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Stonehenge Brings Produce to the People

Former convenience store makes local food converts

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Angela Ruggiero fills her shopping basket with fresh fruits and vegetables--much of it local and some of it organic--three to four times a week. And like her Boise Bench neighbors, just a matter of blocks separate the produce market where she shops from her dinner table.

Bench dwellers say Stonehenge Produce's neighborhood location and bargain prices have not only changed how they're eating, but how they're shopping. Stonehenge is bringing produce to the people while also democratizing local food.

"We're eating much more produce than we did before. We're eating a lot more salads. We're eating healthier," Ruggiero said.

That wasn't always the case for neighbors who trickled into the now defunct Circle K convenience store that Stonehenge calls home.

Beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets once crossed the counter at 2207 Overland Road. Now grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs and local Fuji apples fill the carts of shoppers that crisscross the space.

Though the boxy shop still holds a physical resemblance to its earlier incarnation--a tall sign towers out front and a lineup of prime parking spots makes the store an accessible dream--it no longer serves as a nemesis to waistlines, cholesterol levels and mortality rates. This contrast to processed, preservative-filled, calorie-packed convenience foods emerged in February 2011, when Stonehenge Produce sold its first gallon of local, raw milk.

"We're a different kind of convenience store now," said Stonehenge manager Tom Miller. "We have people who come almost every day and buy what they need for the day. It has almost a European feel to it. Instead of going to a box store and shopping for the week, you can come here and buy fresh every day."

The convenience factor, along with old-fashioned customer service, has helped transition the location into a thriving neighborhood market and community gathering spot.

"You walk in and you feel like you're walking into a family that you know and they make you feel honored," said Molly O'Shea, Stonehenge's first customer.

O'Shea is referring to the guys who stock the produce, work the cash register and send shoppers out with boxes of produce, free samples and a dose of conversation. Regulars at the family operated business are on a first-name basis, with the exception of the four Eds, who each have an epithet attached as a last name. The personal touch makes the market a place where some stop in just for a chat. The Overland Stonehenge is part of a family owned and operated enterprise that includes another location at 12624 Fairview Ave.

"Business is great. We've exceeded our expectations," Miller said.

In addition to the constant flow of foot traffic streaming in from the neighborhood, Stonehenge also attracts boaters on their way to Lucky Peak who pop in for picnic supplies and fill bags with chips, homestyle salsas and Kobe beef. Downtown commuters heading to the east and south veer just a couple blocks off the Vista corridor to pick up dinner, where they can find lentils, local breads, spices and, in the summer, about 80 percent local produce.

All of this means that Stonehenge courts a much different demographic than Miller expected. He sees older, neighborhood folks as opposed to the young and affluent who typically fuel local and boutique markets.

"There really is a sense that local food is something that middle-, upper-class people do," explained Morning Owl Farm owner Mary Rohlfing. "And I think that the local-food movement itself has perpetrated that myth, partly because a lot of the local-food growers were immediate adopters of social media and ... [posted] beautiful delicate pictures of their produce growing. Or the people at the farmers markets all seem to have driven up in their BMWs."

Rohlfing said that growers and sellers need to do more than hawk veggies to demystify local food. That starts by bringing it closer to the people and lending a hand at putting a dent at food insecurity, she said.

"The job for the farmer is to democratize the food a little bit," Rohlfing said. "But it's hard to do it all. There are so many things that a farmer has to pull off, and then saying, 'Yes, I'm going to help with food insecurity,' then becomes another thing you have to pull off."

But by making area-grown produce more accessible, Rohlfing said that shoppers start to discover local food is no more expensive than what you may find at a grocery store. Rohlfing stopped selling goods at the Capital City Public Market five years ago and has now set up shop on Saturdays in Hyde Park, right in front of Dunia Marketplace. She found that by bringing food closer to people's homes and walking routes, the folks who might have shied away from buying local produce in the past are now loyal customers. Rohlfing's accessible point of sale has helped break down many of the barriers that prevent some people from going local.

Many weekend markets require customers to make a long trek past crowded tents in the heat after finding a coveted parking spot. That alone can steer the crowd-shy, elderly and disabled away from local food. But putting local, organic foods in neighborhoods changes all of that.

Miller said he sees a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds in his clients--from rim-view residents to retired Bench longtimers. This Bench pocket sports a hodgepodge of tidy, pre-war cottages, backyard businesses and infill starter homes. And with one of the highest foreclosure rates in Boise and a number of low-cost rentals, the Bench neighborhood that hugs the train tracks remains proudly proletariat.

And price-conscious area residents like that they can still find high-quality local produce at affordable prices. One recent week, local Fuji apples sold for 49 cents per pound, avocados for 69 cents each, and a package of seasonal berries went for less than $2. Neighbors like Ruggiero have even purchased dehydrators and juicers to process all the produce they've been purchasing.

"It really comes down to price; we're a price-driven store," Miller said. "When we find something, we buy it in quantity and pass the savings along."