When Whole Foods announced last year that it would open a super store in Portland, just blocks from its haute-crunchy competitors Wild Oats and Hannaford, there was considerable talk about how many organic markets the Bayside neighborhood could support. Was there some vast, unmet need for Kashi of which we were unaware? The news that the Whole Foods chain is purchasing Wild Oats for $565 million — and will eventually close one of its two Portland stores — doesn't extinguish the question, but it lowers the heat to simmer.
Of course, the bigger news here is the mainstreaming of organic food into Maine culture. When a group of back-to-the-landers founded the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in 1971, they were derided as kooks by traditional farmers and grocers. Today, we praise them as visionaries. Thanks to those "longhaired hippies," our diets are healthier, our state is less polluted, and our family farmers still stand a chance against the crushing forces of agribusiness. For these achievements, we're presenting MOFGA with our annual Down East Environmental Award.
But MOFGA's accomplishments will be short-lived if agricultural lobbyists succeed in undercutting federal rules for organic products. And Americans still need to be won over to the idea of eating locally as well as organically. Mainers spend upwards of $50 million a week, or close to $3 billion a year, on food. Guess how much of that money goes to Maine farmers? Only 4 percent. Wouldn't it be nice to keep more of those dollars instate?
Given our location at the end of America's food pipeline, there are also strong environmental arguments for supporting Maine's family farmers. The ingredients for the average American meal travel over 1,500 miles on average from field to fork, using up to seventeen times more fossil fuels than foods sourced locally. In an article in Slate magazine, I read of shoppers at Whole Foods' flagship store in New York City browsing under a banner that lists "Reasons To Buy Organic." The first reason: "Save Energy."
My wife and I visited Portland's Whole Foods within a few days of its grand opening. The parking lot was packed. The vibe inside was hip and festive. Behind the checkout registers, I noticed gigantic posters from past Common Ground Fairs. I studied them while the clerk rang up our pears. The sticker on the pear read: "Product of Chile."