40 Years of Selling Wholefoods

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

In 1982, Christchurch, New Zealand became my new hometown. I rented a flat in Avon Loop near Piko Wholefoods, one of the first organic food stores in Christchurch, if not in New Zealand. This is where I met Tineke, a striking-looking, tall shop assistant with long blonde hair and a strong Dutch accent. On my recent visit to Piko, 40 years on, I saw her again behind the counter, as if time had stood still.

Tineke Vrij grew up in the Netherlands. Two events in her childhood had a profound effect on her life: for her 12thbirthday, she was given a pair of binoculars, which put her on the path of birdwatching which continues to be her passion to this day; and as a teenager, she saw a documentary about the mistreatment of farm animals and decided to eliminate meat from her diet.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

In 1982, Christchurch, New Zealand became my new hometown. I rented a flat in Avon Loop near Piko Wholefoods, one of the first organic food stores in Christchurch, if not in New Zealand. This is where I met Tineke, a striking-looking, tall shop assistant with long blonde hair and a strong Dutch accent. On my recent visit to Piko, 40 years on, I saw her again behind the counter, as if time had stood still.

Tineke Vrij grew up in the Netherlands. Two events in her childhood had a profound effect on her life: for her 12thbirthday, she was given a pair of binoculars, which put her on the path of birdwatching which continues to be her passion to this day; and as a teenager, she saw a documentary about the mistreatment of farm animals and decided to eliminate meat from her diet.

Tineke was studying biology and home economics as part of her teacher training at the University of Amsterdam when she was swept off her feet by a visiting Kiwi of Dutch extraction. At just 21, she left her home in the Netherlands and followed him to the end of the world: Christchurch, New Zealand, where they got married. Tineke took her husband’s surname, Witteman.

“I lived in Kilmore Street and found Piko very quickly, as it was the only place selling decent, organic, vegetarian food,” she says. “In those days they were always looking for volunteers, so I became one.”

‘New Zealand’s organic movement germinated during the Second World War, when wartime shortages created a need for home gardens. One of New Zealand’s first organic organisations, the Humic Compost Club, was founded in 1941 and educated thousands of Kiwis in composting and other organic gardening skills. It would later become the Soil and Health Association, which still operates today. After World War II, chemical-intensive agriculture surged. However, in the 1970s, organic methods began to experience a renaissance. More home gardeners began to return to organic practices, and commercial producers sprung up to meet consumer demand. In 1983, New Zealand’s first organic certifier, BioGro, was set up to certify New Zealand growers to a high standard and build consumer trust in organic products.’ (Organics Aotearoa New Zealand, 2021).

Piko Wholefoods surfaced on the wave of the organic movement in 1979, as a tiny dairy on the corner of Kilmore and Barbados Streets, selling organic produce grown by local people in the Avon Loop area.

“Our store was a pioneer in organics. Initially, people didn’t want our food. They saw us as some weird hippies,” Tineke recalls.

After a few months of volunteering, she joined the co-op as a member. In those early days, members still had to do four hours of voluntary work per week before being paid for the remaining hours.

Locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts and pulses, as well as different flours were delivered in bulk for customers to purchase using their own containers or shop-supplied paper bags. In the days when plastics were beginning to dominate our retail stores, Piko was truly ahead of the times in understanding the importance of minimising packaging, reusing, and recycling. “We’ve always had high standards. We avoided packaging, purchased products in bulk and did a lot of packing ourselves. The anti-GE (Genetic Engineering) movement has also been important to us, as we have always been GE-free,” Tineke says.

Gradually, people started turning more and more to organics as public awareness of the effects of agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilisers) on human health has increased.

An example of one such chemical is DDT, a member of the group of OrganoChlorine Pesticides or OCPs, developed in the 1940s. By the late 1950s, its use became widespread amongst developed countries. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring caused a public outrage that later led to a ban on DDT’s agricultural application in many countries. The book talked about the environmental impacts of DDT and claimed that it caused long-term toxic effects in wildlife, particularly birds. In 2003, the European Commission (EC) published a memorandum on the presence of persistent chemicals (including DDT) in the human body and their potentially harmful effects. DDT as a ‘banned product’ is covered by the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed by 150 countries and the European Union (EC, 2003).

Despite its clean, green image, New Zealand has been relying on synthetics for the agriculture, horticulture, and food industries for decades, and has lagged behind many countries in banning DDT and other harmful chemicals from use. DDT was finally prohibited here in 1989, putting New Zealand behind Hungary’s ban of 1968, Norway, Sweden, and Cuba (1970), West Germany and the United States (1972), Poland (1976), Singapore and UK (1984), Chile (1985), and the Republic of Korea (1986) to name just a few (Wikipedia, n.d.).

As public awareness of farming practices and the omnipresence of chemicals in the environment continued to grow, the demand for organic produce and fresh, spray-free foods increased with some farmers returning to traditional methods used before the introduction of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. As a result, outlets selling organic products began operating all over New Zealand.

Piko was leading the trend. They made a conscious decision not to stock vitamin and mineral supplements, maintaining that the best health is gained from eating local, seasonal, fresh, organic produce and foods that are minimally processed.

In 2005, the co-op invested in earthquake strengthening of their historic red brick building. This foresight paid off five years later when the first of the Christchurch earthquakes struck in September 2010 and the building suffered little damage.

However, the second major earthquake, that shook Christchurch at lunchtime on 22 February 2011, had more disastrous consequences.

Piko building destroyed by the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake
Photo: Geoff Trotter

“The damage to the building was terrible. There were 20 people inside, luckily no one was hurt, but the building was no longer useable. It was condemned by the council and ordered to be demolished. The demolition people arrived, but we managed to stop them before they pulled the building down,” Tineke remembers. “Fortunately, we had really good insurance, including a business continuity cover.”

The shop moved to a different location for four years while the old building was reconstructed at the original site and extended to include additional space. It reopened for business in 2016, three years before its 40th birthday.

Today, Tineke is the longest-serving member of the co-op. She has three adult children, although only one of her sons stayed in New Zealand. Another son lives in Australia and her daughter in the USA.

“The only good thing about having a daughter in the USA is that I got to see the American birds – the bald eagle, the red cardinal, and the northern flicker, to name a few,” she says.

Visiting her son in Australia and her family in Europe creates more opportunities for birdwatching. Until the Covid pandemic put the brakes on international travel, she used to go to Europe every two years. Now she’s concerned about her parents, as she says she’s “overdue for a visit to the Netherlands”.

Some of Tineke’s quirky hobbies include a carnivorous plant collection, a colony of frogs living in a few ponds in her garden, and a pet axolotl (a type of salamander) that sadly died recently at the ripe old age of 30 years. But her main passion remains birdwatching. She was involved with Te Waihora Bird Count – an annual event of counting birds by Lake Ellesmere. Bird counting is a special skill that requires not only the ability to recognise the sounds of different birds and being able to single them out from the chorus of others, but also to keep track of how many birds one hears on a walk through the bird’s habitat. She is sad to see the native bird numbers dropping.

It’s not surprising then that her favourite places in New Zealand are Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf with its amazing wildlife sanctuary and the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin.

Tineke is one of those people who like to walk their talk. She swims a kilometre every day, cycles everywhere, loves gardening, and has remained a vegetarian all these years. She is an inspiration for those wanting to live a healthy lifestyle. This means using a variety of wholefoods, cooking at home, sharing food with people you love, and appreciating the energy and effort put into nourishment.

 

Sources: 1. Organics Aotearoa New Zealand, Our History 2. DDT, Wikipedia 3. Presence of persistent chemicals in the human body, results of Commissioner Wallström’s blood test, European Commission

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