Trephina Bedell can't remember the last time she went to a grocery store.
The Algonquin mom of three, ages 7, 4 and 2, has organized an organic food co-op for the past several years. She and others come together to buy their produce directly from a wholesaler.
In doing so, they say, they're getting healthier food at less expensive prices.
"I don't usually see the inside of a grocery store unless I'm missing something I need for a recipe," Bedell said.
She became involved with the co-op because she wanted to raise her family similar to the way she grew up in the country in Michigan.
Her family had a half-acre garden and pretty much grew everything they ate.
"Getting back to the earth is very important to me," she said.
Fellow members of Bedell's roughly 34-member co-op, Perfect Produce, and those in similar co-ops share her sentiment, all believing organic food is better for their families.
To be labeled organic, the food must be produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.
Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
As for the nutritional content of the food when compared to nonorganic food, the actual differences are debatable.
"Nutrition-wise, the food is the same, but from a cleanliness or insecticide type of thing, there may be a difference. It depend on how people feel about that," said Melodi Peters, the outpatient dietitian for Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.
Likely because of the higher costs of organic food and people's limited resources, Peters hasn't seen many patients trending toward organic.
If she is asked, she said she simply recommends rinsing nonorganic produce thoroughly, perhaps with a vegetable brush, before eating.
Yet, for Bedell and others, it goes beyond insecticides and such. She doesn't like the idea of her family eating tomatoes, for instance, that have been genetically modified to produce higher quantities or deter bugs or dairy products from a cow that has been fed hormones.
And, she said, since making the switch to organic, her family has been much healthier.
Her children now prefer healthier snacks, she said, grabbing an apple as opposed to Goldfish crackers.
She goes by an "80-20 rule," with a goal that at least 80 percent of the food her family eats is organic and healthy.
"It's one of those things, when you start throwing out what's for dinner, they'll eat it," she said. "It's not uncommon for our dinner table to have two or three vegetables."
Fellow co-op member Heidi Alexander of Crystal Lake used to look at organic food in the grocery store and want to buy it, but the high costs deterred her.
Now her roughly $20 co-op order gets her organic items, such as kale, apples, carrots, squash and other basic fruits and vegetables every couple of weeks.
Others purchase more, spending as much as $200 every couple weeks. Once they pay a joining fee, members can buy as much or as little as they want.
The coordinators monitor the prices of products and put out lists of available items based on the best deals.
If an organic item can be found cheaper in a grocery store, they won't put it on the list.
Since joining, Alexander said her 8-year-old son, who used to be a picky eater, has become a huge fan of vegetables. She now tries to avoid boxed and prepared foods, only turning to them in moderation.
"I think there is a lot of mixed information out there about organic versus nonorganic," she said. "On one hand, we grew up on that produce and all lived through it. ... I just think we've let it get out of hand. That's our first answer to everything is spray chemicals on it.
"I think it's a lot healthier if you eat food that starts as food, not food that starts as a test tube."
Bedell's typical bi-monthly order costs about $80 and includes bananas, strawberries, oranges, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi and other fruits and vegetables, including some rare options, such as kabocha squash and dragon fruit.
Members can get herbs and organic meat through a partnership with a local farmer, as well.
Because of the larger variety of options available through the co-op, Bedell said, her family has tried and become fans of all sorts of rare produce, such as kiwi berries.
All members must have "jobs" helping with deliveries or organizing the co-op.
Bedell, who works full time, said she puts in about 10 hours a week in her volunteer manager role for the co-op.
"I'd spend that much time in a grocery store trying to figure out what I want. The reality is I'm sitting behind a computer in pjs ordering my produce."
Another area co-op, Apple Corp, provides its 44 members with supplements, toothpaste, vitamins, beans and rice, freeze-dried fruits, frozen meat and vegetables, tea, nuts, bread, cheese and other dairy products. They also can buy eggs through a partnership with a local farmer who raises chickens.
Items such as chicken nuggets and pizza made with organic foods also can be found, said Brenda Law of Crystal Lake, Apple Corp's coordinator.
Law became involved about two years ago after being diagnosed with a rare Vasculitis disease called Granulomatosis with polyangiitis, or GPA, that causes inflammation of blood vessels.
It required her to pay more attention to what she eats, she said. She likes that the food she gets through the co-op doesn't have additives, preservatives, pesticides and genetically modified ingredients. They're the type of foods available in health food stores, but at much higher prices.
"Our families are interested in healthier ways to fuel their bodies," she said.By y JAMI KUNZER - firstname.lastname@example.org