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EARTHWATCH

Growth Spurt : County consumers buck national trends in their increasing demand for organic foods.

March 04, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Organic (food) sales in conventional supermarkets have been a bust," reported thS. grocery trade magazine The Packer last week. But Ventura County consumers seem to be ignoring the suggestion that nobody is interested in food produced in an environmentally friendly way.

Local storekeepers who specialize in foods without added chemicals, pesticides and artificial fertilizers--foods that include produce, cereals, juices, soups and even organically raised beef--are experiencing a boom.

"Sales in our Thousand Oaks store are up more than 14% over the same time last year," reports Sandy Gooch, founder of the seven-store Mrs. Gooch's chain of health food markets. She went on to say that sales for years at her sole Ventura County site lagged behind her stores in Los Angeles County. "It took people (in this county) a long time to get acquainted with the concept," she said.

But lately, Thousand Oaks folks have made the Mrs. Gooch's store in their neighborhood the fastest growing one she has. Her gross annual sales from all seven stores totaled $85 million in 1992; she expects sales of $90 million in 1993.

This rising tide must be raising all ships because Lassen's health food stores, active in the same area as well as in Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura, are also prospering.

"January was our highest month ever," Peter Lassen said. Speaking of organic health food suppliers who sell to his and other stores, he added: "They've really improved on the taste. . . . They've done wonderful things. Prices have come down and supplies are up."

I noticed this myself at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim last week. When samples are free for the asking, it's easier to get over the unfamiliar look and labeling. So I had a wonderful time stuffing my face, like the proverbial kid locked overnight in the candy store. All the while, of course, I was telling myself that I was saving the planet. You can judge for yourself if you swing by a place like Mrs. Gooch's or Lassen's or any big health food store that doesn't just dabble in such wares.

You might also discover, as I did, that it's not a complete ecological no-no to eat beefsteak. Cholesterol is something you'll have to discuss with your doctor. Only some people are up to their limit and at risk in this respect.

I learned from John Robbins, the author of "Diet for a New America," a classic anti-meat text, that there are methods of raising beef that are not destructive to the Earth. "If I did eat any beef, it would be the kind Mel Coleman raises," said Robbins, referring to cattle whose diet is governed by extensive range-management methods.

By coincidence, the methods he invokes--as practiced by the Coleman Natural Beef Co.--are being discussed this very week in Washington at the Department of the Interior. This brand of beef is already on sale at Mrs. Gooch's and Lassen's.

There's another local connection: Ventura County resident Kevin Sweeney, an environmentalist and aide to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Sweeney briefed me on the phone from Washington. Cattle range-management methods that are "benevolent" (his term) to the public lands that Interior leases to cattlemen might be rewarded with U. S. government incentives if the rent is raised on the vast ranges Interior owns.

The natural food market concept that Sandy Gooch mentioned really boils down to one thing: education. Referring to the baby-boom generation, she noted: "Younger people can think beyond their prior conditioning about taste being based on high fat and high salt."

And also color and size, I might add. Some of the organic produce available still looks less dramatic than the big, waxed, uniformly sized stuff in the supermarkets. But it usually tastes better. Nationwide, sales of such produce have doubled--from $2.5 billion to $5 billion in the last 10 years, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine.

Gooch operates "demonstration centers" in her stores. "When customers become educated they don't leave us," she said.

At least that's the case with 8% of the grocery-buying public living within 10 miles of the Thousand Oaks store.

Eight percent? I wanted to put that in perspective, so I dug into the national sales statistics for health food stores. Big as those billion-dollar figures may sound, they're only 1% of American grocery sales.

So if the Thousand Oaks area has taken to buying eight times the national average of that sort of groceries, I think we've gotten the "concept."

FYI

For readers who are interested in shopping for organic food--especially baked or canned goods made from organic products--but don't want to go driving across the county, you can shop by mail. "The Consumer's Organic Mail-Order Directory" has just been published in Davis, Calif., and lists more than 140 farmers and wholesalers of organic food nationwide who want to ship directly to your home or office. Call (800) 756 8518.

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