Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 35
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton

THE NATURAL WAY: “Our produce department is all-organic, and it’s a super draw for customers,” says Herb Mertz, member of the board of trustees of the Whole Earth Center at 360 Nassau Street. He is shown in the colorful and newly expanded produce department.

Natural Foods and Environmental Awareness Are Mission of Princeton’s Whole Earth Center

For 39 years, the Whole Earth Center, the not-for-profit natural foods store has offered food “the way it is supposed to be” — organically grown, environmentally safe, and nutritionally sound.

And in the course of those years, it has become a Princeton institution, offering the community not only safer foods and products but information and opportunities for learning.

The Whole Earth Center was founded in 1970, the year of the original Earth Day, and it is operated by a non-salaried five-member board of trustees and a paid staff. Major goals from the onset included offering food and other products without chemical additives or preservatives, bulk food free of excess packaging, and providing an information center for environmental and agricultural issues.

One only has to visit Whole Earth to realize what a resounding success it is. Customers of all ages — from kids to senior citizens — fill the aisles of the newly renovated space and buy everything from local honey to organic produce to grass fed meat to specially milled flour to homeopathic remedies and natural cosmetics.

As interest in natural products has boomed, Whole Earth has expanded its space, merchandise, and staff, which now numbers 50, including full- and part-time.

“There has been a groundswell of interest,” reports Herb Mertz, member of the board of trustees since 1983. “People are concerned about local sustainability, global warming, and finding natural alternatives.”

“Green” Addition

Consciousness has been raised, and as interest has grown, and the numbers of customers increased, Whole Earth found itself outgrowing its space. It expanded over the years, and recently added a 2500 square-foot “green” addition, taking over and renovating what had been the adjacent Judy’s Flower Shop.

“We wanted to increase the space, and we had wanted street frontage for a long time,” notes Mr. Mertz. The store has now expanded to a total of 8,000 square feet, and faces Nassau Street.

“The expansion gave us additional space for the cafe and the vegetarian deli,” adds general manager Audrey Braam, who has been with Whole Earth since 1987. “We separated the bakery and deli kitchens, and now have two separate kitchens. Since its expansion, the deli has almost doubled its business. There is lots of take-out, and also many customers enjoy eating at the cafe, which has also been expanded.

“People come regularly,” she continues. “Some come in the morning every day for a muffin and coffee, and then shop. Others come every day for lunch. The guacamole is a huge hit and always sells out. The soups, salads, and sandwiches are big hits too.”

Organic Foods

Organic foods and products without chemical additives are important issues for many consumers today, and Whole Earth is scrupulous about what it carries. “The dairy products are all certified bovine growth hormone-free, and many of our products are 100 percent organic. To be called organic, the farmer needs to be certified organic by a regulatory group, such as NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association),” explains Ms. Braam. “We carry grass-fed meat with no antibiotics from local farms and cage-free chickens, and our packaged foods, such as cookies, crackers, and cereals, are non-GMO (genetically modified organism). Corn is the biggest GMO, and we have non-GMO sweeteners. We also have products without bleached flour or highly processed ingredients.

“We are very careful about organisms in cosmetics, which can be absorbed into the skin. We don’t have any petroleum-based products, and no products that have been animal-tested. We carry certified organic lines of soaps, lotions, and other face care products.”

In addition, she points out, “Everything is as least processed as possible. We encourage use of healthier oils, not highly refined vegetable oils. And we also use the least packaging possible.”

Certainly, packaging is not fancy at Whole Earth. Customers are offered a 10 rebate when they bring in their own jar or bag, and if they use one of the center’s own bags, they can make a 5 donation to Whole Earth’s tree planting fund.

Huge Assortment

Buying in bulk has always been important at Whole Earth, and this reduces packaging and cost, cuts out the middle man, and is environmentally-friendly.

“Our bulk department is the largest around,” says Mr. Mertz. “Customers love it. We have a huge assortment of products, including nuts and oats. People buy a lot of organic rolled oats.”

Bulk items include a myriad of products: beans of every kind, dried fruits, herbs, rice, flour, multi-grain pancake and waffle mix, and grind-your-own peanut butter — the last a huge favorite.

Coffee, sugar, and chocolate are all fair trade, so that farmers are paid a fair wage, note Ms. Braam and Mr. Mertz, and there are many choices available.

“Organically-grown” is stressed in baking needs today, and that is the case with Whole Earth’s own bakery. The freshly baked whole grain breads, cookies, cakes, and muffins are wholesome and delicious — and sell out every day. “The cookies are totally first class,” says Mr. Mertz, with a smile.

Customers, who come from all over the area, include many families, he adds. “More and more young families are coming, too. Kids are becoming interested in healthier food, and we’ve been involved in school garden projects the past few years. We have also had a ‘Lawn to Food’ program for people to start their own garden. We’ve sold more than 80 kits with frames for raised beds, for people to grow tomatoes, lettuce, etc.”

Meeting Place

Whole Earth also works closely with other businesses in town to support organic farming, recycling, energy conservation, and other community-friendly activities.

“We are even more community-based now that we have more space,” points out Ms. Braam. “We have talks and lectures on alternative farming practices and how they can be more efficient, and we have movies. We have become a real community meeting place. People see each other and stay and chat.

“I really enjoy watching customers come in and get real food. I’m looking forward to a time when we’re not thought of as an alternative but as simply a way to get the best food and to see how everything is connected. People are trying to eat healthier, and there is more awareness of how food is produced and where it’s from.”

Mr. Mertz is pleased to see how enthusiastic the customers are, how their numbers continue to grow, and how much Whole Earth has become an integral part of their lives. “I like watching how ‘mainstream’ the Whole Earth idea has become, and how people have come to embrace all those ideas we’ve been talking about for 39 years.”

Whole Earth products are conveniently arranged and clearly marked for easy shopping. Monthly sales are offered, with sale items identified at the end of each aisle. A book of coupons with savings is also available quarterly.

Whole Earth is open 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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