Good food is not just a privilege of the rich. As people are discovering what a powerful impact food has on health, they’re realising how important it is to ask where your food comes from, and how it is grown. Over the last ten years the market has responded to this change in different ways. The most interesting response has been a feisty wave of idealistic, energetic small businesses. All run by people who’re fuelled more by ethics than economics. Hopefully this is just the beginning. Organic food may not be mainstream yet in Chennai, but thanks to businesses such as these, it’s more accessible, affordable and attractive than ever before. Shonali Muthalaly and Anusha Parthasarathy track the trend.
After working on it for a year, Kayalvizhi Raja and Shriram Narayanan launched Chennai’s first organic vegetable website on April 1, inspired by an organic farmer in Tenkasi. “He told us how he had major health issues, all of which were resolved when he converted his farm into organic,” says Kayalvizhi.
They find farmers via the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University. “Lots of farmers take courses and register with them. So, if we want grapes, for example, then we find people who grow them, and directly buy from their farms.”
Kayalvizhi says, “We want to make organic food affordable. Our greens are Rs. 20 a bunch. Which is the same as the regular market price. And delivery is free.”
Their stock changes ever day. “My only marketing source is Facebook… So if I get something new I put it up there. It’s usually sold out by the next day!”
Vaer encourages people to try new varieties of fruits and vegetables. “We offer a mixed box of mangoes. Even if people order just one variety, we try and send a couple of different types along with their order, complimentary.”
The biggest challenge, she says, is educating customers. “Yes. Organic food doesn’t stay fresh for long. But that’s a good thing. It means it’s chemical-free.”
Vaer focusses on local foods in their ‘Country Special’ section, such as coconut palm sugar, karuppu kavuni rice and ragi pappads.
Organic Green Store
Cramped, chaotic and bristling with a fascinating range of goodies, from fragrant cold-pressed oils to jars of nutty ghee, the Organic Green Store has fans across the city. Hemalatha, who started it in 2009, says she got interested in organic food after she had a baby. “I wanted to give my child food that was healthy and safe,” she says.
Today, they buy from about 20 farmers across the State. Her customers, who come from as far as Vellore, are loyalists thanks to the quality of her vegetables, many of which arrive in packages bearing the names of the farms on which they were grown. “People love our papaya, which comes from Mettupalayam,” she says.
The Organic Green Store is also known for its cold-pressed oils: coconut, sesame and groundnut. “The oil comes from different sources, depending on the season,” says Hemalatha. “Groundnut, for example, is sometimes from Udumalpet, sometimes Coimbatore.”
With two outlets, one in Anna Nagar and one in Periyar Nagar, they deliver vegetables on Saturdays.
Address: No. 2, B-Block, 2nd Avenue, Chinthamani, Annanagar, Chennai-6001020
Started in 2008, ReStore is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers. Radhika Rammohan, one of the founders, says the idea was to “connect with the sources of our food. To know where it’s coming from. To support local organic farmer.” She adds that they decided to work as volunteers to encourage more people to get involved, and bring down the cost of the products.
They work with 25 individual farmers and about 10 organisations that help farmers. In addition, they support around eight businesses that make organic value-added products. Around 70 per cent of their food comes from within Tamil Nadu, and the rest from the neigbouring states in an attempt to reduce food miles.
Specialising in traditional grains, they offer a range of millets. Their ‘multigrain kanji mix’ made with red rice, millets, thinai, samai, samba wheat, etc. is one of their signature products. Besides vegetables, they stock foods such as organic jaggery, handmade peanut butter and freshly made sambar powder.
ReStore also organises a vegetable and fruit bazaar on Tuesday and Saturday between 12 noon and 7 p.m.
Address: ReStore Adyar Centre, No 27/ 10, 2nd Main Road, Kasturba Nagar, Adyar, Chennai-600020
Dhanyam began in 2010 with the idea of becoming a one-stop shop for organic goodies. It offers a range of groceries, vegetables and fresh fruits, all organic. “I was always interested in organic food and found that there weren't many outlets in the city. And even the ones that were there were dark, dingy and not professionally run. That's when the idea for Dhanyam originated,” says co-founder Madhusoodhanan K. The store gets fruits and vegetables twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday) from farms in Kodaikanal, Tirunelveli, Erode, Gummudipoondi and Coonoor. Some fruits such as grapes and pomegranates come from farms in Karnataka and Maharashtra. “We have seasonal fruits which means we're selling a lot of mangoes now. But on an average, papayas and bananas sell well because they're available year round," he says. While Madhusoodhanan agrees that the price is higher when compared to the regular fare, he points out that it isn't a deterrent. "People come for different reasons — health, environment and better taste. When you are sure about this lifestyle, the changes in price doesn't matter."
Address: Dhanyam is located at No.24, North Boag Road, T.Nagar
P. B. Murali (along with his friend Ranganathan) has been an organic farmer for the last 22 years and has spent the last 10 years selling organic fruits, vegetables and produce at Luz Church Road, under the banner ‘Sunday Shandy’. “We had the market on Sunday initially but since it interfered with my farm activities, it has now been shifted to Friday. The other days, I sell packaged organic products,” he says. Pineapples from Nagaland, apples from Himachal Pradesh and sweet lime from Krishnagiri… Murali sources his organic products from all over the country. "Once people get used to the taste of organic fruits, especially, it's hard to go back to the regular ones,” explains Murali, "I specialise in organic mangoes and grow mostly Alphonso, Banganapalli and Imampasand varieties on my farm." Murali also sells unprocessed milk every Wednesday.
Murali's shandy is held every Friday between 3 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.
Address: No.177, Luz Church Road, Mylapore