Tag Archives: Innovation

Sur La Table: Inspiring Sustainable Cooking at Home

Sur La Table, which in French means “On the Table,” was founded in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the United States) in 1972 to offer hard-to-find kitchenware imported from France. From these humble roots, the company has expanded to 74 stores nationwide, with over 20 stores offering in-store culinary programs, which the company began offering in 1996.

The Original Sur La Table

The Original Sur La Table

Recently, I met Carol Blonder after she commented on the “Dear Julia Child, We Need You!” post on the Every Kitchen Table (EKT) blog. Carol is the Culinary Coordinator at Sur La Table’s Keirland Commons, Scottsdale AZ store. Carol’s Culinary Program is the first for Sur La Table to form a relationship with a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, so I contacted Carol to learn more about this innovative program and how Sur La Table is helping to put Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™.

EKT:  At Every Kitchen Table, we believe that building a thriving, rapidly growing sustainable food system requires getting people back in their kitchens where they can live great food experiences that fully engage their senses. What do you think will help get more people cooking at home again?

Carol:  I think motivation to cook at home comes from many sources. People need to overcome their fears and feelings of inadequacy in the kitchen. The best way to do that is to start to cook.  Learning to shop for groceries, learning simple knife techniques, and taking a few classes is a good start and can change people’s feelings about cooking at home. So many chefs say that having the right tools and using the highest quality ingredients available is the key to great dishes. This is something anyone can create in their home and make part of their repertoire.

I also think the current economic atmosphere and concerns over our health and the health of the food supply are other motivations to cook and eat at home.

People need to recognize that feeding ourselves can be an act of nurturing families, our friends and ourselves. Being mindful of shopping for food, cooking and the act of eating is not something we think about when we are eating in restaurants or picking up packaged prepared foods, so it is great to see people come to class, learn new techniques or recipe ideas, and engage in cooking in a new way.

Finally, we need to include children as much as possible since they are also interested in cooking, often because they watch the food shows and want to learn to cook. At a recent Mom & Me class, the kids thought it was so cool to make their own marinara sauce and pica de gallo, and the moms were impressed that these simple sauces could be made fresh at home.

EKT:  You mentioned helping someone “learn to shop for groceries.” What’s involved in that?

Carol:  During the introduction to each class we review the recipe packet for the class. We cover ingredient information, which is a perfect segue to a conversation about how we shop for food. There are usually questions about organic versus conventional approaches, especially regarding produce and poultry. In addition, customers want information about where to find specific ethnic products (e.g., Asian markets, Italian imports). Customers are paying attention to the news about our food supply, and most are interested in making healthy choices.

EKT:  What’s Sur La Table’s vision for its culinary program?

Carol:  The culinary program was part of the first Sur La Table store, near Pike’s Place Market, in Seattle Washington and is viewed as a key component in Sur La Table’s vision to “be the premier retailer for creative cooking and artful entertaining.” The culinary program offers customers the opportunity to learn cooking techniques, from the basics to advanced methods in a variety of demonstration and hands on class experiences. Customers also have the opportunity to try out culinary tools and equipment in the classroom that will enhance their cooking experiences at home.

SLT Web: “Sur La Table’s cooking class program started in 1996. Today it is one of the largest nationwide, avocational cooking class programs in America. Most classes are hands-on and focus on seasonal cuisine and technique-oriented courses; skill levels range from beginner to advanced, with special courses devoted just to kids and teens. Private cooking lessons are available in all programs.”

EKT:  Can you describe the facilities used in your culinary program, as well as how those facilities link to the kitchen tools and equipment offered in the store?

Carol:  Our kitchens are fully equipped, and we have a comprehensive range of tools and equipment to use in our classes, everything from a wooden spoon to a top of the line espresso maker. Everything we use is offered for sale in the store.

We work with the customer individually, make recommendations and offer a personalized shopping service built around a specific customer’s needs. We have products that speak to the needs of the beginner and products that would be of interest to the aficionado.

For example, in our knife skills class, we teach customers about knife construction, how to choose a knife, knife care, sharpening, and different types of knives and their usage. This is in addition to the basic knife cuts they are taught and practiced in class. We sell a variety of knives at multiple price points and give customers the opportunity to try different brands in class, which helps them determine which knives they need for their home. One customer may choose the basics: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a honing tool, another customer may come in having read about a specific knife brand and construction and buy a whole set and an electric sharpening.

EKT:  Are the kitchens used for the culinary program located in stores?

Carol:  The Culinary Kitchen’s are located inside the store. The Culinary program utilizes the kitchen for classes, as seen on our monthly calendars. We also book private event cooking classes, which can be hands on or demonstration, team building events for business groups, and private cooking lessons for parties of one to four people.  Business groups and individuals book the private cooking events for bridal showers, birthday parties and team building events as well as a way to get together. We have 16 spots for hands on classes. Demonstration classes can accommodate up to 32 customers. The facilities can also be rented.

EKT:  What drove the Scottsdale store’s decision to collaborate with a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm?

Carol:  Lori Hunter, our store manager, believes in building relationships in the local community. Part of the Sur La Table mission is to give back to the communities where we live and work. Lori saw involvement with a CSA farm as way to be involved in the local food movement, support the community, and bring people to the store are interested in what we do.

Lori and I were aware that one of the challenges for CSA subscribers is what to do with produce that arrives weekly during a season [see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough]. As a retailer focused on cooking and entertaining, with a culinary program, we can provide that information through our knowledgeable staff and by offering classes that focus on use of local seasonal ingredients.

EKT:  Did someone have a relationship with Desert Roots Farm? Have there been any surprises?

Carol:  Research was done to determine a good fit for the CSA program. We knew of Desert Roots but did not have a previous relationship. There have not been any surprises, working with our CSA farm, Desert Roots Farm, has been smooth. Kelly Saxer, Desert Roots farmer, has been doing this a long time, and has her program down to a system.

EKT:  Is the CSA concept something Sur La Table is considering in its other stores?

Carol:  We are the pilot for this partnership, and I believe this is something other store managers and Culinary Coordinators would like to put into place.

EKT:  Is Sur La Table partnering with food or related companies to support its culinary courses?

Carol:  The relationships with food retailers changes during the calendar year, depending on customer demands and suppliers. We have had for example a relationship with Academia Barilla, featuring their products and offering a series of classes from their recipe library on regional Italian cooking. Sur La Table also had a successful culinary tour to Italy and Academia Barilla’s culinary school last fall, with another trip planned. Another current example is a relationship with Guittard Chocolates, whose products are featured in our classes.

EKT:  What kitchen tools & equipment would you recommend for an aspiring home cook?

Carol:  Here is a list of Basic Kitchen Essentials:

  • Knives:  Chef’s Knife, Paring Knife, Serrated Knife, Kitchen Shear, Knife Block or Guards, Sharpening Steel, Cutting Board, Cheese Knife
  • Tools: Measuring Spoons and Cups, Whisks, Spatulas-variety including a fish spatula and grill spatula, Spoons (wooden and metal) with Long Handles, Tongs, Colander and Strainer, Instant Read Thermometer, Peeler, Mixing Bowls-various sizes, Grater and Rasp, Ladles, Juicer, Can Opener, Pastry Brush, Bench Scraper, Sheet pans (rimmed) and silpat mats or parchment paper,  Baking Sheets, Pepper mill,
  • Small Appliances: Blender, Food Processor, Hand Mixer, Immersion Blender, Toaster, Coffemaker, Electric Grinder for spices, Stand Mixer
  • Cookware: Saucepans-variety of sizes, Saute or Saucier pan, Roasting pan, Skillet, Dutch Oven, Stockpots, Baking Dishes, Steamer Basket, Cast Iron grill pan
  • A cookbook that focuses on cooking technique

For more information on these and other products, please visit Sur La Table.

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Can Industrial Food Become Sustainable?

Agriculture is a simple concept.  By cultivating plants and raising animals, you produce food for human and animal consumption. It is far more complicated and complex in practice, and is ultimately broader than what we normally consider under the term agriculture, e.g., aquaculture.

Early advances in agriculture improved crop yields to serve as a major contributor in the rise of civilization.  As farming began producing food surpluses, people were able to leave labor-intensive agriculture to pursue commerce in other areas in more densely populated places. This migration, in turn, increased demands on those remaining in farming, a trend that continues today.

Therefore, an important factor in any conversation considering agricultural methodologies is crop yields. In our quest for ever-higher yields, which seems like a sound strategy, many innovative technologies have been employed. For exampe, innovation helped increase efficiencies of routine, labor-intensive activities by applying mechanized equipment to replace man and beast. While such improvements increased the carbon footprint of those farms, they likely remained environmentally sustainable.

Eventually, new technologies (esp., synthetic fertilizers, and, later, synthetic pesticides), along with federal subsidies, gave farmers incentive to move away from sustainable farming practices, e.g., crop rotations, integrated crop and livestock systems, by focusing on high volume, monoculture commodity crops. With these “advances” thus began the separation of intensive farming (i.e., industrial agriculture, concentrated animal feeding operations) from sustainable agricultural approaches (e.g., permaculture, organic).

Fast forward to today and you find industrial agriculture dominating our modern food supply (with a majority of farms being family-owned), along with the industries that support that production, e.g., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, large-scale farm equipment manufacturers, fuel suppliers, and pharmaceuticals (antibiotics). Further down the food chain you find large food processing companies that drive demand for commodity food products, especially corn (sweeteners), soy bean (oils), and beef, and sell to global fast food companies (e.g., McDonald’s) and massive food retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart) that provide shelf space and promotional opportunities to move large quantities of “edible foodlike substances” (credit M. Pollan).

My first (admittedly naive) attempt at defining farming (see Farming 101) looked at commonly used naming conventions, e.g., family farms, factory farms, CAFOs. This really missed the cleaner separation of sustainable and industrial approaches to agriculture, which is the focus of this post.

Two Methodologies, One Output (Food), Multiple Impacts

Sustainable Agriculture

Speaking at the Cooking for Solutions 2009 symposium, John Reganold, professor of soil science and agro-ecology at Washington State University, described sustainable agriculture as follows:

“When I walk onto a farm and ask whether that farm is sustainable, it would have to meet the following criteria. It would have to produce an adequate yield of high-quality food. It would have to be economically profitable, because if it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable. It would have to be environmentally sustainable, meaning it has to be energy-efficient, nonpolluting, and not eroding the soil. And maybe most important, that farm has to be socially responsible, compensating its workers with a fair rate of pay, a 401(k), medical coverage, etc.”

Said another way:

Sustainable = (1) good yields of high quality food + (2) profitable + (3) environmentally sustainable + (4) socially responsible

How that is achieved is through diverse crop and livestock systems, where farmers use systematic rotations to recycle nutrients, improve yields, control pests and weeds, and produce high-quality, nutrient-rich food.  Such sustainable agricultural practices have been employed for hundreds of years with proven results.

Innovation has mostly been evolutionary, but there have been major increases in crop yields from time to time. In particular, the British Agricultural Revolution in the early 1700s introduced the four-course system of crop rotation (replaced three-course system) which improved crop yields by 30 percent.

The most common question (or objection) to sustainable, organic or local food productions (which I am lumping together as they general follow similar methodologies with regard to sustainble operations) is whether the approach can scale to feed large populations. With the right incentives, similar to federal subsidies for commodity crops, as well as changes in land use practices, we can create incentives to definitely make an impact, but I will save that discussion for another post.

Industrial Agriculture

The goal of industrial agriculture is straightforward: maximize volume at the lowest cost to provide cheap food. Or, as the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it:

Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with “inputs” (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and “outputs” (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (such as bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale.

Proponents of the approach rightfully point out that advances in industrial agriculture have produced massive food surpluses resulting in cheaper food that helps feed more people. Opponents counter that the food being produced are lower in nutritional qualities, lack flavor/taste, and is not sustainable from environmental and social perspectives.

Unlike sustainable agriculture systems, the industrial-scale production of food separates crops and livestock, and significantly reduces the diversity of what a typical farm grows and/or raises.  Quoting Wendell Berry, “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commerical fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” Perhaps Mr. Berry’s comments are too edgy for some, but he quickly and effectively gets to the heart of the environmental crisis that our modern, industrial agriculture presents.

Regardless, a vast majority of food produced today comes from our industrial food system. In addition, nearly all retail food establishments, whether fast food restaurants or supermarkets, make a majority of revenues and profits from selling food products made possible by commodity crops and processing facilities, e.g., inexpensive sweeteners and oils, cheap meats and dairy products, which is why we must find ways to improve this system, while nuturing new approaches.

Therefore, in addition to growing “alternative” regional food systems, we must also gather our collective energies to make industrial food more sustainable and capable of producing higher quality food (in terms of nutrition, taste, etc.). Again, from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

A sustainable approach, based on understanding agriculture as an ecosystem, promises sufficient produce without sacrificing the environment. For sustainable agriculture to thrive, the policies that foster industrial agriculture will need to be refocused.

Clearly, there is much work to be done.

10 Reasons Why “Local” is Challenging Industrial Food

Over the last several months, I have noticed a change in tone in online conversations (i.e., Twitter, blogs, comments, etc.) regarding local food.  At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then it became clear.  The “established” sustainable food online community was joined by people from the food industry (farmers, marketers, Monsanto, etc.), putting agendas, visions, and turf front-and-center.

Personally, I think this is a good thing, since I believe all sides need to be considered when initially trying to solve the complex problem of making our food supply sustainable.

Unfortunately, entrenched positions are difficult to get around. Industrial food appears to think that people advocating for sustainable food, whether large or small scale, local or national, are out to get them.  While at the same time, sustainable and/or local food advocates seem to believe that industrial food can’t or won’t change.

What we all need to try to understand is that sustainable food isn’t about industry and advocates.  It’s about consumers and communities. It’s about finding effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value (see Pro Food Is post for list of core principles all interested parties can rally around).

In that spirit, I offer the following list of reasons why I believe “local” is making industrial food nervous. I strongly encourage readers to consider this any opening comment in what must be a constructive dialog. The objective is to get more people from all sides of the problem on the same page, so we can get to work on solving the problem.

  1. Alternative Food Systems: There is no question that local, organic and sustainable are here to stay. How much market share products in these categories will take away from existing food companies is a big question, which is likely one reason why players in the industrial food system are paying more attention.  If I were them, I would be looking for signs of real traction in regional food systems, which could move consumers to a “tipping point” that changes America’s food systems for good.
  2. Location, Location, Location: Given its size, industrial food can’t effectively scale down to meet the spirit of local, but this isn’t stopping it from trying. Consider the multi-million dollar budget and marketing campaign to position Lay’s as a local product. Never mind that Frito-Lay uses two billion pounds of potatoes every year. If it can redefine local, then it can slow or stop the threat.
  3. Values-Driven Movement: Consumers interested in local foods are looking for more than cheap, widely accessible food, whether processed or fast food. They want flavorful, nutritious foods that come from local farmers and processors. They want enriching food experiences. Some want to keep their dollars in the local community to build value, which will drive more local supply. Judging by some of industrial food’s recent actions, it may try to spin its way through this latest challenge. That might work, for a while, but not likely if the local movement stays on course.
  4. Brand Leadership: An important tenet of local is knowing where things come from. In the case of food this means that attribution goes to farms and farmers, not corporate brands. It’s hard for me to imagine how leading food brand companies could give up such recognition in an effort to be local. Consider Disney Garden, a full line of fruits and vegetables offered by Imagination Farms, which licenses the Disney name (see Disney Garden: A Figment of Our Imagination). The packaging is 100 percent dedicated to the Disney brand. If you want to know about the farmers, you have to visit the I-Farms web site and dig down a couple layers. It’s there, but clearly in a supporting role at best.
  5. Traceability: How will industrial food offer transparent traceability (i.e., publicly available information on food sources on demand) to its business?  Can it realistically trace where every item comes from that is used in their products?  As recent food safety scares have shown us, it is very difficult to trace commodity and large-scale food products given the number of hands that touch them between farm and plate, even after weeks or months of effort. In the case of local foods, consumers will easily know where food comes from, and in some cases will know farmers first-hand.
  6. Supply Constraints: Industrial food might have a point when it claims that local suppliers can’t meet potential consumer demands.  This is especially true in concentrated population centers, e.g., New York City, where it’s hard to envision enough local suppliers within 100 miles (often cited as meaning “local”) to feed NYC’s 8.2 million inhabitants.  At the same time, the amount of food being consumed from local suppliers is nowhere close to its potential.  The hard part for large food companies is envisioning how their products, dependent on commodity supplies and heavy processing can meet emerging consumer demand.
  7. Profit Margins: Over the last 25 years, the amount of every consumer dollar spent going to the “marketing bill” (beyond the farm) has substantially increased.  At the same time, farmers have seen their income drop over 40 percent (from $0.31 to $0.19) during that time period (see Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?).  There are lots of contributing factors in this shift, but one thing seems clear, reversing course will be very difficult for top-heavy food companies.  Part of the problem with “real food” is that it can’t be marked up much beyond the farm, since the value-add really happens in restaurant and home kitchens.  Perhaps some well-known global brands (e.g., Disney) might be able to pull off premium pricing without adding much value, but those will be exceptions, and may not be that for long.
  8. New Competition: While the market potential of local food sales may be limited by geography, demographics and supply chains, it still represents the type of competition that should make conventional food players nervous.  The development of local food retailers offering disproportionately local foods represents a beachhead for related products to thrive, e.g., sustainable, Fair Trade, etc. Over time, these competitors will be less reliant on the conventional food infrastructure to grow, which will likely result in a wave of “foodpreneurs” taking advantage of alternative food systems (see Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist and The Five Stones of Pro Food for more).
  9. Government Subsidies: While recent news regarding the USDA’s support of small and/or organic farms has been encouraging for local food advocates, the vast majority of federal funds in support of agriculture continue to go to commodity crops.  Industrial food producers wanting to shift toward local markets will therefore have to give up at least some of those subsidies when converting acreage to specialty crops (e.g., fruits, vegetables).  The financial impact of losing subsidies may prohibit many large-scale commodity farms from moving toward organic and/or local market supply.
  10. Consumer Demand: Possibly most important is the fact that consumers aren’t waiting for industrial food to “get it.”

One thing that should help industrial food sleep more comfortably at night is that developing regional food systems will not be easy work.  Government regulations continue to hamper local processing, thus impacting supply capacities.  Government subsidies are dominated by non-edible food commodity crops, although smaller amounts of money are being allocated to local, sustainable and organic farmers. And multinational food companies have the capability to saturate the airwaves and print with sophisticated marketing to shape perceptions and drive consumer behavior.

But all of that can, and likely will change over time. So, rather than fight what seems inevitable, it seems time for industry to embrace local, organic and sustainable foods, and work in concert with advocates and innovators to bring the right local, sustainable and other related products to market.

It won’t be easy, but what worth having ever is?

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7 More Innovative Sustainable Food Ventures

After a great response to my “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers” post nearly three weeks ago, and a number of suggestions of people, organizations and companies doing equally important work, I am following up with seven more role-model ventures that deserve attention.

Claire’s Restaurant (Hardwick, VT)

Claire’s was launched in May 2008 by four partners with the help of numerous investments from the Hardwick and surrounding communities, in what is best described as a community supported restaurant (CSR). Around 50 community members put in $1,000 each in return for discounted meals they will receive over four years. What they invested in was a restaurant truly committed to local and sustainable food, which is evidenced by the restaurant purchasing 79% of its food from farms in the Northeast corner of Vermont through its first winter, a significant feat given Claire’s location in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The innovative and seasonal menu, which quickly adapts to what’s available, has won the hearts and stomachs of those lucky enough to have eaten at Claire’s. For more, check out a great interview with Chef Steven Obronovich on Zachary Cohen’s Farm to Table blog.

Jasper Hill Farm (Greensboro, VT)

Just down the road from Claire’s Restaurant, you will find Jasper Hill Farm, a small family farm making arguably one of the best blue cheeses on the planet – Bayley Hazen Blue. They took over the farm in 1998 and settled on making farmstead cheese as the most viable business model. Good thing! After five years of study and preparation they purchased 15 Ayrshire heifers in July 2002 and got to making cheese. What sets Jasper Hill apart as a sustainable food venture is the $3.2-million cheese cave it built to finish its cheeses, as well as those of other cheesemakers, including Cabot Creamery’s award-winning Clothbound Cheddar. Jasper Hill offers local dairy farms a turnkey solution for aging that will add considerable value to those producer’s end product. Everyone wins. By making it easier and more cost effective for dairy farms making high-quality cheese, Jasper Hill hopes to help more farms come online and/or make a good living around value-added products.  Blur your eyes and imagine similar cheese caves and services throughout New England and beyond. Yum!

The Farmer’s Kitchen (Hollywood, CA)

This soon-to-be-opened community kitchen is serving as an extension of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and will offer commercial teaching, processing, and retail kitchen for the sale of prepared foods, value-added products, and farm-fresh produce.  The purpose behind this sustainable food venture is to link California’s small farmers with the urban (Los Angeles) population by extending the presence of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market through the entire week.  Given the need of fresh produce and healthy meals in urban areas, especially lower income sections, the potential of this model in other large cities is exciting.  Income from the Farmer’s Kitchen will support nutrition education programs and provide job training in food preparation for Hollywood’s low-income residents.

Green Go Food (Seattle, WA)

Along similar lines as The Farmer’s Kitchen, but on a smaller scale and slightly different angle, Green Go started out in April 2008 working with the Neighborhood Farmers Markets, a community-based organization developed in response to growing popularity of farmers markets in the Seattle area. What Green Go does is utilize food from “our local farm heroes” to prepare and serve healthy fast food at farmers markets. Very cool, especially since it provides tasty proof that utilizing local produce can yield great results. Their goal is to acquire a kitchen and storefront, with a longer term vision of a “Taco Truck style” venue (need to find out more about this; please let me know if you have more information). By creating community “hot spots” for local, sustainable foods, they are increasing retail access to sustainable food in the Seattle region.  Next step?  How about mobile sustainable food venues rolling through town like yesteryear’s ice cream truck?

Bushel & Peck’s Local Market (Beloit, WI)

The first sentence on their web site states, “Experience grocery shopping like it used to be!”  That’s a great start, so I dug deeper.  By purchasing local, certified organic and fair trade foods from Bushel & Peck, they are helping you help support farmers and processors that have chosen sustainable agriculture as their approach.  It is so great to see such innovations in the retail experience that consumers in Beloit, Wisconsin are offered in this significantly smaller than average grocer (6000 square feet with full kitchen and old fashioned lunch counter).  What gives this new venture even more credibility is the fact that its founders, Rich Horbaczewski and Jackie Gennett, are also farmers that practice what they preach.

Happy Girl Kitchen (Watsonville, CA)

This find is thanks to Todd Gonzales (a.k.a., Newlandarcher on Twitter), a UC Berkeley student working on agriculture and food systems.  This is his descprition.  Todd & Jordan Champagne, who cut their teeth at Fully Belly Farms, realized their farmer neighbors needed an outlet for what they were producing. The most common complaint among farmers with whom I work: inadequate & insufficient retail outlets/wholesalers for their yields.  The solution: the revival of the dying art of food preservation. But HGK has taken its efforts further by initiating a series of entertaining workshops to teach people how to pickle, can, and ferment. They are using their existing channels (farmers’ markets) to promote the workshops and empowering people to engage with their food. Thanks, Todd.  On a related note, please check out Three Stone Kitchen, a community supported kitchen in Berkeley that was in the original “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers” list.

Lost Arts Kitchen (Portland, OR)

Last, but not least, is Portland’s Lost Arts Kitchen.  While this one-woman show is significantly limited in the impact it can have today, Chris Musser is the real deal and offers a breadth and depth of perspective that we can all learn from.  Read more in my April 22 post.


As always, I encourage everyone to comment on any of these venture, and, more important, to recognize those people, organizations and companies that I have missed.  It is my belief that the more we raise these innovators up and learn from there efforts, the faster we will develop an alternative food system capable of making a real difference in sustainable food.

Related Information and Links:

Lost Arts Kitchen: Slow Food Traditions for Modern Life

You don’t have to look far to find people doing special things to make sustainable food a real and tangible part of more people’s lives.  From the growth of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs to home-based businesses, we are getting a glimpse at where food is heading, at least in a number of market niches.

Since posting “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers,” I have received a lot of feedback on other companies doing great work, so I set out to write a follow up on several west coast innovators.  After looking more closely at Lost Arts Kitchen in Portland, OR and learning more about Chris Musser’s vision, I couldn’t resist focusing exclusively on her story.

The Oregonian newspaper opened its February 19, 2009 article on Lost Arts Kitchen with the following temptation:

If you think you can’t afford a diet of organic, locally grown whole foods, think again. All you have to do, Chris Musser says, is change the way you source, store and prepare your food.  Musser spends about $530 a month to feed her family of four. They eat nearly all organic produce, grains and legumes; locally raised pork, lamb and grass-fed beef; raw milk from grass-fed cows; and sustainably harvested seafood. 

Ms. Musser has accumulated secrets over the years, and she’s now sharing them with others through a series of cooking and sustainable home economics classes, sort of a triple bottom line approach for household kitchens (cool).  Her small, hands-on classes are quickly winning over fans, and, more importantly, giving people the confidence to operate outside the industrial food system (even cooler).

What’s so wonderful about Ms. Musser’s curriculum and vision is how it helps people gradually evolve the way they experience food.  Comparing it with cooking shows on The Food Channel and elsewhere, it’s easy to see why spending time in Ms. Musser’s kitchen is the better option for anyone wanting to get beyond passive food entertainment.  That’s probably because there is something instinctively familiar about what people are learning from Lost Arts Kitchen (again from The Oregonian article):

Generations ago, people got foods from local farmers, ate seasonally and locally, and preserved foods at harvest to enjoy throughout the year. The format of the class — a group of women gathering to share knowledge, tips and lunch — also harks to the past, fostering a sense of community.

I asked Ms. Musser to help me and my readers understand more about the Lost Arts Kitchen.

Q:  How would you characterize your family’s diet, e.g., seasonal, raw foods, fermented foods, local, etc.? As a father of four, my wife and I have exposed our kids to lots of different foods and preparations of those foods, but I don’t think we are in the same class as you, especially in terms of preserved foods.

 A:  My biggest concern, as a meat-eater and cheese-lover, is making sure that the meat and dairy my family eats comes from sustainably, humanely raised animals that have been allowed to eat their natural diet. We buy all of our meat farm-direct, from people who are practicing rotational grazing and the like, and follow Bittman’s “less meatarian” suggestion . Between buying meat in bulk and eating less, we save a LOT of money and that makes room in our budget for buying things like raw milk, which I use to make yogurt and soft cheeses (my dairy products costs me less than they would in a store). Hard cheeses I buy mostly from local cheesemakers. Eggs we get from our backyard hens.

For produce, we eat mostly in season and local, which isn’t hard to do in Portland. BUT, by February and March, the pickins are admittedly slim and then I am really glad to have a store of lacto-fermented foods, which bring a lot of brightness to what can be a rather base diet of roots, grains, and legumes.  I rely on a combination of food preservation techniques, including canning, lacto-fermentation, freezing, drying, and cold storage. We buy organic/sustainable dry and canned goods in bulk–grains, legumes, spices, Rapadura, chocolate, cocoa, powdered milk, flour, yeast, nuts, canned tuna, salmon, tomato paste, olives, etc. What we can’t get locally, we buy organic/fair trade.

Our food budget is smaller than that of most families with young children that I know. We currently averaging about $530/month, including what we’ve already spent on food we bought and preserved in the last year. Our actual monthly spending right now is about $350/month, which includes dairy, fresh produce, and restocking pantry items.

 Q:  Do you consider your business an extension of doing something you love or are you on a bigger mission?  For example, do you envision Lost Arts Kitchen growing beyond your capacity?

A:  Hmmm…both? This is definitely a labor of love, something I started because I saw my friends struggling with how to put into place what they were learning from reading books like Animal Vegetable Miracle and Omnivore’s Dilemma. I feel very much called to serve so, I’m on a mission in that sense.  I want to help people feel less stressed about cooking, to enjoy it and the benefits of connection and community that come with eating local. 

Beyond that, I am working on a cookbook. I’ve been working on it for years but really, I’m going to have a proposal finished by the end of summer. I’m open to new possibilities, but right now, I am somewhat overwhelmed with what I’m already doing, plus being present for my kids (who are 3 and 6). I do sense some urgency out there–I hear from people all over the US who want what Lost Arts Kitchen is offering and I want to help, but I am only one person and at this point in my family’s life, I don’t feel I can give more than I already am without neglecting my kids.

Q:  Have you established partnerships with farms, companies or organizations in your local market?  If so, how have those relationships helped you grow your business?

A:  I am just beginning to collaborate and can’t really speak to how they have helped me grow or what they’re getting in return yet. I’m talking with some local farmers about demonstrating how to prepare their products at home, e.g., offering seasonal recipes and tips on small batch preservation to go along with CSA shareholder boxes, classes to CSA members, or providing demos at farmers markets.

I am working with an environmental education organization that wants to start a homesteading program for homeschoolers. This is where I can help kids get excited about growing, cooking, and putting up real food–and have my own kids along for the ride.

I’m also just dipping my toes into the local food policy scene and hope to encourage policy makers to develop strategies that will help educate adults about real food and how to prepare it at home. One of the problems I see is that many home cooks are working in complete isolation. It’s hard to learn this way, but when we get together and share what we know, learning becomes less of a struggle and more of a joy.

Q:  Having lived in Portland in the late 90s, I know how great the population generally is in terms of sustainability.  How have people responded to your business?  What do they think you should do beyond what you are already doing?

A:  The response here has been overwhelmingly positive. People here really get it. They understand immediately why what I’m doing is needed. We can grow all the organic, local food the land will produce, but if people don’t know how to cook it or preserve it at home, it’s just going to become compost. I’m offering a wide variety of classes, from stocking and cooking from a pantry, bread baking, and soft cheese making, to buying meat in bulk and preserving foods using a variety of techniques. I’ve been asked to put on cooking demos and give talks about eating local, which I’ve enjoyed. There’s interest in doing cooking parties for expectant moms to stock her freezer with ready-to-eat meals, made by friends and family.

 Q:  Is it realistic for an average household to stop shopping for food at supermarkets (assume they still might buy non-food items there)?  How might someone accomplish that?

A:  I’d say my family’s pretty average: educated, but still saddled with student loans, middle class, living in an average city with somewhat above-average access to local food.  The biggest difference between my family and some others is that I have stayed out of the paid workforce for the past six years and both my husband and I know how to cook. I know for many, staying at home isn’t a choice, but I also see a lot of people who say they “can’t” but also drive new cars, wear new clothes, pay other people to take care of their kids…a lot of “can’t” is really, “can’t imagine.” We need to imagine a different way of life for ourselves, one that is simpler and more sustainable.

I spend a lot less time procuring food than I used to and the time I do spend is far more enjoyable.  I spend more time in the kitchen than I used to, but less than you might think. I have a weekly meal routine that relies on intentionally creating leftovers then using them in new ways, so we’re not just reheating last night’s dinner (though we do some of that too). Making yogurt, cream cheese, mayo, ketchup, doesn’t take up much time and isn’t something I do everyday. When I preserve foods, especially canning, I’m putting in a lot of up-front time, but then I’m saving time (and of course money) in the long run.

Can the average American family do this? Of course, but the average American is impatient and expects to transform overnight. Learning to find and prepare real food takes time. Figuring out how to incorporate real food into your life takes thought and planning. We can’t just re-learn these lost skills in a week or a month, or with a couple classes. It can take years to understand your region’s annual food cycle–and that means staying in the same place for a while–which is something else the average American doesn’t do well. So, yes, the average American can get real food on the table everyday, but she has to stop thinking and acting like the average American to do so.

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10 Ways to Save Real Food

Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better.  I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.

My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level.  There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.

Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy.  I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!

  1. Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food.  Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
  2. Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study.  As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
  3. Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses.  States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
  4. Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products.  While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough).  One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up.  A happy problem to solve!
  5. Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time.  For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying.  It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time.  Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
  6. School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards.  This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
  7. No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens).  Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
  8. No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time.  The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
  9. Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases.  While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
  10. Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off.  We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase.  Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes.  What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.

Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

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Food Renegade’s Local Food Pricing “Debate”

I have found Food Renegade’s Guest Post: Joel Salatin on Why Local Food Is More Expensive so interesting that I wanted to help expand the conversation to those following Every Kitchen Table.

In addition to being an enlightening post, the breadth of comments, some in direct conflict with Joel Salatin’s guest post, has made it especially intriguing.  There is a level of agreement that changing policy will be difficult, but I believe that as long as it doesn’t further tilt the balance of power toward large, industrial food companies, we know what we are up against and can get to work finding opportunities out of the challenges.

mobile-freezing-unitFor example, in Vermont and several other states, they have implemented mobile slaughterhouses that make it far easier and cheaper for small farms to process meat. I am also aware of one Vermont farm that is considering buying a small slaughterhouse and vertically integrating its operation. They have done the math and figured it will ultimately give them more control over their fate.  On a related note, Vermont has also launched a mobile freezing unit that can be used for on-farm quick-freezing of farm produce.

There are many more creative “work-arounds” throughout the land. What we need to do is bubble up the ones that are working, heavily promote them, and get more small farms on more stable ground.

Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” -Robert Jarvik (developed artificial heart)

Sounds about right! 


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