The Taste of Yesteryear in the Neighbor's Backyard

The wonders of organic food are nothing new. Despite increasing demand, a gradual decrease in prices and the introduction of organic products to the supermarket shelves, it is still a very expensive habit.

Roni Barkan opens the large brown fence and enters his neighbors' backyard - the Naveh family. In the lovely backyard on a quiet Rehovot street, he dives into an organic festival beyond his imagination: Tens of crates hold romaine, arugula, garden cress, radishes and garlic with nice-looking mud stains and tomatoes that taste the way tomatoes used to taste. And there are cucumbers that wake up the taste buds and much, much more.

"We have come to see, perhaps to buy," says Barkan, 28, taking deliberate steps toward the nerve center of Rehovot's organic cooperative, established three months ago. Guy Hed, the man on the job today, is weighing and dividing vegetables into separate crates to fill the 15 orders received during the week. It has been only three weeks since he joined the cooperative, which was organized by locals who want to purchase organic produce directly from the growers at lower prices.

The orders come in over the Internet and are sent to Yossi Glicksman, a grower from a kibbutz, who brings the produce in once a week, on Wednesday, to the backyard of his sister, Leah Naveh. There he is met by the worker on duty who is responsible for coordinating the orders, collecting the money and weighing and dividing up the produce of cooperative members, who arrive at the prearranged meeting point between six and eight in the evening to collect their orders. Everything is done in almost total silence, and there was nothing to arouse Barkan's suspicions regarding the innovative organic happening going on just over the fence.

Barkan recalls: "I participated in a workshop on the preparation of food made from soy in Emek Hatal, and my neighbors told me about the cooperative." Barkan meanwhile wants to find out about the hours of the meeting point and prices. He gives his personal details and exchanges a few words with Glicksman, who manages to collect a few surplus vegetables for him.

"I try to eat organic foods, but it is very expensive, and not easily available," says Barkan, peeking into the crate Glicksman is filling for him: a cauliflower, sweet potatoes and Swiss chard. "Wait a minute," he says on on his way out. "What do I do with the Swiss chard?"

The members hurry to volunteer recipes. Hed suggests frying the large leaves with white stems in olive oil and garlic, and mixing with brown rice.

"I steam them with onions in soy sauce, and you can add peanuts," offers Naveh.

The dark side of the avocado

The wonders of organic food are nothing new. Awareness of the processes that conventional produce undergoes has grown, and many are finding it difficult to take a bite out of oversized, shiny red strawberries, coated in pesticides. People worry that they are poisoning their bodies, destroying the planet and missing out on the latest culinary craze. From that mental point, it is not far to nearest store selling organic produce and other natural foods, where one can wander through with a miniature cart, munching on dried passion fruit and feeling wonderfully healthy until one reaches the cash register, which exposes the dark side of the wrinkled avocado. There is a price to avocado on a slice of buckwheat bread, wheat grass juice and steamed quinoa.

Eating organic is a way of life. For the time being it remains a privilege of the well-off. Organic fruits and vegetables in the speciality shops and chain stores cost almost double non-organic produce. Despite increasing demand, a gradual decrease in prices and the introduction of organic products to the supermarket shelves, it is still a very expensive habit, and organizations like the one in Rehovot are popping up all over the country.

Such cooperatives are still in their infancy here, but in the United States, hundreds of similar enterprises have established a flourishing consumer counter-culture that continues to gain momentum. Some have hundreds of members and a salaried employee who takes care of administrative matters, and they charge annual membership dues. The cooperative initiatives have adopted capitalist tools and methods (such as videocassetes, how-to books and computer programs specially developed to aid in their management) in an attempt to sweep up the masses collapsing under the costs at Whole Foods and other stores of that ilk. In the United States, the food cooperative industry has grown steadily at about 10 percent a year, and in 2004 grossed a whopping $626 million dollars. A cooperative from the Minneapolis area, for example, had a turnover of $26 million last year alone.

Some of health-food aficionados in Rehovot have been purchasing organic produce at reasonable prices directly from Glicksman for a few years now. Glicksman, 57, who is from Kibbutz Gal-On, formerly worked as a Shiatsu therapist and began raising organic produce five years ago on his one and a half acres after he noted, as he says, that many of his patients' maladies were due to poor nutrition.

Glicksman says he has "a difficult time of it in the kibbutz. There is no help and no awareness of the importance of organic produce. The establishment was pretty much against it. But then I started to have produce. The earth is blessed - it does pay attention to semantics," he says. Glicksman began to market directly to a few people living in Rehovot. "For five years, I delivered door to door, until I couldn't take it any more. I do too many jobs - I manufacture the compost, raise the produce and market it. So I announced that I couldn't do it any more."

Shay Shahal, 32, an agronomist, decided not to consume poison any more or to become impoverished due to the cost of organic produce. Instead he decided, together with Oren Azari, Leah Naveh and a few other friends, to start a local organic cooperative. "I was sick of buying organic produce at ridiculous prices. I can't afford it," he says. "But as an agronomist, I know what regular vegetables have in them. The produce is filled with pesticides and there is no supervision."

Shahal's fatigue shows after a full day of planting corn and cotton for his research project but it cannot extinguish his passion for the young cooperative, which to him is an effective solution to achieve lower prices. "Why should I eat vegetables grown thousands of kilometers from here, transported from South Africa or China, moved from one refrigerator to another? It doesn't make sense from an ecological point of view," says Shahal.

"I prefer to buy from someone near to where I live. That way I provide a livelihood for a local farmer, someone I know.," says Shahal. "It is very important to me to be in direct contact with the grower. Today, there is a huge distance between what people eat and what they know about the food they eat. It is the ultimate distance between the world of nature of which humans are a part. That alienation contributes to the illusion that everything was and always will be available in the supermarkets, and that there will always be water in the faucets, but it's not necessarily so.

"People don't realize that terrible damage may have been caused when growing the green pepper they are eating. They have no idea where the tomato they are eating was grown; they have never seen a tomato plant in their lives," he complains. His prices are cheap for organic products: pumpkin, NIS 6 per kilo; garlic, NIS 20; lettuce, NIS 3 per head. Some of the produce, which he does not raise, such as cucumbers and tomatoes (NIS 6-7 per kilo) he brings from Adama produce.

Economic troubles

Glicksman is satisfied with the new arrangement, but maintains that more participants are required so that the business work properly. "For me, it is excellent, but more people need to join. I need at least 20 members for it to be worthwhile."

But a large number of members is no guarantee of success. The members of Rosh Pina's veteran cooperative, established about four years ago, began with a healthy appetite and the best of intentions. At a certain point, it had 80 members. A few weeks ago, it ceased its activities. "Our cooperative is collapsing," admits Havi Kinarti sadly. She joined a year ago. "It was very nice, up to the point when four to five people were collaborating and volunteering, but the rest weren't."

Hadas Prustig, a 24-year-old student of ecology at the Tel-Hai College, draws her inspiration from the pioneers of Rosh Pina. She wanted to join the cooperative, but was rejected because "they were overloaded and couldn't accept new members." Prustig, who describes herself as "someone from an organic background" (she once ran an organic store), established a cooperative of her own a year and a half ago. While the organic produce was cheaper in the cooperative, the toll it took on her was far higher than she could have imagined. Today, the cooperative has 50 members and sells a variety of products, from fruits and vegetables to tofu and goat cheeses, woolen socks and rope sandals from Costa Rica.

Prustig handles the books, coordinates the orders, runs the staff and puts about three days a week into the project. She and a few other volunteers receive their wages in the form of fruits and vegetables. "It isn't worth it in terms of the effort involved. People don't want to do their turns; they prefer to have it all delivered to their homes," she complains. "How much motivation can people have if they are paid in vegetables? Most of the farmers are committed to companies like Harduf and Adama, and it is hard to get to the farmer himself. No one wants to meet us halfway. It isn't working and I don't have the strength any more."

The Rehovot cooperative works in conjunction with a nonprofit organization promoting organic food in Israel. "The first goal is to lower prices," says Avi Levi, the organization's chair. "The consumption of organic products increases food costs by 60-70 percent. Buying organic produce directly from the grower does away with the costs in the middle, and the fewer middle-men there are, the cheaper and fresher the produce. Our ideology is to try to encourage groups of consumers to organize themselves. What we really want to do is create a consumer force that can take care of its own interests, and in that way have a more significant effect on the market."

Levi, 41, lives in Azur. He draws his inspiration from the cooperatives in the United States, which take advantage of consumer groups to advance additional interests, such as promoting fair wages and caring for Mother Earth. "I don't see it ending with organic food, and it doesn't have to. A large group of consumers can influence what is produced for it and under what conditions."

However, joining an alternative marketing channel of this kind, Levi says, involves overcoming certain psychological obstacles. "The word `cooperative' frightens people. It has connotations of the communist kolhoz in Russia or the kibbutz. People are deterred by the idea of togetherness. But this is an entirely different version of the communist idea. This system ultimately exploits the advantages of capitalism and gives power to a group that until now was powerless. In addition, people receive a community. The coordination and contact between the members creates a rich human dynamic, and the contact grows increasingly stronger and develops." Still, Levi has not yet found a cooperative of his own. "In Azur, there is no cooperative, and I have no way of obtaining organic produce," he admits. He refuses to set foot in the Blue Square supermarket chain and makes do with sprayed vegetables from his local greengrocer. Sometimes, he pops over to Tel Aviv to take an expensive bite of the real thing. In his view, there will soon be cooperatives all over Israel.

"It is a gradual process, but I am hearing about beginnings from all kinds of directions. People are taking an interest, and they want to do something, to be part of this kind of organization," says Levi.