If you thought Whole Foods was the only way to get fresh, organic produce, then you need to stop by Robin Wallace's garage.
Like most suburban garages, Wallace's is home to a collection of strollers, skateboards and power tools. But two mornings a month it's also an organic grocery where Wallace plays host to a pod from the Purple Dragon-Co-op, a Glen Ridge-based company offering organic foods at near wholesale prices.
Long before the sun rises on a Wednesday morning, this Oceanport mother of three receives a bulk delivery of fruits and vegetables from Purple Dragon, which she divides into 14 equal shares in very unglamorous reused cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Often there is still some dirt on the lettuce and the fruits lack the shellacked appearance of grocery store produce because this food is straight off farm.
Organic produce seems to be making it to the dinner plates of more homes these days as folks worry about chemical pesticides polluting their bodies or the land. Sales for the organic fruits and vegetables were up almost 12 percent in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association.
But avoiding pesticides doesn't have to be why you go organic, says Purple Dragon founder Janit London.
Try the organic produce, she says, "Because it tastes better." Though taste is subjective, a recent study by scientists at Washington State University showed there might be some merit to the claim.
For $49, members of Wallace's pod take home between 15 and 30 lbs of organic and ecologically grown produce. Shares are a mixed bag of what is in season and what London can get a good deal on, which as Wallace says, "usually includes one weird thing."
This week that weird thing is black radishes. Black radish salad, anyone? The rest of the share is more conventional fare: Kandy Krisp apples, Bosc pears, garlic, yellow onions, Yukon Gold potatoes, baby acorn squash, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, carrots, green leaf lettuce, navel oranges and bananas.
Some of the produce, such as the apples, garlic and cabbage, are from nearby farms in New York. Other items make a longer trek, including carrots from California and bananas from Peru. Each share is usually enough for a family of four for two weeks.
London started the business in 1987 after finding fresh organic produce in short supply. She used her experience in the natural foods business out west to build an organic cooperative that is low labor for the members, but where families could buy together to get good prices on items not readily available in grocery stores. "Purple Dragon originated the idea of a mixed produce variety basket," London said, "and it has been copied all over our area and has become a national trend."
London works directly with farmers to buy their produce, and she coordinates with local pod coordinators, who manage groups of about 15 members. In Monmouth County there are pods scattered all over, in Holmdel, Fair Haven, Tinton Falls, Red Bank, Freehold and Matawan. And where there is not a pod yet, Purple Dragon will help those interested to organize one of their own.
Wallace, a laid-back surfer girl with an easy smile and a listening ear, has been a member of the co-op since her fourth grader was in preschool. Besides digging the fresh organic food, Wallace says, she likes the human contact. When members come to pick up their shares, Wallace gets to hear about their lives, their kids, things they are going through. "People tell me things about themselves, and I feel like we are part of a community."
The other bonus is the co-op aspect. For her work coordinating members, hosting the drop off and dividing the fruits and vegetables, Wallace gets credits that all about cover her share costs.
"I spend about seven hours a week on it, which is about all the time I can devote to a job right now," says Wallace whose youngest child is now in preschool. "And I'm feeding my family."
Shares are always available for anyone who wants to try out the co-op. To find a pod near you contact Purple Dragon Co-op.