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On venturing into the health food market and conquering the co-op.

I drove past the food co-op for more than a decade. Nothing in the signage seemed to letter an invitation. Food co-ops were hard core, meant for … other people. When I first considered shopping there a few years ago, I dismissed the idea as a fleeting fantasy, unlikely as zip lining, driving across country in an RV or learning to speak Portuguese. But the fancy soon hardened into a need.

I’d been exploring the dialogue of food, recently taking in a streak of books and documentaries on the pervasiveness of our molested food supply. I remember feeling, at once, outraged and foolish to learn that I’d spent years making smart food choices with inferior options. “To know better is to do better,” as the adage goes. So, short of becoming a farmer, my best option for “better” food was to start shopping at better food stores.

I’d accidentally stumbled into a Whole Foods once, years before. A friend was hosting a dinner party nearby and asked me to scoop a garlic clove on my way. I’d never heard of the store, but appreciated the easy parking. Sauntering inside, I stopped at the front door, gawking wide-eyed. It was brightly lit and filled with gleeful shoppers strolling the aisles with glasses of champagne. I learned it was the store’s grand opening, but where were the swags of paper streamers and columns of helium balloons? Toto, I thought, we’re not at the corner supermarket anymore.

Once I decided to venture into the health food market, I chose Outpost Natural Foods. Though it was small and local, I was still uneasy on that first shopping trip. I’ve partied in mansions over the course of my life, sipped wine with dignitaries, attended a tribal ritual, shot eight ball in a honky tonk bar, traded laughs inside maximum security prisons and performed on stages before thousands of people. None of these rippled my nerves with anxiety like pushing that cart through the food co-op.

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The first few steps inside and I felt like I was beginning to emit a phosphorous rookie glow, signaling to everyone that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing in there. Admittedly, I was overwhelmed by the varieties of kale I’d never known existed, a peculiar colored green called rainbow chard, the shelves and shelves of honey, the wall of loose grains and pastas and the eerie range of dairy alternatives. I felt like a plus-one guest at friend’s family reunion, trying to make a crib sheet in my head of who’s married to whom, what cousins were once or twice removed, and which auntie to steer clear of after too many beers.

Of course, I’d decided that all the other shoppers were die-hard food activists and, possibly, part-time nutritionists and horticulture experts. More than feeling like everyone else knew more than I did, I was nagged by the notion that I should have known. That I’d been one of those people who swept aside discussions about food integrity because that conversation was for the radicals. That I’d ignorantly believed the rest of us would be fine if we just ate more chicken, rinsed our produce and reduced our soda consumption (y’know, where all that high fructose corn syrup is).

In addition to my knowledge-envy, I watched other shoppers whisk about the store, adding items to their baskets without pause. I further presumed I was the only one shopping outside of my tax bracket. I’d read numerous blogs and discussions about food privilege, whereby the healthiest options are often unavailable or unaffordable outside of middle income communities. I count my scant pennies like the next bohemian artist and, with every jolt of sticker shock, I just kept picturing the healthy, smiling faces of my precious daughters and lowered a roasting chicken with its double-digit price sticker into my cart.

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I filled the rest of my cart with items I knew I should have –according to my study notes—even with uncertainty that I would be able to make them tasty once I got them home (I mean, nothing about quinoa looked promising). Once in the parking lot, I released the breath I’d been holding. At home, I was undeniably awash with pride. This was step one. I returned to the co-op several times in that first year and became a fairly regular shopper in the past year. I’m still not an expert, but have asked enough  questions to realize that I’m not the only one squinting at labels and figuring things out as I go. I’ve learned the etiquette of requesting beans and spices; I have lunch at the café; and I own one (yes, so far only one) reusable canvas bag. I even accepted a co-op membership form on the last trip. It’s pinned to my kitchen board. Perhaps, once I figure out what to do with the rainbow chard, I’ll make that step two.

“In the Margins” is Dasha Kelly’s column at milwaukeemag.com.

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