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Right to Know Grocer Spotlight: Sunspot Natural Market Is Mixing Things Up!

  • Organic Consumers Association, December 18, 2013

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our All About Organics page.

When Joan Johnson founded Sunspot Natural Market in Kikomo, Ind., 36 years ago, GMOs and social media weren’t part of anyone’s vocabulary.

Today, Joan and her team have mastered the art of using Sunspot’s facebook page as a social media bully pulpit for the anti-GMO movement. Posts like “Remember our battle cry: Just say “NO!” to GMO!” remind consumers that they have a choice. Updates on GMO labeling initiatives, the Monsanto Protection Act and Marches against Monsanto, interspersed with articles and videos, remind folks of Joan’s tenaciousness when it comes to educating her customers and suppliers.

Joan’s anti-GMO campaign—which earned Sunspot a place on the Organic Consumers Association’s Top 12 Right to Know Grocers list —was born five years ago, when she couldn’t find GMO-free bulk soy lecithin. Soon after, the store’s suppliers learned that the words “battle cry” were no exaggeration when it comes to Joan’s determination to rid her stores’ shelves of products containing GMOs. Sunspot buyers read labels, check incoming deliveries and contact manufacturers when they suspect a product may contain GMOs. When they attend trade shows, they grill manufacturers about the GMO ingredients in their products, and drop those that aren’t able to come clean. They even pressure local livestock producers to discontinue using GMO feed.

But it was long before GMOs came on the market, that Joan took a keen interest in the connection between food and health. “In high school, when my grandmother died, I inherited her herbal (a book containing the names and descriptions of plants)—she had pressed actual plants between the pages in their respective chapters. I knew what I wanted to do right then. Offer herbal remedies to folks because I do believe that we have evolved with plants since the beginning. I continue to love learning about plants and their relation to human health and happiness.”

Along with being passionate about GMOs, Joan is also clearly passionate about getting to know her customers, educating them about a wide variety of food and health issues and providing a healthy community gathering place. Sunspot provides customers with plenty of in-store information, including Non-GMO Project materials, house-made "What are GMO's?" leaflets and GMO-free signage under popular products, like corn chips. The store has executed its mission—to help our customers make better decisions about their health and well-being, while providing the finest quality food and supplements available—so well over the years, that 10 years ago, Sunspot opened a second location, in West Lafayette, Ind.

The West Lafayette store’s "Food for Thought" speaker series recently featured presentations on the power of fermented foods, “Farm to Fork, Understanding the True Benefits of Local, Fresh Foods” and a native plants presentation. The Kokomo store's "Table Talk" series has included talks on factory farms, a presentation about a customer’s recent trip to Cuba to study the country’s sustainable agriculture initiatives, and “GMOs, Friend or Foe”, a table talk by Dr. Kent Blacklidge, a GMO expert from Purdue University.

Even the choice of the store’s name reflects Joan’s commitment to health and building community. “Sunspot hopefully lives up to its name:  A sunny, hopeful, happy place or, more scientifically, a storm on the sun that mixes things up a little!”

On GMOs . . .

Q.  When did your store decide to take action to protect your customers from GMOs?

A:  It was about 5 years ago when I became concerned that I could not find bulk soy lecithin anymore. Then I found out there was already a problem of getting non-GMO soy at a decent price.

Q.  How did your store's GMO education, labeling and purchasing policies and practices come about?

A.  We quickly realized that we had much work to do when even our savviest customers did not know what GMO stood for, let alone why they would want non-GMO!  So, one on one, we began the conversation. I also talked with each buyer for The Sunspot and made sure to ask about purity before bringing in any new products. We would love to be a completely GMO-free store someday!

Q.  What has been the most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of your store?

A.  When calling manufacturers for details on sources of ingredients many times we get the "we are not sure but will get back with you" or "we are working on that" which is not an answer! Even worse is when the person on the phone says "we are supposed to tell you it's gluten-free." That’s when I know they have no clue what I’m even asking.

Q.  What do you think about GMOs and livestock feed as they relate to your local and regional meat and dairy producers?

A.  It's a big problem, but we are interviewing each supplier. I was devastated when I found out that alfalfa, which is such a powerhouse of nutrition, was cleared for genetic modification. We had to educate our local egg suppliers when we found that even though the chickens were pastured, they were still being fed GMO grain during the winter months.

Q.  Please share a few stories about your success in persuading manufacturers to remove or replace GMO ingredients in their products.

A.  The local egg farmers did change over to non-GMO feed when we educated them about the feed they were buying. Also I remember about 3 or 4 years ago at a trade show, we asked the folks at the Kashi booth when they were going to stop using GMOs in their products. They did not even know what we were talking about and then tried to deny it. We told them we were removing all their products from our shelves until they came clean about it. Now the Kashi brand, owned by Kellogg’s, does seem to be making an effort with its certified organic offerings.

Q.  What customer feedback have you received about your GMO policies and practices?

A.  Our customers are becoming more aware, and really appreciate our signage, handouts and educational seminars with expert speakers such as Dr. Kent Blacklidge from Purdue University. Our Facebook page is loaded with appreciation from customers!

Q:  What tools could OCA or the natural foods industry provide that would help you and other grocers keep GMOs out of the food supply?

A.  A power point presentation that we could all show in our stores. A comprehensive list of all the products that are in your wonderful app "Buycott" because not everyone has a smart phone.

Q.  What would you like to tell other grocers thinking about taking products with GMO ingredients off their shelves?

A.  It takes a lot of effort, but it is worth it!  I’d also tell them that we all vote with our dollars and then our forks. We need to tell manufacturers we will discontinue their products until they remove the GMO ingredients. We need to make phone calls every day, send emails, post on facebook, and let our elected officials know how we want them to vote!  Attend rallies, join garden clubs and talk to farmers!

Q:  What makes your store special in the competitive natural foods marketplace?

A.  Ever since I opened in November of 1977, I vowed to listen to each customer and treat them as I would like to be treated.  After 36 years, we have become a trusted source for pure choices in the communities that we serve.  We know so many of our customers by name, and if we don't, we make it a point to introduce them to "the family." Our customers have learned that we truly care about them and are not just trying to sell them something. Listening is huge!

On Store Mission and Values . . .

Q.  Describe your store's mission and values

A.  It's pretty simple, to provide pure products to our customers and help educate them, too!  We learn and grow together every day.

Q.  How does your store express these values through your purchasing policies?

A.  When possible, we check ingredients before ordering, and again "at the gate" when processing in the store. If something does come in with questionable or unacceptable ingredients, we make phone calls to find out about it, and if we find it unacceptable, we send it right back with the reason why.

Q.  What are your store's goals?

A.  To make available pure products for our customers’ health and happiness in a fun, educational, uplifting environment!

Q.  What actions can OCA take on behalf of your store and customers?

Your email blasts are fantastic, so keep that up! Also as I mentioned before, a power point or a DVD would help for in-store presentations.

Personally speaking . . .

Q.  What do you find most enjoyable and gratifying about the retail grocery business?

A.  The people and the love they carry! The herbs and foods and the people that grow and produce the herbs and foods! Watching families grow up over the years continues to be such a reward and blessing. Really being part of our communities gives me that feeling of connectedness to others that I know is so helpful to my own health and happiness!

Q.  How did you get interested in natural foods retailing, and what keeps you in the business?

A. “In high school, when my grandmother died, I inherited her herbal (a book containing the names and descriptions of plants)—she had pressed actual plants between the pages in their respective chapters. I knew what I wanted to do right then, offer herbal remedies to folks because I do believe that we have evolved with plants since the beginning. I took a correspondence course out of Canada, which was the only school available to me at the time, then opened up The Sunspot and wondered if anyone would show up! They did, and my very first customer, Vern McDonald, still shops here today! I continue to love learning about plants and their relation to human health and happiness.

Q.  What else would you like us to know about your store?

A.  The Sunspot hopefully lives up to it's name:  A sunny, hopeful, happy place or even scientifically: a storm on the sun that mixes things up a little! I am eternally grateful to be here to serve our communities. Our customers, co-workers and vendors are the cream of the crop of humanity, and after 36 years, I still feel like I have not worked a day in my life! Anyone reading this, if you are visiting Kokomo or West Lafayette, come in and we will give you a free store tour and a free cup of organic non-GMO tea. And we’ll get to know each other.

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