins. It takes a neighborhood to carve an army of disembodied gourd-heads.

Pumpkins are a challenge for truck farmers like Penny. They’re big, difficult to move, and people don’t pay a lot of money for them. But Penny’s a pumpkin fan, especially when it comes to carving them. One day in the fall of 2008, she pulled a truck full of pumpkins into the empty parking lot across from the adult shop, and people began buying them. The owners of the lot eventually allowed her to store some produce on site, which eliminated the hassle of moving the heavy squash to and fro. Penny decided to move in for good.

“The people who run the adult shop were my first customers,” Penny says with a smile. She traded with other neighbors for most of the work on her building. The window installer, the concrete pourer, the painter – they all got fresh produce, and she now has an eye-catching green building that has become a local landmark.

On a summer evening, it’s easy to find friends and neighbors shopping at the Corner Market, and she stays open late around Halloween for people to stop by and carve a pumpkin, building the massive display in the parking lot.

Penny’s plans include building a stage in the lot for summer concerts and to and expand her selection to better cater to “produce emergencies”.
“What’s that?” I ask, envisioning a soup flood or carrot in the eye.
“You know, when you run out of garlic or something.”

Regional suppliers are ready to meet the demand for fresh food, emergency or otherwise. Already, Penny offers tuna from a fish processor on the Oregon coast, seeds from Peace Seeds, grains from Camas Country Mill, and specialty produce from various growers. The bread is made at Sweetwater Farm and has been such a big hit that I’ve never seen it on the shelf – it sells out within the hour.

Supply has been matching demand. Penny doesn’t do any marketing because word of mouth is enough.
“The people that want it, know about it,” she says with a smile. “The people who stumble upon it, love it.”

About two miles up River Road, Dari Mart sells malt liquor at $1.39 per 22 oz bottle, and though they do stock local milk (not hard to do in Oregon), produce hasn’t yet made it onto the shelves. On the Healthy Corner Market website, convenience store owners in several case studies cited customer demand as a key reason they began stocking fresh produce. In an urban – or suburban – food desert, even a few apples or salad greens can make a big difference to those with limited shopping options. For me, it’s great comfort to know I’ll never be out of garlic as long as Penny and her fellow growers are down the street.