Food Footprint: A Truly Green Grocer

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While making the documentary King Corn, filmmaker Aaron Woolf became so appalled by the food industry that he opened his own grocery store in Brooklyn. He provides shoppers with detailed information on food's impact on the planet, but does anyone care?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Unidentified Woman: Food contributes a third of the world's greenhouse gases.

Unidentified Man: What happens on your plate is how we change the landscape, the atmosphere.

Unidentified Woman: What can I do with my food choices?

Unidentifed Children: (singing) Food, glorious food.

CHADWICK: All this week we are taking a look at food's carbon footprint.

BRAND: If you care about food and its environmental impact, than Brooklyn's Urban Rustic grocery store could be the place for you. Its focus is local, traceable and sustainable.

CHADWICK: This store is the creation of a filmmaker, not a grocer. His name is Aaron Woolf. He made a documentary, "King Corn" about high fructose corn syrup and other corn by-products and it got him into the food business. From member station WNYC in New York, Marianne McCune reports.

MARIANNE MCCUNE: Filmmaker Aaron Woolf says he was so dismayed by what he learned about the corn industry that he itched to put his camera down and become part of the solution.

Mr. AARON WOOLF (Filmmaker, "King Corn"): What we really want to do is to get people to think about where their food comes from.

MCCUNE: One of his business partners, Dan Cipriani used to make fast food ads.

Mr. DAN CIPRIANI (Business Partner, Urban Rustic): You know the glamour shots. The tabletop shots for when you see a close-up of a burger.

MCCUNE: For years he made hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup look tasty. Now, he's pushing kale and potatoes.

Mr. CIPRIANI: It's like my penance for selling all that bad food for so many years.

Unidentified Woman #2: Is that here or to go?

MCCUNE: At Urban Rustic there are tortillas made by local immigrant women. There's Brooklyn-made soap. Milk made from just north of the city. Meat and veggies from Long Island or New Jersey. And Aaron Woolf posts handwritten notes on each shelf describing where the products come from.

Mr. WOOLF: When I was a kid my mom knew the butcher's name, Mr. Oleshevsky (ph), and we would go and we would see the sides of beef in the background, you know, and I think we were aware of what the process was.

MCCUNE: Now Woolf says most people don't have any connection with their food, so this grocery and cafe are an attempt to reconnect consumers and producers. Woolf says he thought about labeling his products according to their carbon footprint, but in the end, he says he wouldn't want a kiwi from New Zealand just because its footprint might be technically smaller than a New York apple.

Mr. WOOLF: I guess I resist this idea of having one simple scale upon which we measure the virtue of our food choices. I think that that kiwi from New Zealand is also lacking a lot of other things that I would want to put into that statistic.

MCCUNE: Like selling fruit that's cultivated for its flavor and nutrition, not its shelf life. Now, in Santa Cruz, California, where Urban Rustic's cafe manager, April Roman (ph) comes from, selling local organic produce is no problem.

Ms. APRIL ROMAN (Manager, Urban Rustic Cafe Manager): When I first heard about the market, I was like, great, this is amazing. It's going to be huge. And then people are like, well, that's great, but I just want tomatoes, you know. And so it's difficult because you're like, well, it's December and it's New York and you know, there aren't any.

MCCUNE: Next winter, Roman says, Urban Rustic will work with local farms that freeze vegetables, so they can sell them when nothing grows. Meanwhile, the cafe tries to nudge customers towards winter produce with sample salads of say, the root vegetables celeriac or black radishes. But, Woolf says his store is not about orthodoxy. There are fruits and vegetables from California and Florida.

Mr. WOOLF: There's only so much celeriac you can sell.

MCCUNE: So, I see behind you Heinz tomato ketchup. Is that a sustainable product?

Mr. WOOLF: No, it's not, but I'm going to go get...

MCCUNE: Woolf defends himself. One of his partners is from Pittsburgh and says the Heinz family foundation does great work there. He picks up the ketchup bottle to read the label.

Mr. WOOLF: This may be the, actually, only product in this store that contains high fructose corn syrup.

Ms. MCCUNE: A couple shelves away, customer Mattias Kioda (ph) is checking out some herbal bug repellant. He happens to have a master degree in small-scale economic development, but despite his credentials, Kioda says he's not bothered that Urban Rustic makes some compromises.

Mr. MATTIAS KIODA (Customer, Urban Rustic): To be quite honest, the biggest problem we face in sustainable development are the people who hug the trees publicly. Because to win this movement, we have to gain the middle ground. And by appearing as crazy environmental radicals and so forth, we lose that automatically.

Mr. WOOLF: I'm not sure we could do everything in the most sustainable version of itself and still be a neighborhood grocery that people could come to...

MCCUNE: Woolf says Americans should pay more for their food, the rest of the world does. And he wants shoppers who are willing to pay 12 dollars for a large jar of Brooklyn pickles or seven for a chocolate bar, but he doesn't want to become a boutique. Urban Rustic's challenge is to offer a competitively priced egg and cheese sandwich and still use cage-free organic eggs. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune, in New York.

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