Monday, 21 January 2008

GAIA (Γαία)

It’s a fact that people with higher levels of income and education have more time and money to spend on improving themselves. Some people do this by reading books on subjects such as the existence of God; others do this by looking after their appearance; yet others expend great effort on ensuring that they are living a natural life in the unnatural world that they live in. I suppose I am in the last category. I wish I could grow all my own food requirements, but that would mean giving up work and tending the garden or grazing animals all day. I wish I could walk everywhere, but that would mean an hour’s commute to work every day, and another hour back home. Then, there are the children, whose school is situated 5 kilometres away, and the mere fact that we live on a hill, with no bus route or corner store from which to buy our milk and bread. We are not Quakers, therefore, we choose to live with all the modern comforts we can afford.

GAIA (say YE-AH), the organic producers' and consumers' association of Hania, is situated on a street parallel to a central road in the heart of Hania, on the ground floor of a small semi-detached double storey apartment block. It is surrounded by the local stadium, the central town park, a few inner-city schools, and many terraced houses, some of whose basements are now being rented out to the new economic migrants in our town. They share the remaining housing with civil servants who rent in the same area to be close to work. Other more settled residents of the town have obviously moved on from their humble beginnings and added artistic features to the exterior of their houses, such as abstract art and smart brass plaques advertising their professions. You could say that GAIA’s regular customers are people who live nearby (a large neighbourhood), civil servants who work close by (educated people), and people who are following the trend towards a more natural lifestyle (the socially bohemian elite). As more and more people are becoming convinced about the benefits of organic agriculture, the number of GAIA’s customers is growing, and so is the number of stores of this type in the town. To date, Crete supposedly has more organic food suppliers than any other part of Greece.

When I first came to Hania, there were no organic food suppliers. GAIA opened up a couple of years later. I discovered them two years after that, when I was pregnant. With the sudden interest in organic produce, and my fear of poisoning my children, I have become more actively interested in GAIA. The whole setup of the shop reminds me of the Organic Food Coop in Wellington. Although many more stores have opened up in Hania, all claiming to sell organic products, GAIA remains the only organic produce store that actually looks as natural as it claims its products are. For a start, the stark lack of colour hits you hard in the face as you enter the store, only to be pleasantly surprised by the range of colourful fruit and vegetables as you come to the fresh produce section, which by the way, all have a natural look to them: their size is small, their colour natural, and their shape normal. In the rest of the store, the colours that dominate are brown and beige: the shelves are made from unpainted wood, and the goods stored on them are found in hessian sacks. The fill-your-own bags for bulk buying are made of paper rather than the typical plastic carrier bags like those you get in the supermarket. The idea of natural food is promoted in the both the décor and packaging. It doesn’t have an website, but I think that’s more due to lack of time to invest in such a thing rather than a move away from globalisation.

GAIA admits that a certain amount of pesticides are used in the products stocked in the store, but only the permissible ones at the lowest level possible. Quality checks are conducted regularly on their fresh products. When something is deemed non-organic, it is clearly stated, with a note explaining what was found in the crop and what they are doing to remedy the situation. Their prices are not much different for fresh produce from what is sold at the open-air market or the supermarket.

GAIA is situated very close to where I drop off my children every Saturday at chess club and art class (more proof of the social elitism that surrounds the area), so it is a convenient way to do my weekly fresh produce shopping. But there are also some downsides to buying organic products. Not everything can be produced locally, so GAIA ends up selling many imported products like chocolate, rice biscuits, noodles, muesli bars and various other ‘luxury’ foodstuffs (just think of the carbon footprints involved in bringing them to a Mediterranean island), and usually at an extravagant price. I decided to buy some organic biscuits (E3 for a small packet) and some organic bread (E2.50 for a tiny loaf), both produced in the United Kingdom, apart from the strong flour (for bread) and soft flour (for cakes) – of German origin – that I bought at a similar price to that of the supermarket; however, I couldn't see any expiry date on the hessian sacks that the flour was stored in. The fresh produce looks and feels natural, but it also goes off very quickly, because organic produce doesn't have a long shelf-life.

I felt good about my purchases, especially now that I am about to try making bread for the family, but I still have my doubts about how organic an organic supplies store really is. My trust will remain in GAIA because they are a co-operative whose shop assistants always seem to dress in clothes that look as if they are made from recycled hessian sacks, instead of being a family-run business which relies on people getting confused over the meanings of the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. I’m thankful I can tell the difference.

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See also:
To eat or not to eat?
Summer fruit
Taste sensationalism
Eating locally
A peek into someone's fridge
The street market