Meat heads

Chico Natural Foods’ cheese case contains some products that figure into the meat-or-meatless debate.

Chico Natural Foods’ cheese case contains some products that figure into the meat-or-meatless debate.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Chico Natural Foods is a grocery store with a conscience, and like all consciences, it sometimes gets confused about the right thing to do.

Once again CNF members are in the throes of an ethical debate over what to sell in the store. Before it was whether to sell beer and wine (booze won). Now it’s whether the heretofore vegetarian grocery co-op should offer meat products.

Most stores don’t think twice about such matters, of course—if customers want meat, they get meat. But CNF is different. Its members want to feel good about what the store sells. And many of them are vegetarians who believe killing is wrong and meat is an inefficient use of natural resources.

On the other hand, the store has many customers who do eat meat, and they don’t like the fact that they can’t do all their grocery shopping in one place.

Recently the store’s directors decided to conduct a vote among CNF members to learn whether most are in favor of offering meat options. If the response to the question is any indication, people feel passionately about the subject.

The store sent out packets of information and ballots to the households of its members. There was also a public hearing at the county library on Sherman Avenue to generate discussion.

“We thought this was the best and fairest way to decide,” said Rachel Oriana Schraeder, manager of Chico Natural Foods. “We want people to feel this was a healthy dialogue. We’re not attached to our products; we’re attached to serving our buyers.”

Chico Natural Foods is a grocery cooperative, meaning that shoppers who join are actually part-owners. Members receive discounts on certain purchases in exchange for their $20 dues. The co-op has been in its present location on the corner of Eighth and Main streets since 1987.

Most of those opposed to the store’s offering meat products are vegans, meaning they don’t consume meat, meat products or dairy products, said Kiersten Ellis, a member of the CNF board of directors.

Chico Natural Foods is not a vegan, or even a purely vegetarian, store; it sells tuna for cats, as well as milk, honey, fish oil and cheese made with rennet. Still, most customers consider it a vegetarian store.

Randy Larsen, a co-op member, believes CNF’s success is dependent upon continuing to occupy its niche as the only vegetarian grocery store in Chico.

“People who believe strongly, like many vegetarians do, support the store because of its values,” Larsen said. “People drive from far away to shop here because of those values.”

Larsen believes that the store would flounder without continued support from its loyal customers, he said. “Even George Bush is smart enough not to alienate his supporters,” Larsen said.

Not all customers see CNF as a vegetarian store, however. People looking for such products as wild salmon and organic chicken are turned away from Chico Natural Foods on a daily basis, Ellis said.

Several people have told Ellis they would do their grocery shopping at the store if it offered meat options; they avoid Chico Natural Foods because they can’t get everything they want.

If it is decided that Chico Natural Foods will offer meat, it will likely offer a selection of organic, free-range and cruelty-free meat products. “It’s not that we aren’t going to cater to vegans and vegetarians, because we will,” Ellis said. “It’s just that there will be options.”

Terri Enslin, a co-op member, was once a vegetarian. She now believes the reasoning behind vegetarianism is flawed from a health standpoint and that healthful meat produced on small sustainable farms should be offered at Chico Natural Foods.

“The meat of unhealthy animals is bad,” Enslin said, “not meat in general.”