Organic for life

Grace Dobush

Working at the Kent Natural Foods Co-op is a family affair

Kim Plough and Jeff Ingrim, owner members of the Kent Natural Foods Co-Op on East Main Street, work the counter of the store.

Credit: Andrew popik

The air conditioning in the Kent Natural Foods Co-op smells like exotic spices. Buckwheat toaster waffles sit in a freezer next to jars of fresh bee pollen. As you pick up some organic cookies, you can join a discussion about free speech.

Just mind the toddler underfoot.

Regulars don’t come to the Co-op only for the earth-friendly foods — the sense of community in this little shop on East Main Street is just as important.

Arnie and Fred Pierre are fixtures at the Kent Natural Foods Co-op, and their 1-year-old, Lucas, often accompanies them to work.

Arnie has worked at the Co-op for about 12 years and knows all the regular customers’ names. Fred has worked there for about six years and has a fuzzy beard and long hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. His eyes crinkle when he grins, which he does constantly.

This Saturday afternoon, it’s about to rain, and a person comes in to say a Toyota is about to be rained into. It’s Fred’s, and another customer offers to go close it for him because he has to watch the counter.

As it begins to pour outside, three different conversations are going on between employees and customers waiting out the rain. Lucas pushes around a toy shopping cart, occasionally bumping into the feet of customers.

The Co-op’s childcare policy is relaxed — workers are welcome to bring their children to work with them.

The business

Can I speak with the manager?

That would be no one and everyone. The Kent Natural Foods Co-op is co-managed and co-owned by its members. Arnie estimates there are about 1,300 members, who each pays a refundable membership fee, and about a dozen paid staffers like her and Fred.

Members can attend general meetings, where they each have a vote in the operation of the store; big decisions must be unanimous. Members also get 5 percent off their purchases, plus 1 percent for every hour they volunteer at the store, up to 25 percent.

If a member watches the children of someone working at the store, that also counts as volunteer hours. They also honor the discounts of other co-ops; Fred calls this “co-op unity.”

The Co-op doesn’t have nonprofit tax status, but it does follow a not-for-profit model.

“We’ll put any money we have — doesn’t happen very often — back into the store,” Fred said.

Many of the purchases are small, but some members do all their shopping at the Co-op. This Saturday, the average purchase so far is $9.76.

Fred doesn’t think the big grocery store chains’ organic sections pose much of a threat to the store because the Co-op offers more specialty items.

“I don’t think it’s a big competition, but it may introduce people to the products,” he said, adding that the big chains’ organic sections might lead people to the Co-op.

A mini-crisis happens — a paper bag holding ground coffee has split on the counter. Fred quickly puts it inside a plastic bag and offers the customer a discount for the tablespoon of coffee that spilled out.

The food

A good portion of the Co-op’s offerings are organic and include everything from fresh produce and spices to cookies and frozen foods. The many offerings for vegetarians and other people with special dietary needs were recently augmented by a gluten-free section.

Co-op workers tend to sell the product that the most people can eat. For example, if two versions of the same product are available, and one is organic, they’ll usually pick the organic version. They steer clear of foods with genetically modified ingredients and hydrogenated oils and sell only milk without the bovine growth hormone.

Arnie said she’s tasted almost everything in the store so she feels comfortable selling it all. She and Fred encourage people to eat whole foods, which are simple and unprocessed.

“Our whole-wheat tortillas are wheat and water. That’s it,” Arnie said.

Fred said there are reasons to eat organic for the land itself, explaining that using pesticides and herbicides “burn” the land.

“We find organic produce often looks bigger and healthier,” he said.

Lucas sits on Fred’s lap behind the counter and plays with the price scanner. “Hey, don’t be flashing yourself with the laser, dude,” Fred says to him.

A stool next to the front counter provides a place to rest and to enjoy a ginger beer and conversation with whomever is working the cash register.

Kent resident Darrell Ulm said he’s been shopping at the Co-op for years. Ulm looks younger than 37 — perhaps that can be attributed to Newman-Os, a vegan version of Oreos that he calls “junk food from heaven.”

Ulm and his wife, Emily, chatted with Arnie as they unloaded their groceries on the counter.

“These days, there aren’t too many stores where you know everyone,” Arnie said.

“Connections are made here. I call it ‘the hub.’”

Contact Grace Dobush at [email protected].