A New Kind of Farmers Market Sprout-ing Up in SoCal

Sprouts Farmers Markets are opening in California at a time that is both fortuitous and a bit dubious. The chain of warehouse-style markets proffering locally-sourced produce and other health and eco-conscious oriented groceries is taking advantage of business failures—Circuit City, Linens 'n Things, Mervyns—for their retail spaces, but the company itself hails from Arizona.

It's curious to examine Sprouts to see if the appeal of affordably-priced and theoretically more sustainable items—a political issue on its own, since what we eat is ostensibly a way of expressing political will—is enough to trump the consumer backlash against the politics of our neighbor-state Arizona in the wake of the SB1070 hot button issue. And, to make things even more politically tinged: Sprouts sells raw dairy products, too.

Culver City welcomed a Sprouts in June in the space that was formerly a Circuit City on Sepulveda Boulevard; the curved box-like silo jutting from the storefront now a steely-gray still reminiscent of the fallen electronics empire. The same renaissance recently graced a Circuit City in Pasadena, as the LA Weekly's Squid Ink attested last week.

In a visit to the former, the prices and selection of Sprouts was certainly appealing, as were the ways in which the store goes to lengths to see to it their customers can best find the items that suit their dietary needs, like clear shelf-labeling for products that are gluten- or dairy-free. Bulk aisles contain bins with grains, legumes, and other snack items, and a spice shelf has trays of spices instead of the conventional grocery store's rows of little jars and tins.

The dairy section seemed to be poised to rival, more accurately surpass, that of Whole Foods, thanks to the variety, and the availability of raw dairy items, which Whole Foods recently pulled from their shelves.

In the produce section, signage celebrates the origins of the produce (and if you want to geek out, you can actually look up the origin of all their products online). Their mission is to offer farm-fresh local produce--when possible. Does it beat being at an actual farmers' market? Not really, thanks to the artificiality of the lighting in the window-less space, and no chance of interaction with the growers themselves. Friendly employees in Sprouts t-shirts stock shelves and help customers, but that doesn't replace the pride with which a grower sets up their fruits and veggies on a folding table at any of the County's dozens of weekly markets. What it does, however, is offer a way for the consumer who can't get to that market the chance to be a part of the local food cycle and its economy. It is an excellent alternative.

Of course, all of the virtues of Sprouts don't mean anything if you have chosen to align your dollar with the anti-Arizona campaign. This may well keep you from Sprouts, no matter the "local" emphasis. If you wish to express your food politics, however, in money spent on local produce and in a market that espouses a "community" philosophy (shades of Fresh & Easy, perhaps) then you should know there are 16 California locations, and a 17th, in Valencia, on its way.