Monday, January 8, 2007

Two for the trail

This article will appear in Macalester Today, our alumni magazine.

When news reached me last summer that Ari Ofsevit `06, a fellow Bostonian and geography major, was attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, I thought first of his collegiate devotion to GIS computer mapping and cross-country skiing. I also thought that to begin just after graduation in early June was foolish; most thru-hikers, as they’re called, start before April to avoid finishing the 2,176-mile journey in winter.

But I hoped that I would see Ari, whom I got to know well during a drive home from Mac a few years ago, at Mizpah Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where I was working another season in environmental education. The hut is only a couple hundred miles from the trail’s norhern terminus atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.

When Ari, having completed the bulk of the trail at a blistering pace, appeared in September—we nearly missed each other due to the difficulty in communication—he looked thinner than I remembered and bore the customary thru-hiker stink. But despite his 15-mile day, he brimmed with energy and opinions. Almost all thru-hikers take a trail name—his, he told me, was Ziploch. “That happened in southern Virginia,” he said. “I had dumped all my food out—everything was in a Ziploc bag—camera, lighters. A guy looked over and said, ‘You got a trail name yet?’" uch is the prevalence of Ziploc bags that the trail name recurs from year to year—misspelling it made it Ari’s own.

All thru-hikers delight in quirks and stories. As Ari puts it with typical frankness, “A lot of people [on the trail] are well balanced. But anyone who sets out to hike 2,200 miles is nuts. Every so often you snap back to reality when you meet a real loony.” At Mizpah, I heard stories about a thru-hiking family, a man looking for a wife on the trail, and a roving band of Mennonites—all of whom, to my surprise, eventually appeared.

The length and isolation of the AT make the trek a profound experience. Ari says, “There’s a mantra on the trail—hike your own hike. It’s a really good ethos and a hard one to adhere to.”

Since Ari started so late from the trail’s southern end in Georgia’s Springer Mountain, he hiked at a speedy clip to finish before winter. He reached Katahdin on Oct. 17, having encountered snow and sub-freezing temperatures. “I had people telling me you’re going too fast, you’re missing all the people. But that’s not what I wanted to do, what I set out to do.”

Along the way Ari encountered 13 bears, a bald eagle, two rattlesnakes (“I almost stepped on a third—I’m not sure if it was a rattlesnake or a copperhead”) and two moose (“when you’re in Maine and you hear something that sounds like Bigfoot, it’s a moose”). “I don’t miss having to carry my stove and my life, treating my water, tripping over roots,” he said. “I don’t miss the rainy days and the hot days. I miss the beautiful nights, having the weather and terrain playing such a big role in my life…. There were times I’d sit down for a half-hour and absorb things. It could be overwhelming.” (For Ari's Web site of his adventures on the AT, see

We spent the next night at Mizpah, where I introduced Ari to the rest of my croo (slang for staff in the huts, all eight of which are run by the Appalachian Mountain Club) and our cooking and food packing chores. Hut life is simple and repetitive, livened by irreverent banter, the immediacy of the weather and the delight of 60 guests when you present them with a surprise chocolate cake dessert. Both Ari and I are considering working in the White Mountains next summer.

By morning, the weather had turned raw as Ari headed on across the Presidential Range. But first, we shared that most pleasant aspect of the trail—an evening by the warm stove, telling stories and chewing over Macalester gossip while the cook prepared coffee cake and eggs for breakfast.

In the months since, I’ve missed the simplicity and sense of purpose I found working along the trail. The huts and the AT cannot exist by themselves; rather, they are a reservoir of tranquility when crowds and schedules threaten to overwhelm. Ari is heading off to Maine for work with the Quebec Labrador Foundation at the Center for Community GIS; at my current job selling outdoor equipment, I find myself contemplating a hut caretaking position for the spring. As Thoreau wrote, it offers, amid the delicate beauty of the changing seasons, the chance “to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life.”

Monday, January 1, 2007

Where are Boston's food co-ops?

According to, a treasure trove for finding organic and local food sources, only three food co-ops exist within Route 128—Harvest Co-op Markets in Jamaica Plain and Cambridge, and Good Health Natural Foods, Inc. in Quincy. Other northern cities such as St. Paul and Minneapolis or Seattle are home to 8 or 9 co-ops each. What is it about Boston that has hindered co-op development? Could it be a lack of appreciation among Bostonians for organic and local food? A reluctance to join? Competition from establishment stores such as Whole Foods? And why has Harvest Co-op, founded in the early seventies, survived?

Co-op markets became popular in the seventies when, seeking organic and local food that mainstream grocery stores rarely carried, customers banded together to create an alternative. Members enjoy relatively low prices through the co-op’s bulk purchase of high quality foodstuffs, and they also have a say in what products the store stocks. “Neighborhood people are our base,” says Chris Durkin, Director of Membership and Community Relations. Customers tend to be well-educated and affluent—as Durkin puts it, “There’s a knowledge and awareness.”

Harvest’s two branches started separately. Students at Boston University created a pre-order co-op, which later moved to Allston and finally, in 1998, to JP. The Cambridge store was founded by community activists with a Federal Model City Grant in 1975. When it nearly went bankrupt in 1992 following the move to its current location in Central Square, the Allston Store offered to help, and subsequently they joined for good.

Both co-op sites are among, in Durkin’s words, “diverse, very inclusive neighborhoods that are more accepting.” Small independent stores and corporate outlets such as the Gap coexist with Harvest along Mass Ave in Central Square, where the pace of change has recently accelerated. Nearby old factory buildings now house biotech companies, bringing an infusion of wealth to the traditionally working-class neighborhood. In JP, the co-op is a stone’s throw from trendy Centre Street, yet it also borders the mostly Hispanic, lower-income end of South Street. Indeed, many of the co-op’s workers speak Spanish to one another.

Nowadays, Harvest’s General Manager Mike St. Clair thinks the business climate is more challenging. “Big chains are figuring out natural and organic,” he says. Besides competition, the cost of startup is formidable. He estimates it would now cost 3-5 million dollars to start an urban co-op from scratch.

Until recently, big chains focused on suburban markets, where costs were cheap and demand high. “Co-ops went into places where regular companies didn’t think they could make money,” says St. Clair, which is why some rural areas, as well as cities, are strongholds for co-ops.

A major catalyst for the growth of organic and natural foods was a 60 Minutes episode on the 1989 Alar apple scare, named for a carcinogen used by farmers to ripen apples simultaneously. The demand for organic food, and with it, co-ops, has risen steadily ever since, pushed by subsequent alarm over Mad Cow Disease and contaminated milk. Ironically, the recent E. Coli spinach scare shows that organic food is quite susceptible to contamination, and it is virtually impossible to save apples from worms unless chemical pesticides are used.

Nonetheless, the organic industry is now worth well over 10 billion dollars, and mainstream supermarkets, most notably Whole Foods but also Wal-Mart, have smelled profit. Whereas in the early nineties natural food stores sold over two-thirds of all organic products and supermarkets less a tenth, supermarkets now sell by far the greater share.

Harvest Co-ops now have an even greater incentive to emphasize the quality and local nature of their products. “We count on the community coming in and shopping,” says Durkin. That the co-ops stock Coke and Pepsi may seem surprising, but Durkin says, “We don’t dictate what people should buy… Education is on top of everything.” On the other hand, Harvest’s selection of spices and bulk foods is truly distinctive; while these items aren’t particularly profitable, they are popular with customers. And in a nod to influx of professionals in East Cambridge, the co-op stocks a wide variety of microbrews.

St. Clair expanded upon how the Harvest aspires to serve the local community. “Our profits go back to the community.” Regarding local vendors, “We can turn on a dime.” Whereas it would take a big chain several months to integrate a local farm’s products into its supply chain, if indeed it was willing to at all, Harvest can get a novel product such as Water Buffalo Yogurt onto its shelves in under a week after a deal. Besides, Harvest allows locals such as Red Fire Farm, of Granby, Massachusetts, to run CSAs out of its parking lot. “We know it takes business away from us,” says St. Clair. “We accept that.”

Other co-ops have not been as agile. Gloucester’s Cape Ann Food Co-op succumbed last year, leaving the North Shore without a co-op.

Certainly Bostonians have an affinity for local products. The cluster of farmers markets in the metro area—20 to 25, depending on how one defines the metro area—rivals that of any major American city. Rachel Travers examined the popularity of gourmet food stores with a natural twist, especially in affluent suburbs, in the Winter issue of Edible Boston.

Bostonians were actually quite hospitable to the sustainable food movement in its early days. Distribution followed a different model here than in other towns. Bread & Circus, so named because it sold wooden toys along with culinary items, was founded in Brighton in 1975 and quickly won a loyal following. Subsequent stores opened in Cambridge, Wellesley, and Newton, with farther flung outposts in Hadley and Providence.

Durkin speculates that Bread and Circus diminished the demand for co-ops. In other cities, he says, “people were more used to working together for things.” In Boston, St. Clair adds, “People aren’t aware what co-ops are.”

Whole Foods bought Bread and Circus in 1992, and it has since expanded the chain to 15 stores in the Boston metro area, with three in Cambridge alone, one of which is only a couple hundred yards away from Harvest. Soon, another will appear in Dedham—the company is trying hard to make inroads in suburbia. Prospect Street, however, is a relatively small stores, roughly similar in layout to the nearby Harvest Co-op. The employees with whom I spoke were genuinely upbeat about their jobs, giving their employer high praise. But they declined my request to quote them for this article, instead, referring me to Bill McGowan, Senior Produce Coordinator for the company.

McGowan affirmed that Whole Foods allows its stores some autonomy, indeed, that “part of the mission is to help grow the local offering… We set up a relationship with a farm in advance—when the season comes, they’ll come to us [with the product].” McGowan could not, however, estimate what percentage of Whole Food’s products is local. A glance at product labels around the store shows that the vast majority arrive via the regional distribution center in Cheshire, Connecticut. Regarding competition, McGowan shies away from generalization. “We try to keep ourselves differentiated by offering more organic items,” he says. That contrast, of course, is with conventional grocers, rather than co-ops, which are now emphasizing the local nature of their products to separate themselves from Whole Foods.

Of Whole Foods, St. Clair speaks unequivocally. “They’re big, corporate, and vicious. But every day they go further corporate, we differentiate ourselves from them. There’s a benefit for us.”

Thus far, however, while Harvest may be holding its own, Whole Foods is growing steadily. In the end, Boston’s preference for established supermarkets probably speaks most to the city’s comfort with the establishment.