Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 18
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton

BETTER IN BULK: “We have more than 350 different bulk products, which are very popular. Kids, especially, love to scoop the bulk items,” says Herb Mertz, Whole Earth Center Chairman of the Board of Trustees. He stands in front of a selection of bulk items, including pastry, soy protein, natural milled cane sugar, and natural licorice bites, just a small sampling of what is available.

Environmentally Friendly Whole Earth Center Celebrates Fortieth Anniversary in Princeton

For 40 years, this not-for-profit natural foods store has offered food “the way it is supposed to be” — organically grown, environmentally safe, and nutritionally sound.

The Whole Earth Center (WEC), located at 360 Nassau Street, has grown from modest beginnings in 1970 to a thriving, very popular market, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a three-day festival, coinciding with Earth Day.

“Our ‘WECstock’ event on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, April 22 (Earth Day), 23, and 24 was a big hit,” says Herb Mertz, Whole Earth Center Chairman of the Board of Trustees. “We had music, with local bands, including bluegrass and jazz, craft demonstrations, such as button-making and tie-dying, and lots of food sampling. There was a big crowd, and everyone had a great time.”

Founded by a group of local environmental activists — all women! — who put up seed money, the store was started with three goals, explains Board Vice President Laura Huntsman. “One was to establish an environmental center; second was to sell environmentally-related products, such as wood stoves — not necessarily food; and third, to conduct environmental research.

Strong Women

“It was a group of strong women, who said, ‘We need an environmental center’, and they were the original signers of the charter for the organization. We are a regular corporation except the by-laws state that money must be put back into the store’s operation. Resources are put toward furthering the store and furthering the store’s mission. We also donate funds for different causes, pay wages to employees, and pay taxes.”

A not-for-profit corporation, WEC is operated by a non-salaried board of trustees. With its mission of providing healthy, natural nutrition and also a forum about the environment, WEC has led the way in educating the public about these issues.

It has become a town meeting place for environmental activists. It is a leader in informing and empowering community members to explore a host of issues, including the need to reduce pesticide use, protect natural resources, provide habitat for wildlife, fight animal cruelty, encourage biodiversity, and support energy conservation and alternative fuels.

One only has to visit WEC to realize what a resounding success it is. Customers of all ages — from children to senior citizens — fill the aisles of the newly-expanded space and buy everything from local honey to specially milled flour to homeopathic remedies and natural cosmetics.

As interest in natural and environmentally friendly products has sky-rocketed, WEC has expanded its merchandise and its staff, which now numbers 57 — part- and full-time.

Organic and chemical-free foods are important issues for consumers today, and WEC is scrupulous about what it carries. “We really do police our products tougher than anyone else around. We’ve been very constant,” notes Mr. Mertz.

Local Farms

Dairy products are all certified bovine growth hormone- and antibiotics-free, and the produce is 100 percent organic, he points out. WEC also does not carry any irradiated foods or those grown with chemical fertilizers.

Buying from local farms whenever possible is a priority. Not only does it increase the level of freshness, it reduces the carbon footprint of extended travel time.

“On any given day, you see farmers dropping off products,” says WEC general manager and board member Jennifer Murray. “We are committed to local organic products, and we have tried to build a strong relationship with local farmers. This is part of our mission, and we are very enthusiastic about it. These are producers who care deeply about what they are growing.

“We have more than 6000 products, and our goal is always to keep up to date with the latest information and research. We go to conferences, and we have an awareness and excitement about the products we offer our customers.”

“We also keep abreast of political debates about food safety,” points out Ms. Huntsman.

WEC has been successful in establishing relationships with other like-minded Princeton merchants in order to further environmentally-friendly practices and awareness, she adds. “We carry Small World coffee and support local merchants like Bent Spoon, whom we have partnered with to create new ice cream flavors.”

Cutting Edge

WEC carries many artisan foods from area producers, such as Cherry Grove Farm, Terhune Orchards, Griggstown Quail Farm. TwinHens, and others.

“People count on us. We represent a cutting edge clientele,” reports Ms. Huntsman. “We have such a wonderful healthy selection. You can come here and get organic pancake mix, organic eggs, organic blueberries, and organic maple syrup. How is that for a great breakfast! When you think of something like that, not many places in the U.S. can offer it.”

Other popular items at WEC include oatmeal bread, Whole Earth salad, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and wheat-free vegan chocolate chip cookies.

People with special diets will find a plethora of ideas to accommodate their needs. The store’s selection of wheat-, gluten-, and sugar-free items and local honey offer a range of products for those with allergies and special dietary concerns.

One of the biggest attractions at WEC has always been its tremendous variety of bulk items, including everything from herbs and spices to dried fruits, and peanut butter.

A long-time WEC customer is enthusiastic about the advantage of shopping there and particularly about the bulk products and the discounts. “As a senior citizen who bikes to Whole Earth, I get all kinds of discounts. I especially like buying brown rice, oats for oatmeal, soy sauce, and peanut butter, filling jars I bring with me. Whole Earth’s recycling policy really pleases me.”

Price Savings

Other bulk items include coffee, teas, grains, flour, nuts, molasses, olive oil, and many, many more.

In addition, buying in bulk saves money because customers can buy as little or as much as they want.

Price savings also include 10 off each bulk item when customers bring their own jar or bag; special discounts for senior citizens every day; and for those who ride a bike to WEC, a card is punched if the cyclist makes a $10 purchase. After 10 punches, a $10 discount is offered on purchases. An alternative is a $1 discount each time.

The center also offers high quality, all-natural baby and pet food, as well as vitamins, supplements, and natural remedies, cruelty-free body care, and cosmetics, and eco-friendly cleaners and household goods.

WEC’s expanded vegetarian deli and cafe is a big hit. Customers come throughout the day to enjoy a sit-down meal or to take home a variety of delicious treats. Soups, salads, and entrees — all with organic grains and vegetables — are made fresh daily in the new kitchen. All the breads, muffins, cookies, and cakes are made completely from scratch in the whole grain bakery.

Popular signature deli items include the hummus sandwich, the Whole Earth salad, and a very popular new item is the raw vegetable and nut roll (a “finger salad”), featuring cabbage, carrots, cashews, and other ingredients all within a collard green wrap.

Homemade soups, hot entrees, organic juices, teas, and coffee are all available, and there are always new dishes to try, says Mr. Mertz. “The deli has a multi-cultural staff, and our customers like to explore new tastes.”

Keepin’ On

The WEC staff and board is proud that the center’s reputation continues to grow. It is worth noting that competitors come, and then go. Wild Oats and Olive May were two establishments that opened nearby, only to close within a few years.

“WEC is here, and they’re gone,” reports Ms. Huntsman. “We carry a lot of things they didn’t; I think we just keep on, keepin’ on.”

Adds Mr. Mertz: “Actually, the competition was good. It caused us to make some positive changes and continue to look forward, add new products, and explore new ideas. For example, we have introduced a line of teas from Africa, from a co-op of farmers. We are the only place in the U.S. to have it.

“Also, we have put solar panels on the roof above the deli and cafe. A monitor in the cafe will show how much energy is being saved and how much carbon dioxide is not being put into the atmosphere.

“I have enjoyed being able to guide the store’s growth and outreach and connection to the community,” he continues. “We have programs for kids, including tasting classes, exploring the five different tastes. It’s very hands-on, and getting kids involved at that age helps to shape their relationship with food.

“We also have been promoting ‘Lawn to Food’ four by eight-foot wooden garden frames, something like the Victory Gardens of World War II. They have raised beds for families to grow tomatoes, lettuce, etc.”

“Kids can feel connected to the food and see where it actually comes from,” adds Ms. Murray.

After 40 years, WEC staff and board members are as enthusiastic and committed as ever to the WEC mission. “We do this because it’s the right thing to do,” says Mr. Mertz. “I like watching how ‘mainstream’ the WEC mission has become and how people have come to embrace all those ideas we have been talking about for 40 years. WEC is a wonderful institution.”

Hours are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 8 to 8, Sunday 9 to 7. (609) 924-7429. Website:,

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