Traditional Foods off Lyndale leads extreme natural foods movement

Old Macdonald had a warehouse, e i e i o?

Unless you've attended one of the rapid-fire auctions at the Minneapolis Police Property and Evidence Unit—where an ill-timed scratch of the nose could send you home with a stolen BMX or seized firearm—you might not be familiar with the industrial pocket just north of Highway 62 between Lyndale and Nicollet. Pockmarked with potholes and crisscrossed by railroad tracks, it's one of those areas the city would probably prefer to forget. The first time I visited the cinder-block warehouse adjacent to the concrete company on West 61st Street, its parking lot was ringed by wrecked automobiles and completely flooded by recent rains. It looked like one of the decaying streetscapes in The Wire. Despite what the setting might have suggested, I wasn't there to engage in a drug deal, but a transaction some consider equally clandestine: tracking down a half-gallon of raw milk.

Though Traditional Foods Warehouse's facilities are far from our state's lush, rural pastures, its mission is to bring farm-fresh foods to urban consumers with as little overhead as possible. Hence, the warehouse operates as something of a year-round farmers' market whose inventory falls into three categories. First are the whole foods that come direct from nearby farmers, many of whom sell at local co-ops and farmers' markets, such as Thousand Hills beef and Castle Rock dairy products. The second group of products comes from value-added micro producers whose jam- or sauerkraut-making operations are too small to supply a larger retailer. The last segment includes non-local foods and supplements sought for their healthful properties, such as coconut oil and vitamin D.

Eating natural, sustainably produced foods is increasingly a mainstream idea—even Wal-Mart started carrying organics. Here in the Twin Cities, the farmers' market system is expanding and the co-ops are thriving. While the Midtown Global Market's Farm in the Market recently closed, it was quickly replaced by a similar business, the Chase Brook Farm Market. Specialty shops such as Golden Fig and Local D'Lish offer a fresh take on the neighborhood convenience store—forgoing Cheetos and Red Bull for handmade local foods displayed in a boutique-style retail setting. And now we have the Traditional Foods Warehouse, which adds another unique take on sustainable-food shopping. Because the business is structured as a buying club (shoppers pay $75 for a lifetime membership or $10 for a day pass to fund operating costs), Traditional Foods can facilitate direct-to-consumer sales of items not sanctioned for retail purchase, such as almonds and milk that haven't been pasteurized. "We're part of a wave," says Will Winter, one of Traditional Foods' founders. "We're the extreme part of it."

Inside, the warehouse looks less extreme than ad hoc, with racks, coolers, and refrigerator cases covering the warehouse's concrete floors to display its inventory. There were only a few shoppers when I stopped in, who gathered their purchases as soft jazz played in the background. The back of the warehouse has been turned into a children's play zone filled with primary-colored, climbable structures, and a living room-type area for adults. Traditional Foods' founders hope to make the warehouse not just a shopping but a gathering space by offering lectures, classes, and tastings.

With its limited inventory and hours of operation, Traditional Foods lacks many of the amenities of a full-service grocery. Even among obsessive food shoppers who make regular rounds of the co-ops, markets, Trader Joe's, Costcos, specialty food shops, and ethnic grocers to buy items at their best quality/price ratio, I'm not sure most would consider adding yet another stop, even with the potential for slight savings. (Prices seemed comparable to those at the co-ops and markets, though some products were slightly cheaper, such as Sno-Pak's local, organic frozen vegetables, which were marked at about a 20 percent discount from those sold at the Wedge. Winter estimates that 85 percent of a product's cost goes to the farmer, but that the best savings come from buying in bulk, such as ordering a side of beef.) But for neighbors without convenient access to a co-op or farmers' market, or those seeking foods they can't find elsewhere, visiting the Traditional Foods Warehouse may become a new ritual.

Traditional Foods was inspired by the research of Weston A. Price, a turn-of-the-century dentist who studied the characteristics of traditional diets in isolated populations unexposed to modern, processed foods. It attracts the sorts of customers who are up on Michael Pollan's latest work and are as comfortable discussing nutrient density, CLA ratios, and protomorphogens as most people are the weather. Many Traditional Foods shoppers subscribe to Hippocrates' belief that food is man's best medicine. "Americans spend 8 percent of our income on food and 22 percent on doctors," says Winter. "In Italy it's the other way around. You either pay the farmer and the butcher or you pay the doctor."

Winter, a tall man with white facial hair and small round glasses, serves as the warehouse's ambassador and gave me a tour of the premises. Winter tends to dress like a farmer, in a ball cap and sweatshirt, but talks a lot faster. He ran a holistic veterinary practice in Uptown for many years until he transitioned from working with pets to livestock. Today, he consults farmers raising grass-fed animals, most notably those who supply Thousand Hills Cattle Company. Winter firmly believes that pasture-raising animals not only produces higher-quality meat and dairy products but improves the health of the environment and the animals themselves—essentially making his old job obsolete. "Most farms I work with, their vet bill is zero," he says.

Winter raises Berkshire hogs near New Ulm and sells their meat at Traditional Foods under the Lucky Pig label. "Pork is not supposed to be white," Winter says, as he pulls a blush-pink heritage ham out of a freezer and explains how his hogs forage for grass, bugs, roots, acorns, and weeds when possible and, much like the hogs used for Europe's prized Parma hams, are fed cheese whey, to give their meat a richer, fattier flavor.

In the winter months, Traditional Foods sells a minimal amount of produce, though soon the site will be used as a CSA (community-supported agriculture) drop point for members to pick up weekly crop shares. The majority of the warehouse's current offerings are pantry goods similar to those in a typical co-op: flours made from heritage wheat or spelt; bulk tubs of lard and tallow; a powdered, caffeine-free coffee substitute' and goat-milk laundry soap. But there are several ready-to-eat products, too, including honey, stocks, and homemade soups.

Winter says they're planning to build a commercial kitchen and offer more prepared foods. Right now, the future kitchen site is being used by one of their vendors to brew a fermented tea called kombucha, and a faint vinegar smell emanates from several large jars containing colorful liquids. Winter is a big proponent of the health benefits of fermented foods and says he makes his own kombucha and drinks it like water. "It's the healthiest thing I do for my body," he says, attributing the beverage's ability to scavenge free radicals to helping break down gallstones, improve joint flexibility, and ward off dementia, among other benefits. "I can't remember the last time I had a cold," he says.

In the dry goods section, the kombucha is sold in returnable glass bottles displayed on a wine rack, and Winter pours me a sample in a champagne flute. "It's your flu shot," he says as we toast glasses. The drink has a slight fizz and a sour tang that makes the tongue tingle in a way that makes it a good placebo, if nothing else. As I sip the sour, sparkling beverage, I try to forget that Winter had just showed me the kombucha's culture, or "mother," a yeast-bacteria colony that looks like an enormous, slimy, gray elephant booger.

Traditional Foods has acquired several hundred members since it opened this past fall, most of whom are strong local-food advocates, including several chefs known for their seasonal cooking. Many are mothers concerned with feeding their children healthful foods, or people with diet-associated health problems, such as irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn's disease, lactose or gluten intolerance, heart problems, or allergies. "Half the people come in here because they're sick," Winter says.

One of the main health foods the warehouse customers swear by is raw, unpasteurized milk. "Once you start drinking it, you'll never go back," one shopper told me. (Because state laws require that raw milk may only be purchased directly from a farmer, Traditional Foods connects buyers with farmers so they can place a standing order.) Though humans have been drinking raw milk since sheep and goats were domesticated centuries ago, its propensity to contain harmful, disease-causing pathogens has caused many public-health figures to consider pasteurization essential. But heat-treating the milk, raw enthusiasts say, destroys beneficial bacteria, proteins, and enzymes along with the bad pathogens, and they claim that raw milk has the ability to help cure everything from cancer to autism.

Later, back at home, I poured myself a tall, cold glass of raw milk. I'd like to say that as soon as I polished it off my knee stopped aching and my skin took on a radiant glow. That didn't happen, but the milk tasted delicious—straight from the farm, fresh, creamy, and pure. 

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