Saturday, March 25, 2017

Independent WV grocers bringing food to small communities


So, I wrote this column for the WV Gazette-Mail because I love local grocers, and I made a separate page so you can check them out, and I will hopefully visit all of them in the near future: <3 a="" grocers="" local="">

The shop is full of lush greens, bright red apples and bundles of multi-colored carrots, all grown from a farm down the road. You can find your next-door neighbor working behind the register. And, it’s all located just around the corner from home.

Independent groceries are growing in West Virginia and fulfilling a need for fresh, local produce in many areas that may otherwise be considered food deserts — where healthy food is limited.

“Every viable township and/or city deserves to have their own grocery and/or market,” said Justin Doak, co-founder of Front Street Grocers in Thomas, along with Trevor Reichman, Corey Bonasso and Eva Gutierrez. “Thomas is reclaiming its place once again as a viable activity center — both in the arts and basic community services/needs. We have a surprising amount of businesses for a town of 500 residents, and a grocery store was a missing piece.”

A small, thriving community often has a few signature shops — maybe a restaurant, sometimes a hardware store, probably a pharmacy, a post office and a grocery store.

But oftentimes the nearest grocery store in West Virginia is 20 or more miles away, creating what the USDA defines as a food desert — an area where people don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. The USDA estimates people in most counties in West Virginia have some limited food access.

Enter local, independent groceries like Front Street Grocers, The Wild Ramp (Huntington), Alderson Green Grocer (Alderson), Highland Food & Farm Market (Davis), The Market Place (Philippi), Farmer’s Daughter Market & Butcher (Capon Bridge), Fish Hawk Acres (Buckhannon), and more.

These markets — whether co-ops, locally owned or nonprofit — not only support local farmers, but they also provide the community with year-round, convenient access to other healthy food and items carefully selected to fulfill the needs of the community. And the community has a responsibility to support them in return.

“We currently source local cheese, syrup, honey, greens, all of our chicken, beef and pork, winter squash, and winter storage vegetables from a mix of local farmers and growers,” Doak said. “We have nearly 1,000 different items in our store. ... We seek product attributes such as organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO, fair-trade, pastured and/or good land stewardship practices.

“We aim to do our best to bring in the best, filter out the bad and strike a balance with value so that what we source is accessible to our community.”

And, beyond enjoying a carefully curated product mix, there are other benefits you receive when you shop at a locally owned grocery store:

Relationships: You know these people selling you this food. They want to do right by you, and you have an easy opportunity to request specific items, unlike at a large chain store.

Health: These smaller stores have your health in mind, rather than the shelf life of a product. Health and nutrition are often at the forefront, and that leaves you with better options.

Convenience: You don’t need to make a weekly grocery run for everything you need. Instead, you can stop for a few minutes every day or two to get what you need at peak freshness. And that leads to less food waste.

Community: You’re putting your money directly back into the local economy. No huge chunks are heading to a corporate headquarters outside of the state.

Starting a local grocery store is tough. There are infrastructure renovations, health code requirements, expensive equipment, utilities, payroll and stock to consider. And that sometimes translates to slightly higher prices for a higher-quality product.

The benefit we receive, as a community, though, is exponential. Supporting these small, independent shops sets the tone for how we shop in West Virginia. And, with the rise of these smaller independent stores, we have an opportunity to change where our money goes, what food we eat and how we grow together.

“A local grocery is established to support the community, and in return, the support is given back. It takes both to tango in this business, but [the grocery store] has to lead,” Doak said. “Food is and will always be a pulse of a community or region. ... We might not have everything someone wants, but we will have everything someone needs.”
Fire-roasted Buddha Bowl

This flavorful, filling 30-minute Buddha Bowl with roasted sweet potatoes or yams, onion, kale, crispy chickpeas, a tahini maple sauce, and topped with kraut is a Front Street Grocers specialty. This healthy, nutrient-rich dish is representative of the types of dishes during their Saturday kitchen service, and while they rarely make the same thing twice, this recipe is a keeper.

Best when fresh, though leftovers will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Serves 4 to 6.

4 tablespoons olive, coconut or avocado oil

1 red onion, sliced in wedges

4 large sweet potatoes, halved

2 bundles broccoli, chopped

1 large or 2 bundles of kale, stem removed and chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper

2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained, rinsed, patted dry

2 teaspoons cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

kraut for garnish

Tahini sauce (optional)

1/2 cup tahini

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 lemon, juiced

4-6 tablespoons hot water to thin

Sriracha sauce to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 400-degrees and arrange sweet potatoes and onions on a bare baking sheet.

Drizzle both with a bit of oil, making sure the flesh of the sweet potatoes are well-coated and placed skin side down on the sheet.

Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from oven, flip sweet potatoes and add broccoli.

Drizzle broccolini with a bit of oil and season with a pinch each salt and pepper.

Bake for another 8 to 10 minutes, then remove from oven and add kale.

Drizzle kale with a touch more oil and season with a pinch each salt and pepper.

Bake for another 4 to 5 minutes then set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add chickpeas to a mixing bowl and toss with seasonings.

Add 1 tablespoon oil and chickpeas and saute, stirring frequently. If they’re browning too quickly, turn down heat. If there isn’t much browning going on, increase heat. About 10 minutes total at slightly over medium heat is the sweet spot.

Remove browned and fragrant chickpeas from heat and set aside.

Prepare sauce by adding tahini, maple syrup and lemon juice to a mixing bowl and whisking to combine.

Add hot water until a pourable sauce is formed.

Set aside.

Slice sweet potatoes into bite size pieces.

Divide vegetables between 3 serving bowls and top with chickpeas and tahini sauce.