Freshly picked cherries from Sugar Plum Acres in Talent, voted best U-Pick Farm. - <I>Photo by Nancy McClain</I>

Readers' Picks: Healthy Shopping

The results of Oregon Healthy Living magazine's first Readers' Picks poll are in. Readers cast 548 ballots, choosing their favorite places to shop, eat and live healthfully.

Congratulations to Mysti Jacob of Rogue River and Jean Chase of Medford, who won $50 gift certificates from Rogue Creamery in a random drawing of completed ballots.

Best Health/Natural Foods Store
Place to Buy Organic Produce
Place to Buy Gluten-free Foods
Best Juice Bar

The Ashland Food Co-op was the region's first certified-organic retailer, but the store's customers champion a lot more than just its organic fruits and vegetables.

In addition to choosing the Co-op's produce section as the best in the area, Oregon Healthy Living readers said the Co-op is the best place to buy gluten-free items, voted it as the No. 1 juice bar and made it the overwhelming choice for best health/natural-foods store.

From its humble health-food roots, Ashland Food Co-op has grown into a one-stop shop for more than 6,700 owners and hundreds of occasional customers.

"I think our industry has grown up a lot," says Annie Hoy, Co-op outreach and owner services manager. "We're better at doing business."

The Co-op obtained Oregon Tilth's seal of approval in 2008, indicating the store adheres to agency standards for handling, displaying and selling certified-organic products. Co-op customers can be confident, Hoy says, that foods produced under certified-organic conditions were not compromised by exposure to conventional counterparts. The Co-op also maintains a product-standards committee to ensure — among other criteria — truth in its own advertising.

The business was born nearly 40 years ago as a buying club for bulk foods. In 1972, Ashland Community Food Store opened as a retail grocer, albeit one that relied on volunteer staff who worked for discounts.

The store began to resemble a mainstream grocer after remodeling and expansion projects that also expanded its paid staff to about 150. The store reorganized in 2002 as a cooperative operating on a not-for-profit basis and changed its name to Ashland Food Co-op.

Over the decades, beer and wine, gourmet cheeses and condiments, as well as full-service meat and deli departments joined the original "health foods." The latest trend — gluten-free foods — accelerated in 2004. The Co-op responded by compiling lists of gluten-free groceries and, more recently, posting shelf tags that identify those products with an icon of stylized wheat sheaves.

The Co-op also has lobbied suppliers to change their practices, Hoy says, citing a successful effort to dissuade Tillamook from selling milk and dairy foods from cows treated with bovine-growth hormone. The store made news on the environmental front for "green" initiatives, such as banning sales of bottled water and plastic bags at its check-out stands.

"Caring about the environment has really been in our DNA from the get-go," Hoy says.

Hoy recalls the store unveiled advertising campaigns 15 years ago on the theme of eating locally produced foods, widely touted as an environmentally responsible practice just within the past few years. Since then, local farmers have stepped up to supply locally grown fruits and vegetables almost year-round, Hoy says.

"I think in Oregon, as a single store, we may sell more organic produce than anybody else."

The Co-op's produce sales constitute 15 to 22 percent of the store total, Hoy says. The Co-op adjusts its produce inventory when local growers' markets are in season to avoid competing with the very farmers who wholesale to the store, she adds.

In employees' hands, the Co-op's produce becomes "a work of art," Hoy says. New props and accoutrements help staff vie for the most stunning displays, which they photograph and then post in the store's stock rooms, Hoy says.

"They get so excited about it looking beautiful," she says.

The same produce supplies the store's juice bar, reclaimed in 2006 from Mind's Eye. Over the past year, the "juice-and-java" counter finally came into its own, Hoy says, and plays a role in the Co-op's hefty payments toward City of Ashland meals tax.

"We're the busiest restaurant in town."

For more information, visit the website www.ashlandfood.coop.

Other favorites: (Health/Natural Foods Store, Gluten-Free Foods and Organic Produce) Food 4 Less; Shop 'N' Kart; (Juice Bar) Extreme Juice; Wamba Juice

Best Natural Foods Section/Large Grocery

Place to Buy Bulk Foods

Known for bargain-priced, institutional-sized goods displayed in a warehouse setting, Food 4 Less has embraced the natural-foods niche, reaping recognition from customers and readers of Oregon Healthy Living.

In response to shopper demand, Food 4 Less has steadily expanded its natural-foods department over the past 13 years along with revenue: 7 percent of the store's current total, compared with 1.5 percent in 1997. The section grew in that period from a 20-foot aisle and 2-foot wall to more than 2,000 square feet that encompasses shelves, refrigerator cases and freezers.

"At first, nobody even knew we were here," says department manager Terry Johnson. "A lot of word of mouth has gone on."

It's shoppers' own suggestions that drive the family-owned store's selection, a precedent that plays out particularly for natural, organic and specialty foods.

"We kind of really listen to the customers," says Bob Ames, the corporation's general manager.

"A lot of people are wanting gluten-free products right now," says Johnson, explaining that she adds 18 to 20 new products per week, the majority upon customer request, and places special orders for items that won't fit on the shelves.

Within the natural-foods section are 16 feet of bulk bins, which the store upgraded several years ago to gravity-fed models. These and the store's standard bulk department are the local favorite among readers who prefer to measure, weigh and package their own pantry staples.

Food 4 Less stocks more than 450 different items — at least 1,000 pounds daily — in its bulk bins, says department manager Jeff Wilson. Many customers already know bulk purchasing is more economical and eco-friendly, but they may not realize the products are rarely the generic versions, says Wilson.

"A lot of the bulk is name-brand," he says. "You get it cheaper."

Since Wilson took over the bulk department five years ago, he added 16 flavors of granola and higher-quality candies. Steel-cut and rolled oats consistently top the best-seller list, while bakers scoop up 100 pounds of shelled walnuts in a single day for their holiday baking, Wilson says.

For more information, see the website www.shermsmarkets.com/F4L.htm.

Other favorites: (Natural Section/Large Grocery) Shop 'N' Kart; Fred Meyer; (Bulk Foods) Shop 'N' Kart; Ashland Food Co-op

Place to Buy Herbs and Supplements

A "master herbalist" has joined the staff at Ashland's Shop 'N' Kart, and the results are apparent. With more than 5,000 herbs and supplements to choose from, Shop 'N' Kart was chosen by Oregon Healthy Living readers as the preferred place to buy herbs and supplements.

A small, 4-foot shelf of vitamins has grown over the past three years to encompass an entire wall of the locally owned grocery store on Ashland Street. Green "superfoods" and whole-food vitamins are the most popular, says department manager Dawn Case, who hasn't seen any decreased sales in a tighter economy.

"There's a lot of people that are just taking preventative measures," she says.

Each week, the store also places about 100 special customer orders, which come with additional discounts on the larger quantities of products that aren't regularly stocked, Case says.

An employee staffs the department from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to assist shoppers, she says.

New master herbalist Brian Self is certified in the field, she adds. To learn more, see the website www.ashlandshopnkart.com.

Other favorites: Ashland Food Co-op; Healthway Nutrition Center

Favorite U-Pick Farm

When it comes to harvesting their own tree-ripe fruit, a family-run farm in Talent is the locals' pick.

Sugar Plum Acres, at 1850 Pioneer Road, is known for its cherries and peaches, offered at some of the area's lowest U-pick prices. Thrifty families — particularly those who can their own locally grown fruit and preserves — know that Sugar Plum keeps its prices around 50 cents per pound for peaches.

Peach season starts in August with the Red Haven variety and runs through September.

Cherries kick off the U-pick season in June. Serious pickers arrive early, as fruit can all be claimed by noon.

The former dairy farm dating to 1924 entered the U-pick business with strawberries and tomatoes in 1982. In 1992, Robert Hunter planted peach and cherry trees, which produce the property's main crop, although tomatoes and roses were available for U-pickers in recent summers.

The Hunters update harvest conditions on their website, www.sugarplumacres.info, or call 541-535-1563 for hours and prices.

Other favorites: Seven Oaks; Valley View Orchards

Local Farm Produce/CSA

Variety that comes with every box of veggies makes Fry Family Farm a favorite for farm-fresh produce and the increasingly popular concept of community-supported agriculture.

Like several other area farmers, the Frys of Talent sell advance shares in their business that materialize as weekly deliveries of produce between June and November. Over the past seven years, the Frys have developed partial and senior-sized shares to complement their regular offerings of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They continue doorstep delivery as other farms forego that service to keep costs down.

"Before we started doing the CSA ... I would worry every year," says co-owner Suzy Fry. "I'd have to juggle money."

Fry Family also is a mainstay of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market and Grants Pass Growers Market. Known for their salad greens, the Frys also wholesale produce to several local grocers and restaurants. See the website www.fryfamilyfarm.com for CSA prices and information.

Other favorites: Seven Oaks; Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative

Place to Buy Skincare Products

Services and products at Alchemy Botanicals run more than skin-deep.

Alchemy boasts a spa that specializes in facials and waxing for clients who want only the gentlest, purest products to touch their skin, says owner Trish Acheatel. Artemisia Botanical Skin Care Spa uses the organic, Hungarian brand Eminence as its signature line.

Interest in paraben-free and organic cosmetics has grown over Alchemy's decade on Ashland's East Main Street, the biggest leap coming within the past three years, Acheatel says.

"It was virtually unheard of 10 years ago," she says, adding that the store was founded with a focus on aromatherapy and herbal medicine.

The Alchemy Herbal Dispensary custom-blends botanical essences for local customers and even those who travel from larger cities to shop, Acheatel says. Tea, clothing, books and other "comfort" products make up the retail inventory. For more information, see the website www.alchemybotanicals.com.

Other favorites: Ashland Food Co-op; Shop 'K' Kart

Natural-fiber Clothes

Clothes with a conscience come from more than 30 designers at Ashland's Nectar Eco Boutique.

Since 2007, the East Main Street store has sold clothing made from hemp, bamboo fiber, wool and organic cotton, as well as recycled cashmere and silk produced without killing silkworms. A growing trend, the number of natural-fiber and eco-friendly clothing lines doubled the first year after Marya Hecht and sister-in-law Nicoya Hecht conceived Nectar in their desire for fashionable clothing that fit their environmental ethic.

The store strives to stock clothing made in the United States, but most items are certified Fair Trade, says manager Holly Darling. That goal contributes to the boutique's slightly higher prices compared with mainstream retailers, but it's a value customers are willing to pay for, Darling says.

Most of the inventory is women's apparel, but the men's section is expanding, along with baby clothes. For more information, see the website www.nectarecoboutique.com.

Other favorites: Hemporium; Sweetgrass Natural Fibers

Workout Clothes/Gear

The wide selection, from designer labels to house brands, gives Sports Authority the winning edge on workout gear, according to Oregon Healthy Living readers.

Nike and Under Armor apparel satisfy athletes looking for high performance and sleek silhouettes, while the retailer's own Aspire line ensures "prices where anyone can come in and find what they need," says operations manager Katie Gross.

The Colorado-based chain, with more than 450 stores in 45 states, has done business at the Rogue Valley Mall since 2007. Baseball, Gross says, is the most widely represented sport at the 40,000-square-foot Medford store, which has separate departments for fitness and golf. During winter, Sports Authority carries a full complement of snow gear, switching over to water sports for summer.

For information and online sales, see the website www.sportsauthority.com.

Other favorites: Rogue Valley Runners; Big 5

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