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Healthy Choice

Baltimore FAmilies for Natural Living establishes new natural-foods buying club

By Ericka Blount Danois | Posted 11/27/2002

When Skai Davis went to visit South Carolina's Gullah Islands--home to the descendants and traditional culture of West Africa's Rice Coast--last February, she was hoping for a spiritual and cultural awakening. What the U.S Virgin Islands-born Baltimorean hadn't anticipated was that, in just 24 hours, she would gain the inspiration to change her life's path.

While eating falafel at the No Pork Café on the St. Helena Islands, she and her friend Oluku Lennon experienced a moment of epiphany. Amid the smells of sweet-potato soup and freshly boiled plantains, they came up with the concept for Empress Catering, a personal-chef and catering service that specializes in vegetarian foods. And ever since Nov. 5, Davis has also been using the natural-foods experience she's gained from her Empress Catering business to support a new food-buying club run by the Baltimore chapter of Families for Natural Living.

The Newport News, Va.-based nonprofit group, which is made up of families who have banded together to support healthier, more natural lifestyles, was formed locally in March 2001. Members of the group, frustrated with the high prices of natural foods sold at traditional retail establishments, started the food-buying club to purchase organic and health foods in bulk at wholesale prices. Currently, the group has its bulk shipments of organic foods, health-care products, and cosmetics delivered to a vacant commercial space in the 2400 block of St. Paul Street. But Davis and the group's other members hope that the club will generate enough interest to become a full-fledged natural food co-op--a member-owned and -operated food store that offers its members and the general public alternatives to the profit-oriented food-buying experience.

Davis, who has honey-colored dreads that hang to her waist, was eight months pregnant when she decided to endure the 12-hour road trip to see the Gullah Islands. A month after she came back, she went on maternity leave from her job and began operating Empress Catering out of her home with the intention of eventually opening a café like the one she saw in South Carolina.

"I have always wanted to do a restaurant," she says. "My mother owned a seafood restaurant called the Lobster Hole in St. Croix [U.S. Virgin Islands] . . . so I know how to run a restaurant from beginning to end."

Her restaurateur dream will come true in January when she expects to open the Yabba Pot--a combination vegetarian café and gift store--in the St. Paul Street space where the food-club deliveries are shipped. More than a personal business venture, according to Davis, the restaurant will give Families for Natural Living a stronger foundation and identity in the city. The group's members hope that other families who share their philosophies will find the group through the café.

The national Families for Natural Living group follows the philosophies of Peggy O'Mara--editor of Mothering magazine and author of several books including, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting. Ricquel Ricks-Cumbo and Jamillah Nasir were part of a "sister circle"--a group of women who share stories, ideas, spirituality, and food--with Davis, and they decided to form the local Families for Natural Living chapter as a support network for their ideologies and needs.

"We were all living natural lifestyles and we had no one to talk to about it," Davis says. "Some of us don't vaccinate our children. We don't eat meat with drugs and chemicals. Some of us are holistic practitioners. Some of us nurse our children until they are three years old."

Finding affordable foods and goods that fit their lifestyles was another matter. Ricks-Cumbo, who was a member of a food co-op in New York when she lived there, says she was surprised that she could not find one like it in Baltimore--especially, she says, because the prices at local health food stores are "astronomical." It seemed fitting, she says, that Families for Natural Living should start its own co-op.

Families pay a one-time fee of $25 to join the club (and the term "family" is undefined so as not to exclude anyone from potential membership). Families place their orders weekly from a catalog. The club buys the products in bulk and passes the savings on to members. Members can purchase a wide range of health foods, natural soaps and oils, organic foods, natural cleaning products, and earth-friendly feminine hygiene products. Members of the buying club do not have to be part of Families for Natural Living to participate, and so far, 10 families have joined the club.

Joseph Holtz, a co-founder of the nation's largest food co-op, the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that the concept has its origins in the Great Depression. People banded together then to save money on food and other products. After the Depression, the co-op movement quieted, then experienced a resurgence in the late '60s and early '70s (Holtz's co-op started in '73), a time when people were becoming interested in exercising greater control over their communities, products, and services. Food co-ops became popular once again in the '90s, due mostly to a revived interest in healthier living.

Davis, who was a member of a food-buying club in the Virgin Islands where she grew up, says the fledgling food-buying club is long overdue in Baltimore. "Going to the health-food store is outrageous," she says. "Organic apples are $1.99 a pound--going to a buying club, you can get them for 79 cents a pound."

More than a lower grocery bill, Davis says Families for Natural Living gives her a feeling of community she didn't have before its formation. "It is important for me to be in this type of group," she says. "I only have one family member here in Baltimore."

At the group's monthly meetings, topics of discussion may include natural childbirth, home birthing, breast-feeding, vegetarianism, holistic health, homeschooling, natural health practitioners, sugar, food preparation, alternative schools, organics and genetically engineered foods, and vaccinations and immunizations.

"Our goal is to inform as many people as possible about their choices," Davis says. "You are sometimes given one-sided information. We try to give you all the choices so you can make the right choices for your family."

Lisa Reagan, national president of Families for Natural Living, says people who choose to raise their families outside the mainstream do not receive much support, except from one another. "When you make these choices you are considered an oddball," she says. "You need support to do this kind of thing. You need the support of other people in the community, it can be daunting.

"I was a mainstream mom that came into the group. It wasn't like I had to change overnight to be accepted. We've had people bring Happy Meals for their kids to meetings, and it was just like, 'OK pass the fries.'"

Reagan says that Families for Natural Living does not tell its members how to run their lives. "We don't say that in order to be in the group you can't vaccinate your children," she says. "We just want to empower parents to realize that they do have choices on these issues."

Each Families for Natural Living chapter varies in its beliefs, methods, and practices, but all follow the general philosophies of Mothering, a publication that Reagan says addresses the issue of "conscious parenting" and has blazed a trail in the natural-living movement.

She says she looks forward to the growth of the organization here. "The Baltimore chapter is really doing a lot of great things," Reagan says.

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