You won't find us listed on the New York Stock Exchange, nor are we going to open a store in neighborhoods all over the planet." This anticorporate website claim by the Good Earth Natural Foods store in Fairfax can be trusted, since it's managed to remain a neighborhood grocery ever since the Summer of Love. The 40-year anniversary celebration on Aug. 15 marks the success of an organic grocery business that since 1969 has remained planted firmly in the community. Like the planet for which it is named, there is only one. After examining the foundations of a charming food paradise that has refused to replicate itself, my guess is that Good Earth missed the opportunity to achieve world dominance—McDonald's- and Starbucks-style—for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it had a more important calling: to help create and expand the organic food trade in California. Can a neighborhood grocery store really do that?
"I look at the store here as the history of the organic-food trade," says owner Mark Squire. "We've seen it all." At age 17, Squire started working at the store when it was just a few months old. Five years later, he co- purchased the place, which is now an almost exclusively organic food store run under the leadership of four working owners with the assistance of about a hundred employees.
But back when Squire was a teen learning the grocery trade in a small Fairfax store, organic food was a freak thing, not even close to popular. "I was here before there was organic law," Squire says. "And there were only a few organic farmers scattered throughout California. When we started, people thought we were crazies, and there weren't a whole lot of customers for organics. So we immediately went into a dual mission of providing organic foods and educating the public about them." Squire adds humorously, "I was young and idealistic and didn't need a whole lot of income."
Squire's idealism was grounded in part in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which had opened the door to a post-pesticide era, still just emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Carson remains a hero to Squire who, believing we need to build a new food system, joined the California Certification of Organic Farmers board in the 1980s and helped shape what would become the organic farming standards.
"We spent a lot of time in rooms debating how long it takes for a strawberry to be considered organic," Squire explains. "If soil is kept organic for three years and you plant a seed, then what grows from the seed can be accepted as organic. But strawberries are grown from starts. At what point is the strawberry produced from a start considered organic? People mistakenly think that organic standards are straightforward. They don't understand the level of detail involved, nor the fact that the standards we set for California were never meant to be static. The process is complex and constantly evolving. Sometimes it was arbitrary where the line was set, but a line had to be drawn."
Now that organic foods are a big part of the California scene, Squire might rest on a produce crate and congratulate himself on a job well done. But he claims there is always "another level of work to be done to maintain food purities." This includes stopping the use of genetically modified organisms. Squire serves on the board of California's Non-GMO Project, developing a verification system through which manufacturers who eliminate GMOs can get market credit.
"We've spent the last few years developing the standard for that," Squire says. "This October, we plan to roll it out."
Next week, he will be rolling out the carpet for guests at his store's 40th anniversary party. Will he stay in the business? "I'm pretty happy doing what I'm doing here," Squire says. "I'll be involved in food for as long as I'm making a difference."
For party information and a brief hippie-tale history of how this Fairfax grocery store changed the California food industry, go to www.goodearthnaturalfoods.net. Good Earth Natural Foods' anniversary party, replete with kids activities, live music, free food, a bike raffle and special discounts, is slated for Saturday, Aug. 15, from 11am to 5pm. 1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax. 415.454.0123.