Whether it's chips, crickets or vegetables, Pennsylvanians are buying more organic food than ever

Moroccan crickets are shown at the "sustainable protein" aisle at the Mom's Organic Market, 34 S. 11th St, Philadelphia. Thursday, March 22, 2018. Local farming and organic food experts say it's because of the high concentration of farms here, greater demand from people who want to eat healthy, and regulations that have made organic farming more affordable over the years.

When Mom’s Organic Market opened its first store in Center City last fall, leaders of the Maryland chain figured the lunch counter would be popular with the neighborhood workforce and hoped the 16,000-square-foot location would become a regular stop for young professionals on their way home.

Nobody necessarily predicted the “sustainable protein” section filled with edible insects, like crickets and mealworms, would be a runaway hit.

“It does very well,” said assistant manager Jacquelyn Fluker, who said the bugs can be added to salads for a textural crunch or nibbled as snacks. “I don’t know if it’s the novelty or what. At our other stores, it does OK, but here they seem to be flying off the shelves.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
An unidentified woman shops for healthy snacks at Mom’s Organic Market.

It’s perhaps less surprising in light of recent data showing that Pennsylvania has surpassed all states but California in total sales of certified organic products. Statewide sales increased by about 10 times over the last decade, and doubled from 2015 to 2016 alone, said Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary for market development at the state Department of Agriculture.

“The demand has increased so much,” Cook said. “We could quadruple and quintuple the production and still not fill the demand.”

The findings last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may sound at odds with long-held perceptions of Pennsylvania as home of cheesesteaks, hoagies, and scrapple. But Cook said the state’s high concentration of farms, particularly  in Lancaster and Chester Counties, the 1,100-plus farmers’ markets that offer direct sales to customers, and a growing number of specialty stores like Mom’s have given Pennsylvanians consistent exposure to organic products.

Customers more likely to shop for chips and cookies can now choose from an ever-expanding variety of organic snack foods.

“For years, organic foods were seen as healthier,” Cook said. “Now, people are seeing that, no, junk food can be organic, too.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A large variety of chips and snacks at Mom’s Organic Market.

The survey last year by the USDA measured total certified organic sales, which includes local products as well as shelf items at Whole Foods and other stores. Pennsylvania sold about $660 million worth of products, thanks in part to recent growth in the organic dairy market as well as livestock, Cook said.

USDA-certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that regulate soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods and grow produce on soil that has no prohibited substances, like pesticides, applied for three years before harvesting. Meats that are certified organic must be hormone-free, raised in natural living conditions, and given organic feed.

“Of all the talk about food labels now, the only one that actually means anything is ‘organic,’ ” Cook said.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, also credited the state’s proximity to New York, a strong wholesale distribution system, and a high rate of farmers who participate in cost-sharing programs as factors in the growth of organic products.

An organic farmer herself, Smith-Brubaker said the price point for some organics had become more palatable for consumers. People have more access to the products than they once did, thanks to year-round greenhouse farming.

“It’s got to be that we hit that tipping point,” she said. “We hit that level of customer demand and everything just accelerated.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Lizzie Potter stacks organic apples at Mom’s Organic Market.

Organic farming is also finding support among legislators like Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who last winter introduced a bill aimed at making it easier for farmers to get funding or help from the government.

“When I visit with legislators, I just can’t believe the change in legislative literacy even from five years ago,” Smith-Brubaker said. “And it can’t just be the farmers. It’s that the consumers are prioritizing it.”

Since Mom’s opened its sprawling 11th Street store in September, assistant manager Fluker said sales and numbers of customers have grown by the week. The store offers an easy one-stop experience for customers who are interested in eating strictly organic food, but it boasts enough variety to appeal to the less seasoned shopper, particularly when it comes to the snack aisle, which offers dozens of chips, pretzels, and more.

“I think people are learning more about what organic is, and that makes them more empowered to make healthy choices,” she said. “And, sure, just because something’s organic doesn’t make it healthy, but some of these items could be a window for someone to explore other things.”