Meet Barb Warren. A passionate advocate for organic foods and healthy living, and the driving force behind the hugely successful Ohoka Farmers Market. She is also the woman behind Rangiora’s fantastic new specialty food store, The Organic Food House, where Jo spoke to Barb recently over a dandelion tea and fresh juice about her journey into organics; the difference good food makes to our lives; and how these exciting businesses have evolved.
Thanks for agreeing to chat Barb – how did your journey into organics begin?
It’s an evolutionary thing. I’ve always been into good food, growing my own vegetables, making muesli, things like that, and consider we’ve always eaten well. But it wasn’t until after I started the Farmers Market that my interest in organics really blossomed. The more I learned, the more organics made sense and felt right. I would love to have discovered it much earlier though. I have a daughter with serious food related issues that we accommodated over the years. I wish I could go back and feed her with the knowledge I have now.
What are the benefits of eating organic food over processed food?
I think it’s such an obvious thing that when you eat good food you feel better. The problem with industrial food is that we don’t know what we’re eating. Food is the most primary thing we all depend on yet we’ve become so far removed from what we’re actually eating. It’s not really our fault – it’s the way the system is working. But modern food is taking its toll on people and many have started looking at alternatives and making the link between health and food. That’s where my drive to start the Ohoka Farmers Market and The Organic Food House came from. There is so much good food out there. It’s just a matter of making it accessible for people in a place where they can talk to the people who are knowledgeable about it. Organics is not just about eating food. It’s about an attitude to everything – how the food is grown, where it’s grown, who sells it, how it’s packaged, the mood you’re in when you eat it. It’s all linked.
What is your diet like?
I focus on whole, organic foods and don’t eat much meat through choice, although more recently I’ve got into fish, I love it. My bible is Paul Pitchford’s book Healing with Whole Foods. I keep a copy at The Organic Food House too which we refer to all the time.
A lot of people are living horrendously busy lives and don’t take enough time to think about their diet – continuing to grab fast or convenience foods, then heading off to the doctor for a prescription when things go wrong.
What advice would you give people who want to start changing their lifestyle?
Food is such a fundamental thing but there are so many people who don’t stop to think about what they’re eating. It’s vital they realise they do have choices, and can be in control of their life and health. It’s about stopping and take a good hard, honest look at things and deciding they are ready to make those choices and be accountable. Sometimes people have to do it by themselves, sometimes they are lucky enough to have people to encourage them. The important thing is to start in their own kitchen, with their own family. Simple things like yoga and tai chi can be a big help – allowing people to find the space in their head needed to do this. I believe a life not looked at is a life not lived.
You’ve said it’s not so much what we eat, but what we DON’T eat that’s the big thing. What does this mean?
Seriously there is so much rubbish out there which has become regarded as normal food. I’ve had people come into the shop who have worked in food processing places and say they wouldn’t touch the food themselves because they’ve seen the processes involved. Refined white sugar is one of the biggest culprits in our diet. New Zealand has an incredibly high incidence of diabetes because of all the added sugar. If people can replace processed and high sugar foods with whole, organic foods, they will see big improvements to their overall health.
The weekly Ohoka Farmers Market at the Ohoka Domain is about to enter its fifth year and has become a hugely popular place to pick up all sorts of superb artisan, organic and everyday foods. How did you get the idea to start it?
I’m a bit of a magpie and love to look and see what other people are doing. We travel quite a bit to Australia and I loved the amazing farmers’ markets they have there. I thought why can’t we do that here? It was a mission at the start. A lot of people were enthusiastic but others needed more convincing. It took about a year to set it up. Now we have over 50 stall holders including many local producers, who sell everything from organic and spray free vegetables, to raw foods, organic apples and juices, free range eggs, baked goods, venison, seafood, cheese, honey, deli foods, wine and plants. I used to have to go to three different places in Christchurch to get my artisan products – now I can just go the market – it’s fantastic.
What is it about the Farmers Market that people love?
I think it links people to something good from the past – the old ways of doing things. The feedback we get from stall holders and visitors is that they love the positive atmosphere. It’s something we’ve really worked on – because if people feel good when they come to the market, they’ll hopefully come back. The market is also a catalyst for a lot of ideas as there is so much happening there.
One of the ideas that grew out of the market is Rangiora’s fabulous specialty food shop, The Organic Food House with its fantastic selection of organic fresh, bulk and packaged grocery items, local, regional, international certified organic whole foods, organic juice bar, coffee, fine teas and deli food. How did this come about?
Quite simply, if the earthquakes hadn’t happened we wouldn’t be here. My husband Andrew is an accountant and lost his building in Christchurch. We knew we had to find somewhere immediately for his staff so literally the day after the February earthquake, when everybody else was scattered about, we bought this old house at 14 Queen Street, Rangiora for his business premises. After Andrew and his team had been in here a while, my mind started whirring. The market was flourishing and I started to think about opening an organic shop on this side of Rangiora to save people having to go to Christchurch for their organic groceries and supplies.
How long did it take to convince Andrew to move out of the building so you could use it for the shop?
It took about a year of perseverance! Getting him to accept it was a good idea was the hardest part and because we’ve always done everything ourselves, Andrew knew it would be another building project for him too. Our son Ed was in Singapore at the time and was keen to be involved, so he came home, Andrew moved into new offices virtually next door, and we spent the next six months building. We collected heaps of recycled materials including stones from churches in Christchurch and beautiful old beams. I just love the store’s interior and the Balinese-style courtyards we created. It’s important the surroundings fit with the organic theme as we care about where our customers are sitting and eating our food, just as much as the food itself.
I get the feeling you’re a hard woman to say no to!
‘You can’t do that Barb’, is not something to tell me because my reaction will usually be ‘yes I bloody can!’
What are your dreams for The Organic Food House?
I’d like it to be a success. At the moment I feel like a bit of a lone duck, a pioneer. Even though organics has been in peoples’ thinking right back to the 1970s – it’s never been mainstream and always regarded as a bit fringe. Because of that, or in spite of it, organics has never received a huge backing from government or local government level and doesn’t have the big corporates behind it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it allows things like farmers markets to flourish where people can buy directly from the people who grow or produce the food, and can trust how it has been grown. If big multi-nationals take over organics we couldn’t be completely sure of the food quality. Already in the United States, food can be certified organic with 70 percent of ingredients proven to be organic but what about the other 30 percent? It’s a strange situation and scenario, where small operators could be put out of business if the big companies decide to dominate the market and try to own the word organic.
Given the challenges operating in the niche organic market, it’s brave to have started a venture like The Organic Food House. What do you think sets it apart?
I would like to think people who care about the environment, food, their bodies and health will see the bigger picture and want to buy their food from a business with honesty and integrity, offering the best in certified organic products at affordable prices. We also like to support local and regional small artisan growers and suppliers of quality certified organic foods so they have a reliable outlet for their products.
Would you like to see other complementary businesses start in Rangiora?
Absolutely! At the moment I feel like the new kid on the block, but hopefully what we’ve started will attract other businesses which identify with similar principles. A bookshop would be great, and more cafes which have a consideration for good, healthy food. Good things take time. It starts at ground level as that’s where change occurs, in the soil and the dirt.
Do you think there is a groundswell towards organics and healthy living?
Definitely. It’s great to see the way the planet is going. People have started to realise their health is definitely related to what they’re eating. I look at all the young parents who come into the store with their small children who are already becoming aware. This has to be great for the future.