Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Future of Food: Kids Are Key

Let’s play a guessing game. This Saturday, while I was volunteering at the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, someone asked me where the basil in his salad was grown. How old do you think he was? Thirty-five? Lower. Twenty-two? Guess again. The person so interested in the source of the flavorful herb was a seven-year-old boy! He was participating in the Greenhouse’s “Garden Buddies” summer family event funded by the Chicago Park District, a day to “celebrate the season” and learn about food and agriculture through hands-on projects. At first I was surprised by the boy’s intuition, since it seemed so mature for such a young’un to question the origins of his food. But then I realized how much sense it makes for a kid – so full of curiosity and inquisitiveness – to wonder where his or food was grown.

My little basil connoisseur was just one of many curious kids to wander up to the Purple Asparagus booth, where kids were given slices of tomato, peach, and cucumber to chop (with a kid-friendly knife, of course) and toss with some olive oil and fig vinegar for a homemade farmer’s market salad. What a delight it was to watch them involve themselves in food! Their level of attentiveness, combined with the dedication of Purple Asparagus to nurture their interest, gave me hope for the future of food. I discovered that the very best way to change the way our society consumes food is by raising our kids to care about what they put in their bellies. And Purple Asparagus, whose mission is to “change the way our children eat” in order to bring kids and families closer to good health, is just one of the organizations committed to this notion. They travel to public elementary schools around Chicago, performing interactive lessons with students to show them the importance of wholesome food first-hand.

So yesterday I went home and did some hunting in the good ol’ internet garden for other kid-focussed groups like Purple Asparagus. Surprisingly, initiatives with similar missions are not nearly as uncommon as that Barney-colored variety of asparagus, especially with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative putting national emphasis on healthy eating, and adding fuel to our country’s interest in helping kids eat better. So in addition to the Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse (whose programming is largely aimed at educating kids and providing them with close-to-the-ground food), I found bundles of other groups in Chicago alone.  The Kids’ Table is “a place where parents and kids come to cook and learn how easy it can be to eat well at every age,” and Chicago Lights Urban Farm in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood hosts a 10-week summer camp for kids to learn about agriculture, science, and the environment. Georgia, a six-year volunteer at the Greenhouse, said it perfectly: “There’s no question that there’s an overwhelming need for [initiatives like] this right now.” With these resources at our fingertips catering to that need, I think there’s real hope in transforming children’s innate spirit of inquiry into knowledge, and hopefully a real change in habits.

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Although the basil-boy’s question was probably not indicative of an epic quest for knowledge about our society’s food system, I know one day he’ll learn that with knowledge comes a difference – both in taste and in health. But for now I’m satisfied with the curiosity level of the kids I taught at the Greenhouse. I know that their genuine interest in food, if nurtured by those around them, will bring them the knowledge it takes to nourish themselves thoughtfully. Maybe if we take a lesson from the younger ones in the family for a change, we’ll start asking more questions about our food as well.

Cheers to kids and to keeping up the curiosity!


P.S. This post is part of a series of articles based on kids’ involvement in growing food. Stay tuned!

P.P.S. Chocolate photoshoot was postponed, but don’t worry I haven’t forgotten!


Following a Chocolate-Filled Dream

I don’t mean to sound like a self-help guru, but I have to ask you this question: Is this the life you’ve always envisioned for yourself? For most people I’ve talked to, including owner and chief chocolatier of Beijo de Chocolat Laura Case, the answer is no. But that’s not to say that what they are doing is negative. Rather, it’s quite the opposite.

Laura sprinkles powdered sugar onto a freshly-made crêpe, just a Saturday addition to the full-service chocolate shop.

Here’s some undeniable evidence: Laura is a woman who took her career in the sports television industry and transformed it into none other than a chocolate-making success. She quit her job, attended classes at the French Pastry School, and fell in love with chocolate-making. Upon visiting her shop on the Northwest side of Chicago, I asked her if she always knew she wanted to do this line of work. She looked up from the crêpe batter she was swirling in a pan and said to me, “Oh gosh, no!” But she is happy about the new path she has taken. After being in the television industry for so long, Laura was ready for the change. “I decided I wanted to do something that really made me happy, and could make other people smile, too.”

A “Le Monkey” crêpe… Bon appetît!

And smile, I did! Especially after that first bite of a “Le Monkey” crêpe – a thin, bronze, buttery dough filled with gooey chocolate, bananas, whipped cream, and coconut. You see, four years since opening her shop, Laura has surpassed all expectations for a mere chocolatier. In addition to her shop being part of the North Park University campus tour, Laura has won a host of awards from the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon! And it’s no wonder that Beijo de Chocolat was dubbed one of the nation’s best chocolatiers for two years in a row by Taste TV’s Chocolate Television channel for the past two years – all the items in the shop have been crafted individually. Instead of a factory machine that churns out identical chocolates, Laura makes everything by hand in her little kitchen in the back of the shop.

Find Laura’s chocolatey concoctions at Uptown and Independence Park farmers markets in Chicago, or visit their shop on Foster and Kimball for a real treat. Crêpes on Saturday mornings, espresso all day, plus smoothies, cookies, cakes, and last but chocolately not least… truffles. Who woulda thunk it? From sports television to chocolate extraordinaire, it may seem like a one-in-a-million type of story. But the truth is, many foodies started out with seemingly opposite career choices. But something – maybe the smell of chocolate wafting into their nostrils – guided them down the food path. From Chef Keem, a German-pop-star-turned-pastry-chef, to Farmer David, a Civil Rights Movement activist who left the city to start Kinnikinnick Farm, anyone can do it! And if Laura’s story is any lesson to us, following your passion can make life all the more sweet.

Cheers to life, liberty, and the pursuit of chocolatey-ness!


P.S. More photos to come after my chocolate themed photo shoot at the store next week!

Stumbling Upon a Farm Extravaganza

When was the last time you stumbled onto a farm, only to find it packed with people from far and wide? If you’re from the city like I am, I think it’s safe to say never. So imagine my surprise the other day when I stumbled upon a hip-hop-happening farm day at Heritage Prairie Farm, just stopping there on a whim coming back from Norton’s Produce in St. Charles, IL. The parking lot was nearly full, and the air was abuzz with more than just bees from the Bron’s Bees hives, located on the farm.

Turns out, this was a pretty average Saturday for the farm. You know, just a market with a plethora of vendors, including my personal favorite, Bema and Pa’s (ginger-honey infused vinegar? I had to take some home). Plus their regular store that’s open 6 days a week, where I found oodles of fresh produce and goods, as well as the famous Bron’s honey. A wood-fire pizza place called Chuck’s was toasting beautiful pizzas on site, as well. Oh wait – did I mention that there was also a private event going on in the back? It was a farm-to-table educational event, complete with T-shirts, volunteers, and dozens of private guests. All on top of a normal farm work day. Quite a juxtaposition with the subtle but dedicated labor going on at Norton’s that I had witnessed earlier that morning (see my previous video). Heritage Prairie was a bustling place, and they were not quiet about what they had to offer.

Their website boasts a host of other activities offered by the farm that I didn’t witness that day. Everything from farm dinners cooked by famed Niche chef Jeremy Lycan to “Eco-Chic Wedding Affairs” for those who want a true barn wedding. And we can’t forget that this farm is a working organic farm that sources to restaurants and markets throughout the Chicago area, like Naha and Whole Foods.

So what’s the deal with these multipurpose farms? Well they aren’t that new to the table – surely you’ve heard of a farm that opens it’s gates in the fall for a corn maze or a pumpkin patch tour, maybe to make a few extra bucks. But Heritage Prairie has definitely taken pumpkin Halloween-y farm visits to a new level. The Saturday at Heritage Prairie, on the other hand, transformed a visit to a farm into an educational, sensory-stimulating, fun-for-the-whole-family (not just the kids) experience. The term Agri-tourism would suffice here, and it’s gripping the nation! Spearheaded in rural places with rich soil like California farmland, this business is booming as people yearn to find out more about their food sources. Other farms in Illinois are following suit: Angelic Organics in Caledonia offers tours and farm dinners to their CSA members, to name one. But look in every state and you’ll find tons of farms reaching out to their customers. And all with a central mission: to extend local food and local knowledge about food to local people.

Making food a memorable experience reminds us of the significance of nourishment in our lives. If it’s really true that you are what you eat, then by golly I think I’ll eat some Heritage Prairie grub, and maybe just get married there too!

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Cheers to good food and a gosh-darn good time!


A Diverse Prairie Oasis

What do wasps, onions, and coyotes all have in common? In the case of the Jane Addams Hull House Heirloom Farm, they are the heros of a fascinating urban agriculture tale.

The story begins in the fall of 2008, when farmer Ryan Beck and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum staff watched the bobcat break ground on what they hoped would become an heirloom farm. Located on the UIC campus just west of the Chicago Loop, the soil contained low levels of arsenic and other metals – a common occurrence in dense urban areas. But the nutrients were there, so in lieu of spending $15,000 on imported top soil, Ryan decided to use what he had. “I felt that in order to teach people about urban farming, I wanted to be able to speak from experience,” he said. And less than four years later, he (and the local critters and crops that accompanied him) have successfully remediated the soil into a diverse prairie oasis.

The Heirloom Farm is less than a mile away from the Sears Tower, but the soil has become fertile after four years of remediation.

Farmer Ryan’s philosophy is what has allowed this diversity to flourish and support an abundance of crops, all grown without any herbicides or pesticides. Ryan believes that the local biology works naturally to create homeostasis. Despite being surrounded by concrete and buildings, the native ecology has returned to do just that. The diversity is there, “it’s just a matter of fostering it,” says Ryan. Case in point: Ryan used to pick all the hornworms – giant caterpillars that can chow through a tomato in two weeks – off the plants by hand. But the native mint and colorful prairie flowers he planted attract wasps, which Ryan calls a “phenomenal biological control.” They inject their larvae into the hornworms, and soon enough the baby bees start to hatch and parasitically take care of those nasty hornworms!

Ryan harvests a garlic plant.

With this idea of faith in competition to bring balance, Ryan plants alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.) as companion plants with strawberries as natural antiseptics to fight off bacteria. And how to take care of the rabbits that like to munch on the lettuce? None other than coyotes, in the middle of the concrete jungle! Just as Jane Addams believed that a pluralistic society is a healthy one, the Hull House Farm mirrors this idea.

A lot of the techniques Ryan uses are part of a growing global urban agriculture movement, with a growing knowledge database, which can be used to explain many of Ryan’s successes. How does the farm generate such biodiversity? This idea is not unique to the Hull House – in a 2005 case study done by the Journal of Applied Ecology, 84% of farms “showed higher species richness in organic agriculture systems.” So, the fact that Ryan’s farm is organic actually allows it to remain organic – biodiversity decreases the need for pesticides. This self-perpetuating cycle is sure to sustain the heirloom farm for years to come.

As if biodiversity wasn’t enough – the legacy of Jane Addams also lives on with the farm’s commitment to food security needs in the community. The Hull House gives much of its produce to a “mobile produce market” called Fresh Moves, an organization that uses converted CTA buses to bring fresh fruits and veggies to low-income neighborhoods in Chicago. They also use their vegetables in a weekly soup program, Re-Thinking Soup, where a chefs such as Urban Belly‘s Bill Kim concoct a soup to feed the public and provide grounds to discuss a relevant social justice issue.

Collards, garlic, and kale are just a few of the types of produce grown here.

So what to take from all this? Whether you need to fight pests in your own urban garden, or you want to participate in an urban agricultural movement that’s sweeping the globe from Texas to Japan, we can all learn from Ryan and his Heirloom Farm. Finding balance in diversity is no small feat. But if Jane Addams did it at the Hull House 100 years ago, and Ryan is doing it now in her legacy, there’s no reason we all can’t jump on the bandwagon.

Just watch out for the coyotes!


Norton’s Family Farm

Join me for a tour of Norton’s Family Farm! Just visited this Saturday. So fresh!

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