Around a sharp bend on Highway 41a in Monteagle, Tennessee, there once stood an old 30s stucco building on the verge of demolition. Today, this building now stands with new floors, windows, paint, a whole lot of funky and fun decor, and a revived spirit. Mooney’s Market and Emporium is a space much loved in the mountain community, for its local and organic food offerings, holistic wellness supplies, local artisan crafts, and for the open, interested, and nurturing community that flows in and out of its doors.
In the areas of Monteagle and Sewanee, as well as those surrounding, there has previously been very limited access to fresh whole foods and natural products. For those seeking sustainable and organic produce and goods, many traveled to cities off the mountain, trekking out to Murfeesboro, Chattanooga, or Nashville. Thus, Mooney’s was founded out of a deep need to fill this void in the local community, supplemented with a desire to preserve the history of the old building.
Mooney’s opened in the spring of my freshman year at the University of the South in 2012, and I’ve been going ever since to get my fix of komboucha, natural snacks, knitting supplies, and to get away from times of high stress on campus. For me, it has served as a space for peace, self-love, and good food. I sat with Joan Thomas, the owner and founder of Mooney’s, to hear her story.
Joan, a beautiful earth loving mama, is originally from Cleveland, TN, but moved to Sewanee in 1985. After some time in Sewanee, during which she helped establish Jump Off Community Land Trust from the 1,200 acre Link Farm and initiated a food co-op and gardeners’ market, she left and moved to the former hippie commune of “The Farm” in Summertown, where she spent 8 years until moving back to Sewanee.
She was busy with a customer when I walked in last week around 5pm. When we finally sat down in the back room on the couches where knitting circle usually takes place, she said it was the first time she’d sat down all day. She pulled out a project she was working on, an intricately knitted sweater that was a beautiful shade of light brown. She propped her feet up on a chair, began knitting, and I couldn’t help but smile while she sat there with her signature look – hair wrapped around a stick into a bun sitting on the top of her head, store key strung on a braided rope of leather handing round her neck, and knitting needles in hand. I popped open my bottle of Buchi and we got to talking.
E: “So, Joan, what do you love most about Sewanee?”
J: “Oh gosh, that’s a hard one! Top of the head, the community feel of it, and the fog. The fog is beautiful.”
E: “I agree. Alright, getting down to business here – what do you think about our nation’s food system?”
J: “We are in trouble. It’s horrifying, when I think about it I just can’t sleep. In general, corporate control of a food system is a really bad idea, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. From my own research about GMOs and the “organic standard”, it’s all about money and power, and if you go into conspiracy, there’s all sorts of relationships and links between the farm industry and the corporate world, but I don’t know enough about the details. Though, from what I do know, it’s bad. The organic standard is compromised by really strong lobbying, leaving the general public unable to truly trust organic labeling. And, in terms of GMOs, it’s just not what God created! It’s doused with chemicals. It’s Frankenfood doused with chemicals. If you think about it, you can’t live with it, so we do our best to buy the good stuff and deal with people we know as much as possible.”
E: “I’m with you on all those fronts. With that said, what inspired you to start Mooney’s?”
J: “First, I have always loved old buildings, so my husband and I wanted to save the old building to preserve the sense of history of an old landmark that was almost gone. Secondly, I’ve started food co-ops everywhere I’ve lived since the 70s. In my opinion and through my experiences in the community, there was a need for this resource. Since I know natural food products and had experience with start ups, and the building was there to be saved, it was almost like a mission of God to save the building and bring something to the community that it needed.”
E: “Okay, obviously I know what you sell, but for those who don’t, what does Mooney’s carry?”
J: “We sell natural and organic products, local products, yarn and knitting supplies, local handmade items, and consignment and antique items.”
E: “Right on. Who are your target customers?”
J: “Everyone! Everyone who lives here or passing through. The population is so tiny in the area that we depend on everyone who comes in and supports the business. We did this for the surrounding community, but we’ve found that the majority of our business comes from visitors, those traveling through and those connected with the weekend home and short term rental markets. We get about 50 customers every day, and we’re so grateful for each of them!”
E: “Clearly the business depends a lot on the community for support. What are some of the hardships you and the business have faced?”
J: “The small economy that we have does not have enough people in it to sustain this business in the capitalist format of the big model – it’s kind of like running a non-profit, really. Also, getting product, good product, is so difficult. There aren’t that many sources that transport product to the middle of nowhere, essentially, and that’s very challenging.”
E: “Even with it being so hard, you still manage to provide the community with fresh produce and full shelves of great products every week. What keeps the business going in the face of these hardships? What gets you, Connie, and Candi up in the morning and ready to come in and be here?”
J: “The constant positive energy and feedback. I’ve heard so many times, “Oh my god, it smells so good in here!” or “I just want to hang out here all the time!” We work really hard and do our best to provide these resources and service to the community, and the good energy of those who come in is so inspirational. Affirmation of right livelihood is abounds here, for sure.”
E: “What do you think about Sewanee’s local food system?”
J: “It’s come a long way. There used to be just 2 places to eat in town. It’s a thousand times much better than it used to be, with beautiful restaurants like Crossroads, Pearls, Ivy Wild, and Julia’s, and there’s still more! Though I do wish the restaurants would serve more organic food, that does keep me from going out as much. But I am glad that we have all of these wonderful places to eat, we’ve come a long way, but still need to come further still. Carole, who runs our Crescent Cafe, knows and uses vegan, organic and non-GMO products, and we’re losing money on that because we’re probably the only place in Tennessee serving 100% non-GMO and organic food. We do it because we believe in it, it’s not about money.”
E: “Alright, Joan. Here it is – what are you hungry for others to know, about local food, sustainability, Mooney’s, or anything really?”
J: “For me, food is spiritual. I’m a vegetarian, and my belief is that animals want to live and enjoy life as much as we do. They are sentient beings. For me, there’s no difference between person and animal. Vegetarianism for me is spiritual. With the national food system, it’s all commoditization. It’s come down to basic survival in a culture that’s driven by supermarkets, losing the local connection and seasonal connection. In this system, people eat the things by which they can best survive – because it’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s there. Also, what’s really disturbing is that I can get food grown in California, that is then shipped to a warehouse in Charlotte, NC, and then shipped to Atlanta, GA, where my delivery truck picks it up and drives it up here. And that food, that’s been transported all that way is still cheaper than buying local. Isn’t that crazy?! Those products that are traveling all those miles, certified with papers, and are expensive to get up this mountain are still cheaper than local products, that are, by the way, priced on the basis of fair wage. It’s all economies of scale I guess, but it’s to the point that local people can’t afford to buy local food.”
E: “That whole system that you just described, you’re right, it’s cheap. The culture, the perspective, – it’s all very far removed from the spiritual association and treatment of food, and it’s just blatantly disturbing when the facts are laid out. What do you think are possible solutions?”
J: “In one of my previous positions working with a non-profit, I dreamed of starting a garden box project, where each person in the community would get a 4×4 sq. ft garden box with compost soil, so they could grow something – tomatoes, herbs, whatever they’d like. And afterwards, once they realized how easy it was, they would be inspired to get another box, and another, etc. It would have been wonderful to do, but the funding wasn’t there. In terms of sourcing products, you know, I can’t afford to drive all over to get a case of this and a case of that, and there’s lots of products that I just can’t afford, so I do have to get some of it from California. But, what my job consists of more than anything is shopping – making sure I get the best possible products I can, for the people and for the environment, and I never mark anything above the suggested retail price.”
E: “Thank you for all that you and the Mooney’s women do. Ok, one last question, we’ll end on a fun note. What are 3 food stuffs you can’t live without?”
J: “Easy! Kale, potatoes, and komboucha.”
Mooney’s Market Emporium is open Monday to Sunday from 10:00am to 6:00pm. If you’re driving through the area, I highly suggest stopping in, if not to get some great stuff, then simply to meet Joan, Claire, Connie, Candi, and Carole, the kind and caring women of this local Tennessee food system.