“Every time we shop, every time we eat, we can either build or destroy our communities.”
– Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market
I recently watched Sam Mogannam’s TEDx talk and was reminded of a great example of the power of food to revitalize community. And nothing inspires us quite like success stories from other businesses whose investment in goodness pays off…
Sam is the co-owner of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District. Bi-Rite (no relation to the big distributor) was founded by Sam’s father and when Sam and his brother took it over in 1998, it went from being a $2 million dollar annual business – focused mainly on responding to the neighborhood’s commitment to cigarettes and Doritos – to, fourteen years later, a $20 million dollar business. The Mogannam brothers’ approach shifted the market’s focus from feeding a community its vices to creating a community whose heart beat for healthy food. They transitioned the sourcing from mainstream distributors to building direct relationships with localized farmers and suppliers. In 1998, there were 40 jobs on the 18th Street block between Dolores and Guerrero Streets. Today, there are 400 (150 are at Bi-Rite alone) and 70% of Bi-Rite’s revenue stays in the community to provide benefits and pay living wages to employees. The 30% that leaves the community includes cost of transport of the produce and grocery goods that Bi-Rite gets directly from farms that are paid a fair price. And to top it off, Bi-Rite exists on this revitalized Mission District block without a single designated parking space. That’s a great and concrete example of one business’ direct impact in its neighborhood. And it’s also a magnificent reminder of the power of food to revitalize community.
Throughout his talk, Sam is casually making a rustic panzanella salad on stage. He compares ingredients and shows us that each decision we make gives us a certain power of influence. Sam picks up a glossy round red orb. It’s a tomato, the kind found in a typical grocery chain. It was picked green in Florida from a field whose soil has been exhausted and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers to grow. The tomatoes these fields produce achieve redness from being gassed before transport, not picked at peak ripeness, and they are engineered for indestructibility – resulting in that mealy flavorlessness most of us know well. Then Sam shows us a tomato grown by a farmer he knows on California’s Central Coast. The tomatoes there are dry-farmed and each one is hand picked at peak ripeness. No synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used on the farm, the farmer has planted fava beans to fix nitrogen in the soil. When you eat this tomato it’s juicy and tastes like well…a real tomato. Why, he says, would you ever choose the flavorless alternative when given the choice?
Even here in Teton County, where our growing season is drastically shorter than other places like California, we can grow tomatoes; Cosmic Apple Farm, just up the road from us, does. It’s true that most of us balk at paying $6 per lb. for organic tomatoes. But when you think about the fact that $3.99 per lb. (the average cost of tomatoes in the grocery store) isn’t fundamentally that significant a price difference and our local tomatoes thrived in a biodynamic growing environment that required no petroleum based pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, the math begins to make sense. We have that choice to make and it’s quite likely you do also.
On stage, Sam reminds us that we have the power to build community (or destroy it) every time we head to the store. My guess is that most of us would rather build than destroy. But building, like everything, has a price tag. You can buy $6 per lb tomatoes now and help support the growing movement in sustainable agriculture or you can pay the price later when soil has been depleted and underpaid farm workers are suffering from health problems caused by prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals. When you look at produce options and one tells you the name of the farmer and the farm where it grew, the choice becomes more personal. But certainly that kind of information isn’t always available.
With packaged foods, it can be more difficult. But with a little label reading, a lot can be revealed. Sam shows us the iconic green can of Kraft parmesan cheese. The second and third ingredients listed (after part skim milk) is a non caking agent and a preservative. It is a product designed to sit on the shelf forever and it costs $12 per lb. Real Parmesan Reggiano from Italy is made from the milk of cows raised in pasture, the per pound price isn’t actually much higher than Kraft, and you get something full of flavor, not preservatives. It’s worth it to take a second and look beyond price.
Sam’s talk gives fuel to our fire. What we make and feed others is an intimate act of sharing and a means of expressing care for our friends, family, or fellow humans. At Kate’s we’re always on the lookout for ways to lift our community up: by donating bars to local organizations that keep our trails clear for folks to enjoy or to the firefighters who are camping just outside town to keep it safe from a nearby canyon fire. For us, our bars are a vehicle to show care for our community and help keep it energized and thriving. We’re happy to say that when you support us (and we are so very grateful that you do) you build community. You support small independent business, you support a healthy environment to play in, and you support organic farming.
So build, my friends. Don’t destroy. We’re happy to help and we thank you for what you choose.
Jenais is a food nerd living in Jackson and chasing dreams of cowboy powder.