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Published: 7/15/2008

Health enthusiasts reluctant to give up pricey organic foods

BY TED FACKLER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Judy Koles checks out organic vegetables at Claudia's Natural Food Market in Sylvania. Judy Koles checks out organic vegetables at Claudia's Natural Food Market in Sylvania.
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In a display fridge at Claudia's Natural Food Market in Sylvania, Organic Valley Orange juice sells for $7.39 a half gallon. Nearby, a 15-ounce bag of Kettle Brand potato chips costs $5.29.

Despite rising fuel and food costs, sales at several local organic and health food markets remain strong, managers said. For loyal customers convinced that natural foods are the key to good health, purchases are not discretionary spending that can be reduced like movie tickets and restaurant trips, they added.

"Even if gas prices are $20 a gallon, I'm still going to be buying organic meat," said Diana Patton, a regular Claudia's customer. "It's not just like 'Oh, gas prices are up. Let's go buy meat that's injected with hormones and hurt [my] family.'•

"You're either going to pay for your health now, or you're going to pay for it later," she added.

Customer Judy Koles, of Sylvania, also continues to pay top dollar for organic products.

"I probably haven't cut back, but maybe that's foolish," she said.

Local organic and natural food markets are pleased by their customers' loyalty, and said that rising fuel and food costs have failed to dent their sales.

"Once people make up their minds to chose natural and organic foods, cost is not the issue," said Betsy Ransford, general manager of the Pheonix Earth Food Co-Operative in Toledo. The non-profit grocer, which sells local dairy, meat, and produce products, among others, has 600 regular customers.

"I haven't heard a lot of them saying 'Oh gosh, because of the gas prices we have to cut back,'•" said Mrs. Ransford, adding that customers expect higher prices because of rising food costs worldwide.

Pat Bassett, an owner of two Bassett's Health Food stores in the Toledo area, agreed that organics are here to stay. "I seem to be hanging in there pretty darn good," she said.

But some customers have changed some of their shopping habits, stocking up on foods once-a-week instead of visiting frequently, said Claudia Roscoe, owner of Claudia's Natural Food Market.

Lori Rupp, a regular at Claudia's for 15 years, now shops "once or twice" a week. She used to go almost four times weekly.

To save money, she also uses more coupons, buys more sales items, and combines shopping trips to save gas. But not buying organic foods will never happen even if fuel prices continue to climb, Mrs. Rupp said.

"I'd have to [change], but it wouldn't be changing how I eat. That would be one of the last things I would change," she said.

Sales are up 10 percent at Claudia's from last year, Ms. Roscoe said.

The salmonella outbreak possibly linked to tomatoes, chilli peppers, and cilantro boosted sales of organically-grown tomatoes, she said.

"Our customer base doesn't really consider this food a specialty," Ms. Roscoe added. "For consumers, this is a lifestyle for them."

Contact Ted Fackler at:

tfackler@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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