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Your Organic Food: Made in China

Vermont co-op and natural food store managers like to tout their localvore street cred. They talk about how much local food they buy and the extent to which they accommodate regional organic growers.

They have reason to boast. Even the largest operations - Healthy Living, City Market/Onion River Co-op, Hunger Mountain Food Co-op, Brattleboro Food Co-op and The Co-op Food Stores in New Hampshire - go to great lengths to weave together a patchwork of sources for local foods from hundreds of area farmers and vendors.

But even at the height of the growing season, only as much as 30 percent of the foods available come from regional vendors.

Most organic products sold at Vermont co-ops and natural food stores are not local. In fact, some organic food is not domestic, and that's because, co-op managers say, they are dependent on large distributors for products, and they simply don't have access to domestic products in certain categories.

Fresh organic vegetables and fruit have never been readily available in winter from local sources, but now even some bulk and frozen foods come from overseas.

Several multinational companies, including Frontier Natural Products Co-op and United Natural Foods, Inc., which are dominant purveyors of organic foods in the United States, have recently started shipping products from as far away as China, India and South America to Vermont co-ops and natural food stores.

According to Jon Fogarty, a project manager for Iowa City-based National Co-operative Grocers Association, 70 to 90 percent of organic foods sold at co-ops in the United States are distributed by UNFI, which has 12 warehouses located throughout the country, including one in Chesterfield, N.H. Fogarty says UNFI is the largest independent distributor of organic foods in the U.S., second only to Wal-Mart. Repeated attempts to reach UNFI officials were unsuccessful.

Many of the products now grown in China for the U.S. organic market, such as garlic, used to be commonly grown in the United States, according to co-op managers. Bulk bin items listed on the UNFI Web site, including pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, black beans, soybeans, adzuki beans and mung beans, are all sourced from China.

In addition, most natural foods stores and co-ops offer frozen foods from Woodstock Farms, a house brand owned by UNFI, that distributes imported Chinese broccoli, asparagus, spinach, peas, mushrooms, edamame and peppers. Some frozen foods from Cascadian farms, including the company's California mix (cauliflower, broccoli and carrots), are also from China.