There was a time when I thought that all alternative or healthy foods could be purchased from retail stores, like Whole Foods. Now I know better. The more I learn about natural, traditional and alternative foods, the more I’m amazed by how little is available in most, if any retail stores. Here are some examples:
- Raw Kombucha. This fizzy drink, made by fermenting sweetened tea, is touted for its high probiotic content. It used to be sold in natural foods stores until the government decided to crack down on it in 2010. That’s because the fermentation process sometimes produces alcohol levels that exceed 0.5%, which puts it into the same category and regulatory structure as beer and wine. Nowadays, only pasteurized Kombucha can be purchased. But the high heat from pasteurization kills many of the beneficial micro-organisms, so what’s the point?
- Traditionally Fermented Sauerkraut. Also high in probiotics, traditional sauerkraut has mostly been replaced by the sort made with vinegar, which can be made faster and more cheaply.
- Raw Milk & Dairy Products (except cheeses aged over 60 days): Raw milk, cream, butter and fresh-milk cheeses are not legal for retail sale in most U.S. states.
- Pastured Eggs: I don’t mean the ones that are labeled in stores as being “free-range.” Once you see and taste an egg from an actual pasture or back yard hen, you’ll know what I mean.
- Certain types or cuts of meat, like sweetbreads, tongue, duck fat, beef fat, natural lard, intestinal casings (in case you want to try making your own sausage), etc.
- Unrefined, extra virgin coconut oil.
- Grains, seeds, nuts and spices that haven’t been pasteurized or irradiated (which is another form of pasteurization). This is important for those who wish to deactivate nutrient and enzyme inhibitors, like phytic acid, through soaking or sprouting.
- Uncommon and heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. Here in Northern Virginia/DC/MD, we grow the Paw-Paw fruit, Gooseberries, special varieties of chestnuts and and many other uncommon varieties of strawberries, apples, berries, herbs and vegetables, which you won’t find in any supermarket.
I do not mean to recommend these specific foods to anyone. Food is a very personal decision and some of the foods I mention are controversial and carry certain risks. This article is aimed at those people who, like me a few years ago, may have been searching for sources for these or other uncommon foods, but who may have given up.
Here are some alternative places to go to source these and other uncommon foods:
- The Internet: Most people have probably bought some food items from the internet. While its the first place people tend to look after they don’t find what they’re looking for locally, it’s one of my least favorite places to source food due to the high rate of sneaky, dishonest and outright fraudulent behavior. This is always a risk when the producer of a food is far away or can hide behind a website. Another drawback, of course, is that shipping fees are high. All that said, I do occasionally purchase foods, like American pine nuts, fermented cod liver oil, virgin coconut oil and duck fat from the internet.
- Farmer’s markets – Most major metro areas have many different farmer’s markets, where producers gather once a week, typically in a blocked-off parking lot. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, go up and ask the farmers for recommendations. They’re usually well-connected in the farming community and can hook you up with a source.
- CSA’s, which stands for Community-Supported Agriculture. CSA’s are an alternative to the farmer’s market. You sign up for a box or “share” of vegetables/fruits/flowers/etc. from a local farm or farm Co-Op for an entire season. Every week a box of different seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, etc. are delivered to either or doorstep or more likely a central drop point from which you can pick it up, such as a neighbor’s front porch or a church parking lot. The downside with CSA’s is that you don’t get to pick what you get and if you go on vacation, you’re still going to receive a box, even though you may not even be home to enjoy it.
- Buying direct from farms – there are many local farms here in the DC metro area and around the country. Sites, such as http://www.eatwild.com/, http://www.pickyourown.org/, http://www.localharvest.org and http://www.realmilk.com/ are good starting points. There are also a lot of region-specific sites and clubs, such as this SF Bay Area Meat CSA. But don’t stop there. Pick up the phone and speak with the farmers (they tend not to be emailers because they’re busy working outside!) or just stop by and visit them and ask them for recommendations. Most of these farms are willing to sell you an entire animal, cut up to your exact specifications, and for an amazingly low price. You can go in with others to split a whole lamb, cow, goat, pig or other large animal.
- Farm co-ops & membership-based buying clubs, are another option. They may or may not have annual fees or require member assistance. They sometimes offer local delivery to a neighbor’s house, parking lot or even direct to your door. Many are at or near capacity or for other reasons, don’t advertise, so you’ll have to ask around to find one of these. This may sound strange, but if you happen to know of anyone who home schools their kids, there is a high chance that they will know about alternative food sources.
- Cow-share/herd-share programs. Cow-share programs are growing in popularity in states like VA, which prohibit sales of raw milk but allow you to consume milk from an animal you own, whether partially or fully. Here’s a good overview of these programs.
- Restaurants, Specialty Retailers & Bakeries – The owners of specialty stores are often in the know and may even have sources for the food you’re looking for. Imported German rye flour, Marzipan (made fresh, not the corn-syrup loaded variety) and fermented tea leaves from Burma/Myanmar are examples of foods that I’ve never been able to find anywhere, except for some local restaurants, shops and bakeries, which I’ve managed to sweet-talk into selling me some or sourcing just for me.
As you can see, the common thread to all of this really is getting connected up with the right people. So ask around. I’m sure you can find what you’re looking for.