READERS' PICK: While the government and lobbyists continue their multi-faceted debate about the criteria for classifying organic produce (as yet, an unregulated industry), we can thank our lucky stars that reputable, small growers themselves are clear on the subject: no genetic modifications, no growth chemicals, no pesticides. Wild Oats makes the process even easier, with a full supermarket selection of produce culled from 90 local, national and international growers. Not all the produce at Wild Oats is strictly organic, but each item is clearly labeled, and a knowledgeable staff will happily tell you as much as you want to know about organics. (For example, the apples are what they call "transitional," meaning crops aren't being sprayed, but the soil they're grown in has not been certified. To be certified organic, the soil must be free of pesticides and chemicals for five years.) What's more, this Colorado-based chain market puts its money where it's mouth is, supporting with both their buying power and customer information a bevy of committed growers and environmental causes. Each store has a "five-percent day" for donations to charitable causes. If you want to check Wild Oats' references yourself, read up on this husband-and-wife enterprise at http://www.wildoats.com/us/about.html.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: The 17th Street Farmer's Market, 840 E. 17th St. This week, skip the supermarket and head instead to the 17th Street Farmer's Market. It's tucked away into the mixed industrial neighborhood, on the corner of 17th Street and Euclid Avenue, and is full of surprises you won't find anywhere else. Look for daily specials, a wide array of greens, Asian produce and organics as well as short check-out lines. The prices are excellent -- better than just competitive -- which in combination with the variety of selections, from portabello mushrooms to plantains, makes this the best bargain in Tucson. And there's certainly more here than fruits and vegetables: oils, sauces, legumes, a fresh fish market, fun sweets (Hello Kitty cookies!), teas -- the list is seemingly endless.
MORE MANIA: Food Conspiracy Co-op, 412 N. Fourth Ave. The produce at this haven of socially conscious capitalism is lovingly selected, arrayed and maintained by a staff that knows and truly cares about quality organic produce. You'll find produce grown by local growers, unusual seasonal items, a consistently wide selection of fruits and veggies, and quite simply the best produce available on the west coast, thanks to the co-op's special connection with one of the industry's top organic produce brokers out of the Big Sur area. The broker has been in the organic produce industry for more than 30 years, and makes a special trip to Tucson twice a month because he's friends with the head of the produce department. The staff is exceptionally cheerful and knowledgeable, and as they readily admit, spiritually attuned in their reverence for the green goods they purvey. It may not be the easiest place to park, but a visit to the Food Conspiracy is well worth the effort.
MORE MANIA: Cochise County U-Pick farms. Head for the farms of Cochise county in September, when the choice and quality of the produce is at its peak. Now is a good time to call your grandma and learn about pickling, canning and preserving, because the urge to pick always exceeds the ability to consume. Pima County Co-op Extension publishes a Farm to Family Directory that tells you where all the farms are, what they grow and when they're open. (They can help you with the pickling, canning and preserving, too, if Granny's out in the RV.) Our personal favorite is Hunsdon Farms, north of Willcox, for tomatoes and pickling cukes and fresh dill. Hint: put a few grape leaves in each jar of pickles to keep them crisp.