Natural and Nutritious

Long before it was popular to eat organic foods, two area natural food cooperatives were offering the natural food choice in the Tiffin area.

The oldest is Whole Family Foods, which was formed in Sycamore in 1976, making the co-op 38 years old. A co-op named Healthworks was started in Tiffin in 1983, a member of the Federation of Ohio River Cooperatives.

Cheryl Reinhart said she got the idea to form Healthworks after attending a nutrition program at the YMCA.

“I went home and threw out most of the stuff in my cupboards,” she said. “We were just trying to find better food for our families and there was just nothing around here.”

The founders of Whole Family Foods had the same reason.

“We were a little ahead of our time,” said Diane Baker. “We wanted better food for our families. We didn’t want them eating pesticides and chemicals.”

Brown said she attended a La Leche League meeting about nutrition while breastfeeding her baby.

“When I went home, I started pitching,” she said. “And I went out and got good products. Once you start, your whole house gets more chemical free.”

The two group operated independently until a few years later.

“In 1990, we merged and kept the Whole Family Foods name,” Reinhart said. “It was big at that time. You couldn’t get whole foods and natural foods anywhere in the area.”

At the time, there were about 35 members.

“We were just a bunch of concerned mothers,” Baker said. “That’s what we started out to be and we wanted to do the best for are kids. And we stayed at it.”

She said her son moved away from healthy eating for a while, but now he’s becoming interested again.

Through the years, members said, organic and natural foods have become easier to find at grocery stores and health food stores, but not at the best prices.

“You can get it at Kroger and Meijer’s, but (there’s) not a big selection,” Baker said. “In the co-op, you can buy it by the case and get it much cheaper.”

“We’re not for profit,”

Reinhart said. “None of us make money. We’re just trying to get good food and better prices.”

The co-op orders from United Natural Foods, which also has undergone several mergers through the years.

According to its website, UNFI is the leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products, including nutritional supplements, personal care items and organic produce, in the United States.

The companies that eventually formed UNFI started in the 1970s when consumer interest in natural foods started to grow and regional distributors began to serve the growing market.

In 1996, two growing, regional companies merged to form UNFI to serve customers more efficiently. Since then, several other regional distributors have joined the larger company.

Today, UNFI distributes more than 80,000 natural, organic and specialty products from 4,000 suppliers worldwide to 40,000 customer locations from 32 distribution centers.

The company’s six main units are UNFI, UNFI Canada, Trudeau Distributing Co., Tony’s Fine Foods, Albert’s Organics and Select Nutrition, including Honest Green.

Members place their orders through coordinator Judy Row, who places the group’s order with UNFI.

“We used to hand-write our orders, but now it’s all online,” Row said. “I used to be on the phone for an hour giving our order.”

Members can order as much or as little of each items as they choose, but buying in larger quantities costs less.

“The bigger you get, the less expensive it is,” Reinhart said. “But some items don’t last as long as others. Having been in the co-op for 30-some years, we know what each other likes. We know who to call if we might want to share an order.”

“That’s one of the nice things about being the co-op, sharing information and trying different things and sharing recipes,” said member Rose Smith.

When they pick up their monthly order, members can walk around and see the products other people ordered and ask about them, Brown said.

“You can read the packages and understand how many calories are in it,” she said.

In the past, group members used to meet once a month and work together to buy larger quantities so they could split cases.

But the longtime members now have grown families and their buying habits have changed.

“Last year, I bought a 50-pound bag of oats and it will probably last us 10 years,” Baker said. “We just keep it in the freezer.”

Today, the co-op has about 15 members. It is open to new members.

A one-time membership fee of $25 makes a person a member for life, but prospective members can order food twice before joining the co-op to make sure they like the food.

“If our orders are bigger, we get a discount,” Reinhart said.

Members pay listed prices for their food, but the order goes in as one large order to obtain a discount. The discount is used to pay expenses and to rent space at First Lutheran Church for deliveries. And if there’s enough left, members can get a discount, also.

As co-op members, people help to unload the truck and separate orders. Each member works an hour or two a few times a year. There’s also a non-working membership for a 10-percent fee per order.

There are no minimum number of orders.

In addition to food, UNFI has natural products for hair care and cleaning, as well as natural cosmetics, vitamin and mineral supplements and paper products.

“I like the products,” Brown said. “I like to be able to share with friends.”

“You don’t have to order every month,” Baker said. “I don’t order as often anymore because it’s just my husband and me.”

Members live in a 50-mile range, including Findlay, and travel to Tiffin to pick up orders.

Deliveries arrive every four weeks on Tuesday morning at First Lutheran Church, 300 Melmore St.

Most members have discovered the co-op through friends or neighbors.

Member Carol Coffman said it’s harder to find healthy food in Tiffin.

“If you don’t want to drive to Toledo or elsewhere, the co-op is a good choice,” she said.

Members shared some of their reasons they participate in the co-op.

“People don’t really know what they’re eating,” Row said.

Her son died in 1980.

“My son died from cancer and that made me realize the junk that’s in regular food,” she said. “I attribute it to that. I really do.”

She started buying organic food from other places first, and joined the co-op a few years later.

Reinhart said she likes the idea of healthier food. She said many people are becoming more wary of genetically modified food.

“I think, now more than ever, organic is important,” Reinhart said. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was bad, but it’s worse now.”

Coffman said foods have changed in many ways.

“The wheat crop has changed, and therefore, the bread has changed,” she said.

Hybrids are created to be disease resistant and for optimal yield for farmers, but not for optimal nutrition, she said.

Coffman said people should be aware of the ingredients in bottled beverages.

“People, read your labels,” she said. “They have artificial sweeteners in with the real sugar. It’s really getting hard to find good drinks if you don’t want water.”

“Water, water, water,” Brown said.

“That’s one of the things with the co-op – the pure juices,” Reinhart said.

Brown said the company used to provide fresh organic produce, but now she buys it elsewhere.

“Now they don’t have it, but you can get organic produce now in the grocery store or at farmers markets,” she said.

Members agree they and their families seem to be healthier than the general population.

“I don’t take anything except vitamins, and I’m 72,” Row said.

Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a burden.

“I eat junk. I had pizza yesterday. I had beer yesterday,” Reinhart said. “But, most of the time, I eat healthy. We’re rebels. I think, anymore, people have to take their own health in their hands, and that’s what we do.”

For more information on the co-op, call Row at (419) 986-5052 or Reinhart at (419) 447-1844.