Santa Fe grocery shoppers are an altogether different animal from residents of Albuquerque and Gallup, or even the rest of the country, according to Jennifer Knapp, produce buyer for La Montañita Co-op. They are more educated, more inquisitive, and more careful about what they put in their carts. This Thanksgiving weekend, Pasatiempo’s food writers asked a few hard questions about the way we eat.

To get the lay of the food landscape in Northern New Mexico — and to get to know the people who are carrying out new (and also ancient ideas) with our future in mind, we delved into a few special topics. Since 2010, more than 400 seed libraries have opened across the United States. How does New Mexico fit into that movement? What is food security, what is a food desert, and how do those terms pertain to norteños? How local is our “really local” beer? How do we practice sustainable, responsible, and healthy meat eating, even on a budget? What is a genetically modified organism (GMO), and how might it affect our health? If a head of broccoli grown locally is not certified organic, will it still taste better than its big-agriculture alternative? Can we take advantage of food waste in order to feed the hungry?

We may not have all the answers. But we’re asking the right questions, examining the challenges facing local consumers, and searching for bright and innovative solutions. After all, we’ve all got to eat.

Jennifer Knapp is the produce department team leader at La Montañita Co-op Food Market’s Santa Fe location in the New Solana Shopping Center. She is also responsible for outreach with managers at the Albuquerque and Gallup stores, along with ads, production planning with farmers, and volume buys with distribution centers. To get to the bottom of how a cross-section of Santa Feans eat, Pasatiempo asked Knapp a few burning questions about the store’s practices and customer base.

Pasatiempo: What kinds of questions and concerns do your customers have?

Knapp: I think so many of our shoppers really want local products, and as a buyer, that’s what I want, too. We just have so many amazing growers in this state, and I feel like it’s my duty to connect our community to them. They want to know what’s local and they’ll buy it first.

Pasa: What about the genetically modified organism (GMO) issue?

Knapp: Yeah, people want non-GMO, most certainly — with organic, that goes hand in hand. But a lot of our local producers aren’t necessarily certified organic. … My job as a buyer is to make sure anyone that I’m bringing in that is non-certified has clean practices and is not growing GMO seeds and is not spraying anything. Second to local, people want organic, clean practices.

Pasa: Can you explain why some growers aren’t certified organic?

Knapp: You have to sell a certain amount in a year, it’s a lot of funding that you have to put into it. The history of your land — you have to have three years of it clean with no chemicals. So a lot of people, maybe new growers, don’t have the history, and they don’t have the funding or sell enough to get certification. Most of our larger growers in the state will have the resources to do it, but not everyone else does. We’re transparent about that. I’m not going to bring anything in that I know is actively sprayed. And if someone does use a chemical fertilizer on maybe part of their land but not this particular crop, I’ll let customers know that and say, “Oh, they’re on 16 acres, and four acres away, they’re spraying this, but they don’t spray that.”

Pasa: How do you find those kinds of things out?

Knapp: Engaging with the grower. Asking the good questions. Through our distribution center, we do have a value chain specialist. He’s on a USDA grant, and he is also working on food safety here in New Mexico. So he’ll go do farm visits and have the workshops and help educate. We do go out to farms. If a farmer says, “No, you’re not welcome,” that’s a bigger issue to me.

But everyone I work with is like, “Please come down.” Everyone is transparent. And our application process does speak to what practices you’re using. I feel like most growers don’t even want to use those harsh chemicals, because it’s not healthy for them or their workers or their families.

Pasa: What are your most popular items in produce?

Knapp: It varies seasonally. Right now, we’re in fall, so apples, pears, persimmons, dark greens are coming in. People can’t seem to get enough of hard squash right now. I have local organic certified broccoli right now, and we are blowing through almost 600 pounds of that a week. People tend to eat seasonally who shop here, which is great.

And I think it also helps that we take part in the Double Up Food Bucks program, so anyone who’s on SNAP, which are food stamps, they can get basically a two-for-one deal on any New Mexico-grown produce. So, you know, they’re purchasing a $5 head of broccoli but they’re only getting debited for $2.50. … That’s another reason I want to go so hardcore local, because that opens up our doors to more people and gets people access to great, great food. And they do it at the Farmers’ Market as well. That’s where it originated.

Pasa: Name the top concerns that you want to address when evaluating whether to feature something in the store.

Knapp: No GMO product is ever going to come into our produce department. Non-GMO is number one. And next to that, local, organic. If I’m not bringing it in from New Mexico, it must be certified organic. We work with a lot of Colorado growers, too, so we’ll keep it regional as much as possible. … I have a very trusted distributor from California called Veritable Vegetable, who was the original organic distributor in the country — solely organic — and they work with a lot of small or medium-sized farms out of California, Washington, Oregon, and even Mexico, too, and they put their growers through rigorous testing. So we want the cleanest product possible and to keep it as far away from large agriculture as possible.

Pasa: What sells well in other areas of the store besides produce?

Knapp: Local meats. We’ve taken part in a Native beef program which is actually out of Arizona. It’s grass-fed but grain-finished, and that’s become really popular. It has a cheaper selling point, so it’s more accessible to many more shoppers. People also love the Sweet Grass Co-op meats. Right now we’re about to have our Embudo turkeys come in, so of course that’s going to be a hot-ticket item. Local cheeses. People all around the store, I’ve noticed, they shop local first, and that’s a good thing to see.

Pasa: Can you talk about the Santa Fe-specific customer as opposed to those at other locations of the store?

Knapp: Santa Fe’s a different kind of town. We have a lot more health-conscious individuals who are more educated about food and have the resources to be a bit more choosy about what they get.

Pasa: Where do you think they’re getting that education from?

Knapp: Online. And just word of mouth, too. You know, we’re a retirement community up here. People have time.

But you know, we do have a true dichotomy in this town because there are the haves, and then the have-nots. And so the haves are the ones who are really finding the time, because they have it, to educate themselves and then talk to each other about it. I feel like Santa Fe has kind of become a health-conscious town. You can get herbs on any corner here, and crystals and pendulums to come in here and choose watermelon halves.

I feel like a lot of lower-income individuals in Santa Fe don’t necessarily know that they can come here and access food, and they think we’re super high-priced. Our prices are a little bit more, but it’s just because we’re a small local company.

I think what’s helped open up our doors a little is the Double Up Food Bucks Program. It’s like, let’s get them in with the produce and then see what else they can do further on in the store, because we do have some great sales.

Myself, I’m a single mother, and I’ve shopped at the co-op for years. It’s not only because I work here, but because I want to put the best food I can in my body and my child. Are we still going to go to Chick-Fil-A and El Parasol occasionally? Yes, but you know, I want to do the best I can for my kid. And teach him about healthy growing practices, because we’re going to go down a rabbit hole very soon if we keep putting all these nasty chemicals out there. Who I’m mostly concerned with are the actual farmworkers who have to spray those chemicals — and it’s just cancerous.

Pasa: Do you feel like that lower-income customer is also becoming more knowledgeable about nutrition, eating locally and seasonally, and hormones and GMOs?

Knapp: I think they are. I think that’s just the way our society’s going. We have all this information at our fingertips. They are becoming more and more educated about it, which is great. ◀