Sámara Organics Market and Café

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Playa Sámara is a beautiful beach on the southwestern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.  It is an unassuming place, laid back, sleepy even but the beach (and nearby beaches, too) is nothing short of AMAZING.  The same goes for the locals in town, the Ticos (native Costa Ricans) and expats alike.

The first time we visited was nearly 8 years ago.  We loved it.  We got married there.  It’s fair to say that Sámara holds a special place in our hearts and so we promised we’d return with our first baby.

Claire loved it as much as we did; the white sand, the calm and warm waters, the Pura Vida attitude that permeates each moment.  We were happy to see that not that much had changed in 8 years.  No Club Meds just yet.  What we did find that was new was an organic café and market.  Let me reiterate with proper emotion:  An ORGANIC CAFE AND MARKET IN SAMARA!!!  I met Angelina, one of the founders, and immediately felt a kinship with her.  The kind you feel when you’re part of a community that has no boundaries.  Ours happens to be about the food we eat and our interest in making the best choices for our own health, that of our families’ and that of the planet we inhabit.  It’s about our shared understanding about the true meaning behind ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ and the responsibility we feel to feed our bodies well, to share what we know, and to respect the Earth that bears our food, all of it.  It’s a wonderful feeling to travel the world and meet people like Angelina who are making a difference, one small step at a time, to better their communities.

Sàmara Organics is a lovely market and café that serves up delicious salads, sandwiches, soups and fresh fruit and vegetable juices.  They also serve the native gallo pinto for breakfast!  It’s a foodie’s paradise tucked away in this little beach town.  I was SO grateful to Angelina and her passion for organic food especially because we had a new little eater with us.  I was also so inspired by her story.  I knew you would be too, so here is a short conversation about Sàmara Organics.

And, if you’re ever in the area, DO stop by for some delicious food and drinks and please tell Angelina we say hello.

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GG:  What was the food situation like as far as organic vs. conventional food before you started Samara Organics?

Angelina:  We moved to Samara about six years ago.  At that time we could find no organic food except in AutoMercado, 4-5 hours from here.  They had organic produce, soy products and other non-meat alternatives.  It was very exciting.  With a year or so of that we could find soy, almond, and rice milks which was a real treat.  For years we talked of opening a market to offer the products that we previously had stuffed our luggage with and smuggled down.  About two years ago I made some connections with folks from the Nosara Farmer’s Market and found locally made cheeses and organically grown produce.  I organized a mail list and started to sell it out of my car essentially with no mark up.  Just passing it along directly to other folks interested in the same.  The response was light but there were some folks.  The challenge with Samara, unlike Nosara, is our community is less affluent with less discretionary income so it was and still is a challenge to get folks to pay double for organic produce or cheese that are made without preservatives.  We really try to impress upon folks the importance of buying local – not only for the benefits of conserving our global resources but also the long term benefit of supporting a sustainable economy for our area.

GG:  What percentage of the food is locally grown/produced vs. imported?

Angelina:  Good question.  Organic produce remains a very small percentage of what is grown.  Monsanto has a foothold here and farmers can make more money by growing conventional.  We have a few imported items that we offer only to bring people in.  And, really even imported produce is a better option than some of the other snack food options with high fructose corn syrup that so many of our locals and expats turn to for a quick bite.  It is all trade offs and as one of my professors taught me…”learn to live with your contradictions”.  We don’t strive to be purists…we strive to offer healthy alternatives that support the locals that make responsible business decisions.  Our store gives us the opportunity to educate, to be there and teach and share when the light comes on about how to feel better through diet.

GG:  Are Ticos interested or aware of the organic label?

Angelina:  Very few.  The same is true for most expats.  The tourists are the ones that get it.  I am grateful for these tourists as we would not be in business without them.  We are, however, learning that we need to find different ways to reach the community because they haven’t a strong enough connection to the value of organics. Plus media gives them an out by running articles that state there are no real proven benefits of organic produce.  Please…  Also, here organic designation is prohibitively expensive for the small farmers so even if they are pesticide free they still don’t have certification.

GG:  What are the standards for the organic label in Costa Rica?

Angelina:  We have done some farming here however not to the level where we have been able to dedicate resources to understanding the certification of the law.  It remains the frontier here in Costa Rica in so many ways and cultural dynamics make it difficult at times to ascertain procedures, protocols, etc.

GG:  Who are your purveyors and how do you ensure organic practices?

Angelina:  We know of two distributors that sell organics and they have direct relationships with the famers and the produce comes with “organic” labeling.  At this stage we have not had any farm visits except for one and really the distributors are not eager to share their sources as there is more demand than there is produce to go around.

GG:  What are your biggest challenges?  Especially being in a foreign country!

Angelina:  Costs.  Costs continue to rise here as the popularity of this beautiful country increases.  Fixed income retirees don’t want to spend the money and many are often fixed in their beliefs so they don’t see the value.  We are grateful for the toursits but really our biggest challenge is finding easy access to quality product at an affordable price.  We have a fantastic organic produce distributor in San Jose but it costs us $150 to get the produce to our store – this is more than we make on the order.  We usually run a loss on our produce to just bring people in and compete with conventional produce often offered by the Walmart Pali stores that have huge purchasing power.

GG:  Was there anything easy about getting started?

Angelina:  Ha, not a thing! But, super rewarding to meet people like you that get it and are so grateful that they found us and they have this choice.  Many have commented it was the one thing missing for the idyllic Samara.  This makes us very happy.  We are close to going all vegetarian and offering some raw food options but again our tiny pueblo really just isn’t ready for it.

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GG:  It’s often assumed that food is better outside of the U.S. because there are probably fewer factory farms and mono-culture farms.  Is this true for Costa Rica?  For example, is the meat better because it comes from some small farm nearby where cows are probably fed grasses, etc.?

 Angelina:  In some ways this is true as chemicals are expensive and there are many here that still do it the “old way” but just the same studies show that use of pesticides continues to grow here in CR and with that it becomes cheaper and cheaper to do the wrong thing.

GG:  How and where did you start?  How did you know the food wasn’t organically grown?

Angelina:  I have had a varied and fulfulling career.  Before I left the US I worked as an Executive Director for a nonprofit environmental education group that offered free services to kids.  I have been into the movement for a very long time and my commitment has only increased over the years.  We opened the store about a year ago and have a long way to go and big dreams but we are also becoming more realistic about what we can accomplish.  Generally if were buying produce from a store we assumed it was conventional and I think that was a safe bet.  Chemical companies are deeply engrained throughout the world and working hard to stay in business.  It is almost punishing to run against this strong infrastructure.

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Are you a food elitist?

I’m not sure, but I think I may be.  Food elitist, food snob, or the less offensive foodie and super foodie, all mean pretty much the same thing.  The thing is, I’m not sure what that is.  What I do know is that labels get in the way of learning about someone.  And, they make people get defensive.  I’ve had to defend my food choices for a while. Being a vegetarian seemed somehow threatening to many omnivores out there who always seemed to feel the need to tell me how much meat they ate or that they didn’t eat red meat or worse who tried to find a flaw in my way of thinking…and therefore eating.  For the vegans I’d met, I wasn’t hard-core enough.  I still ate animal products (dairy and eggs) so what was the point of being vegetarian?  It was utterly exhausting.

Labels get formed when things are misunderstood.  It’s easier because it prevents us from learning why people make the choices they do. Now “those people” can just be lumped into one category and we need not investigate any further.  We just know we’re not “like that”.  It is baffling why anyone would choose to pay $6 for organic strawberries when the larger, redder, shinier conventional strawberries are half that.  Or why anyone would get his or her meat from a farm when the supermarket is so much easier.  I’ve even heard that it’s un-American to not eat McDonald’s.  And, my favorite is that eating organic is just a trend that will fade when everyone realizes there’s no difference between organic and conventional food besides the price.

To all of you arugula eating elitists, I hear you.  To all of you unbelievers, I understand you.

We were never taught anything about food in school.  In fact, school is often the place we got the worst meal of the day.  The wisdom of generations past has been obliterated by the convenience of packaged and microwaved food.  Tradition lost to modernity and the food industry, the medical industry, and the government made us all believe that we needed them to eat.  That’s almost the worst part of this story.

We’ve lost our connection to where our food comes from.  Forget for a minute that organic foods really are more nutritious and far better for us physiologically and energetically, and far better for our planet, and think about that sense of connection.  Because we do everything so fast we’ve stopped thinking about what we’re doing.  In our culture we eat to live.  I’ve been to many places where they live to eat and I can tell you that they are much happier than we are.

They’re much happier because when you stop to think about what it is that’s happening when we eat, how we eat becomes as important as what we eat.  The Earth bears our food.  It grows in the soil or grazes on its grasses or comes from our rivers and oceans.  It all gets nourished by the sun and watered by the rain.  When we take the time to source our food from places as close to where our food came from, instead of a factory or a laboratory, taking the time to cook it is a natural and logical next step.  From that time invested in preparing the food you carefully chose comes the desire, the actual need to share it.  Now eating that beautiful meal has become an act of community.  We talk, we eat, we share and our time is spent together.  This should happen everyday, not just on special occasions.  This would restore our lost connection to the Earth and to each other.  We need to do this.  You know you feel it, too.

The food choices I make are in part due to reclaiming this connection.  I buy organic food and whenever possible, I try to buy locally and seasonally, too.  I get my meat from a farm.  I shop at farmer’s markets.  I pay more for many foods because I think it’s worth it; supporting organic farms and farmers, supporting sustainable agriculture, eating food full of vitality, integrity and flavor, maintaining my and my family’s health.  I believe food should be celebrated.  And, I believe that we should be grateful for where our food comes from, for the people who work the land and who guard it.  Our food should be appreciated for what it’s doing for us, satisfying a physical need, but also a spiritual one.  Eating is about taking care of oneself (enjoyment is part of that), taking care of each other and taking care of where we all live.  Our children need us to restore this for them.

If all this makes me a food elitist (if I had to choose, I’d really rather go with super-foodie), then fine, that’s what I am.

But honestly, don’t you want to be a food elitist, too?

For more on food elitism, from a farmer’s point of view, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms wrote this article a while back.

Also, for info on all things organic, your first stop should be Rodale!