I was walking my dog Poppy last fall, zigzagging around the area where I currently live. We had been out of C-U for nine years, and it’s fun to just wander around and visually catch up with my hometown.
We ended up in the big green field in front of South Side Elementary School. It was a wonderful, warm day, and I had nowhere to be, so we just hung out in that little park for a bit. That’s when the memories started to come into focus, especially when my eyes locked onto the oddly-shaped building on the NW corner of John and Pine. This building doesn’t look like any of the houses in this neighborhood, not even a little bit. Then an exact memory popped into my head ... third grade, summer school, and the scent of carob? I went to South Side for part of my second grade year. I don’t recall too much from that era; I think school got memorable in the third grade.
First best friends and great teachers seem to kick in that year for me, memory wise. I went to Kenwood that year, and for whatever reason I had to take a summer school class. We were bussed over to South Side from Kenwood. Overall, it sucked; it was summer school.
One day, I somehow missed the bus that would have taken me back to my familiar neighborhood in West Champaign, and I recall not really caring that I had missed that bus. I ended up playing around the school with some kids from that neighborhood. Everything was good until they all ended up going home. That’s when I found myself alone, walking around the school, slowly realizing that I had no idea where I was in relation to where I lived, or how I was going to get home, or what to even do about it. The school doors were locked, and I was too scared to walk up to a random house and ask for help. I was scared.
This is where the Dietary Food Store comes into play. This store is located in that oddly-shaped building at Pine and John, the same one that brought back the memory of my being lost back in the day. The eight-year-old me walked into the store and asked the very nice woman that was there if she would help me call my mom. I had our home number written in my little kid wallet. She was so nice, and made me feel like everything was going to be all right. She called my mother, who assured her that she was on her way to pick me up.
I was going to be saved.
I remember walking around the store and asking her, “What kind of store is this?” or something like that. She replied, “This is a nutrition store; good nutrition helps you grow up healthy,”... I was clueless of course. There was a smell about the place that seemed odd to me as a kid, and it took me years to realize that what I smelled for the first time that day was just carob. I say "just" because I’m still not a fan of that stuff.
I walked my dog back to my house, and hopped right on my bike to head to the Dietary Food Store. I had not been into this place since that day back when I was eight. I was determined to buy something, and hopefully I would get to thank the kind lady that was there that day. Yes, I knew the odds of the same person being there were crazy slim. Still though, I felt compelled.
I opened the door to the shop, and there standing behind the counter is this super sweet older woman. I'm talking older in the sense that this might be her. I wasn’t even five feet inside the door when I blurted out, “You helped me out a long time ago.” I rambled through the story, only to find her smiling face say, “Well ... I don’t remember that, but I’m the only woman that has worked here, so it must have been me.”
It was totally okay that she didn’t remember; that wasn’t really the point. I was just happy to say "thank you." I walked around the store, probably in a similar way that I did when I was eight, but there was one difference. This time, I was super excited to pick up some things that I needed. My first purchase: bulk almonds, flax seed oil, Braggs apple cider vinegar, and some lotion. She rang me up on a register that is probably older than me. Love it.
We chatted for, like, an hour that first day, and well ... I have been back several times. I shop at Strawberry fields from time to time, and I’m a happy “owner” at Common Ground Co-op. I love these places, and will always support them. That said, I’m for sure going to always get certain things at Dietary Food Store. This spot is old school DIY, and as independent as it gets. Some items in the store have a dated feel about them, and I bet you could even find a few items that have been there for years, but this is not the general vibe of her store. Lots of product is super up to date and recently stocked. If you do anything semi-healthy, you will dig the visit without a doubt.
I went back in once more recently to ask her some questions about herself and the store. Oh, have I mentioned that her name is Winifred? Winifred Sanders. Easily the first Winifred that I have ever met. Born in 1924, and turning ninety on March 6, you must know she has full knowledge about what's good for you, and what’s bad for you.
Her father farmed their land near Sadorus, just south of Champaign, and she has pretty much stayed in Champaign her whole life. This is where her healthy work ethic was born. Being the oldest child, she did all of the hard stuff to help her family. The milking of the cows, feeding the chickens, mowing the grass, even driving her father’s truck in the fields to unload the hoppers during harvest when she was, like, fourteen.
That’s some straight-up Depression Era, Teen Living right there. So she’s a bit of a tough one. There was a little snow on her walk the day I went to do this interview. I asked her if I could shovel it for her. Her reply, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.” She later told me: “The worst thing to do when you are older, is to stop moving and doing things.” Makes perfect sense to me.
Smile Politely: How long has this store been open?
Winifred Sanders: Fifty-two years. Been at this location since 1970. We were at 504 North Prairie first. This building used to be a service station; the previous owner built the upstairs and widened it before we took over the building. You can still see the odd driveway, where the cars use to pull through.
Smile Politely: Who are your main customers?
Sanders: Everybody, all types. College kids, neighborhood people whose parents shopped here, and even high school kids from Central. I'm very happy to see the high school kids come in; it means they are learning about nutrition earlier in life.
Smile Politely: Why did you decide to open a nutrition store?
Sanders: Survival. When I was 22 years old, I started to waste away. I couldn’t keep any weight on and had terrible headaches; something was wrong. My brother was an M.D. who had studied nutrition at the University, and he had the idea to take me off of all milk, beef, and eggs. You have to remember, we didn’t grow up on all the bad foods that there are these days, so I was adjusting my already good diet to be a better one. We used to go to a store on South Neil, that was actually a nutrition store, to shop for me. They had soy milk, spirulina, and stuff like that. I had Celiac Disease, but it took us a long time to figure that out. Once we did, I could only eat a certain way. Gluten is a bad thing for some people, and most people are affected by it to some degree and they don’t even know it. They don’t know how much better they can feel. Nutrition is a personal choice.
Smile Politely: So you were inspired to offer this service to the community based on your own experience?
Sanders: That’s right. Our digestive systems cannot handle lots of things that are called food. Preservatives and antibiotics are not natural things to put into food. The body just stores it in fat because it doesn’t know what to do with it. We have to look at chemicals that they put into food and put a stop to it. Some food stores sell the wrong foods, and it can be about bottom dollar. Bottom dollar is ruining our country. But it’s a complete lifestyle: not just eating right, but moving right with exercise.
Smile Politely: How do you exercise?
Sanders: Well it’s harder in the winter, but I believe in raised garden beds and gardening in general. I pick my own fruit and tend to my gardens. It’s good exercise because you don’t have a repetitive motion over and over. I was never into the athletics.
Smile Politely: What would you advise people to do if they want to start eating better, feeling better, and losing weight?
Sanders: It’s easy, regarding food intake. We just have to build up what our bodies burn up in a given day. Intake just enough to get by, not to build up extra. Extra buildup is bad, and especially if you eat the wrong foods. Every human is a human, but we have slight differences in each of us that determine what our individual body can break down. Take blood type. Different blood types cause differences in the absorption of different foods. Eat what your body can handle and exercise.
The Dietary Food Store is at 802 W. John Street. The hours are a bit limited: 9:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Monday–Friday.
Hey, Winifred deserves weekends off.