5 ways to find your first CSA

I know it’s tax season and we all have a lot on our financial plates, but now is the time to start thinking about summer veggies straight from the farm and paying upfront for a summer of wellness. If you enjoyed my blog series about our first CSA last summer, now is the time to research your options and hopefully sign up!

CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture. What that means is that you pay a farmer ahead of time (literally “seed money”) for produce directly coming from one farm. By joining up with a farm, you share in the bounty or the famine, depending on weather conditions.

I highly recommend our CSA from last year: Angelic Organics. It is the largest CSA in the Chicagoland area so I think you can feel pretty good about their dependability. I felt very connected to the farm as a CSA member. We even drove all the way to Rockford and made goat milk ice cream with our son (it was one of the best things we did all summer). Last summer’s veggies were amazing. Unfortunately, because we are moving this summer, I will not be to share the in Angelic Organic’s harvest (I’m really bummed). I just can’t commit to one drop-off location for the entire season (we could be moving rather far away). So now I’m shopping for a new CSA (we’re looking at Tomato Mountain). Here’s how you can join the CSA revolution:

1) Search localharvest.org to see research local farms that offer CSA.

2) Consider how much produce your family eats. Our CSA was a bushel every other week, which was an enormous quantity of produce for our family of two adults and one child. I will continue with a similar size this year. Evaluate how many family members you have and how much time you will have over the summer to prepare food.

3) Be ready for an adventure because joining up with a CSA is different than shopping at the farmer’s market. Last summer we ate more lettuce than ever before — more than I would have ever purchased on my own. I encountered radishes, kohlrabi, and curious squashes that were totally new to me. It was quite the culinary challenge — but so fun. Make sure you have a lot of space in the fridge, too!

4) Evaluate the drop-off locations for the CSA and your summer vacation schedule. Don’t make the mistake we made and forget your CSA box — it happened a couple times during the extended season. Such a loss of veggie love.

5) Want a part-time CSA? Even half-way into the summer, there will be some CSAs still accepting members. So don’t despair if you end up deciding you want to give it a try in a few months.


Pink slime: Get a load of this

If you’ve been following the pink slime story, you know that it has gotten huge. I find it interesting because important people like Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver have been talking about it for several years, but it didn’t gather any momentum until Bettina Elias Siegel from The Lunch Tray started a petition on Change.org earlier this month. I believe that it is the result of Bettina’s petition (and the resulting media firestorm about this issue) that catapulted “finely textured beef” into public dialogue. And it’s gone way beyond being just online. Discussions about pink slime are happening in my community. At the doctor’s office I overheard people talking about “pink slime” and at the grocery store some customers asked the butchers about the beef. It’s everywhere.

And then: Manufacturer of ‘pink slime’ beef ingredient suspending operations at 3 of 4 plants

And: ‘Pink slime’ backlash costs jobs at beef plants

It’s all fun and games until people start losing their jobs. The above article stated about 650 employees are at risk. I empathize with the workers who may or may not permanently lose their jobs because those factories are closing. That’s truly heartbreaking.

It’s important to clarify that Bettina from The Lunch Tray was not demanding that Beef Products International (BPI) immediately close up shop. She just wanted finely textured beef (aka “pink slime”) off of school lunch menus. What happened was that other people realized that the filler was in more than just the hamburgers in some school lunch cafeterias, but it was in ground beef at local grocery stores, too.

What I think is so fascinating is that once consumers started finding out more about industrial food production, in this case beef processing, they were outraged and demanded change. After everything I’ve learned in the past two years about food (and believe me it has been an education), I think ‘pink slime’ is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of industrial food processing. If we only knew…

Key takeaways

It’s yet another reminder of how powerful the internet is. I remember way back when my blog went viral. I learned that you can never know what can happen when you put something online. I’m so proud of Bettina’s bravery with her petition and her courage and grace in handling the media coverage. I think she spoke up in a positive way that did not target any particular company in a malicious way. What it turned into was a very successful raising awareness campaign.

What now?

I think that Beef Products International (BPI) will need to retool their business model. Instead of fighting the tsunami of public sentiment that is not in favor of their product, they need to accept what has happened and move on. Hey, I’m not saying it’s not easy, but I think it’s time for reinvention. Is there a market for this product in pet food? My dog Fenway would eat it, though he would prefer it unprocessed — he likes to chew on big old bones (I gave him an elk ‘knuckle’ this past weekend). Or BPI should diversify and move in a new direction away from “beef products.” Now is the time for change.

Further reading:

Pink Slime, Deconstructed (Really interesting, and stomach-churning, article by a chemist)

Districts Moving Against ‘Pink Slime‘ (Coverage of some districts’ actions)

Beef industry prepares for loss of ‘pink slime’ filler (USA Today)

One year later: Revisiting Breakfast in the Classroom

From left bottom corner (clockwise): Crispix cereal, “Danimals” pink yogurt, milk, fruit cup, jelly

A year ago many schools started rolling out “universal breakfast” programs in Chicago Public Schools. I blogged about it then (See 2011’s: The Breakfast Series). Many of the benefits of the program continue:

1) Hungry students get something to eat before they start their academic work in the morning. Many kids were hungry because they didn’t eat breakfast and now they aren’t. Of course this was the main reason that Breakfast in the Classroom was started: to help hungry kids focus by putting food in their bellies.

2) Eating in the classroom promotes camaraderie and increased socialization. Who you sit with at lunch can be different than who sits next to you in class. I really like that kids get a chance to chat with deskmates over a meal.

3) Parents highly motivated to get kids to school for breakfast. When I see parents in the hallways before school, I often see them watching carefully as their children take a brown bag off of large carts. And if a student comes late, they often ask if their child can still get a breakfast. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I can’t be sure, but I really don’t see very many late children these days.

However, disadvantages still remain:

1) Kids eat only the sugary components of the meal and toss the rest. I’ve heard this complaint from teachers about the students.  In my opinion, I think teachers need to educate the kids about a balanced breakfast and what parts of the lunch are protein, carbohydrates, and sugar. Kids need to eat a protein in the morning to feel full longer throughout the day. I really wish I had known this earlier in life. I remember eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast for years and then wondering why I got hungry around 9:30 am every morning. Not having a substantial protein in the morning is a mistake.

2) Food waste and increased trash. The garbage created by the breakfast astonishes me. Every classroom generates a massive black garbage bag. The janitorial stuff works hard to clean everything up because no one wants old food hanging around the classroom (not to mention bugs or rodents).

3) Increased work for lunch staff. The lunch staff has to move several hundred meals to the several different doors of the school so that kids can easily grab a bag on their way to their classrooms. I don’t think their wages were increased in proportion to their workload. Hats off to their dedication to the children!

My support of the Breakfast in the Classroom remains strong. Kids need to eat something before they begin their studies. Do I wish there was less sugar, flavorings, and preservatives? Of course. We’re going to get there without a doubt.

There’s no such thing as free lunch: CPS nutrition director’s ethics under investigation

Imagine my surprise when I opened the Sunday paper…

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported, “CPS IG investigating claims of improper gifts from district’s largest food vendor.”

The investigation was triggered by an anonymous email sent to the Tribune last year. The email detailed allegations against Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, which signed a new $53.2 million food services contract with CPS in May. In the course of reporting the story, the Tribune contacted CPS Inspector General James Sullivan, who launched an independent investigation.

Wow, I guess an anonymous person triggered this investigation. Even though I used to be anonymous, you can be sure that it wasn’t me! The article continues,

According to the email, Chartwells gave the CPS employee skybox tickets to Green Bay Packers home games in 2009. The games included Brett Favre’s anticipated return to Lambeau Field as quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. Demand for that game pushed ticket prices for the best seats to between $3,000 and $5,000 on websites like StubHub. One Midwest broker said a skybox ticket could have been worth $10,000 to $15,000. The alleged gifts also included chartered buses to Lambeau Field for additional Packers games in 2008 and 2009 and dinners at upscale restaurants.

According to Chicago Board of Ethics code, city employees can’t accept gifts worth more than $50 from businesses that contract with the city, particularly in cases in which the employee’s decisions can influence the bidding process.

And then, today’s headline, “CPS chief Brizard seeks to fire Louise Esaian, head of schools food service, following scandal.”

The head of the Chicago Public Schools today recommended the schools’ chief of the food service be fired after she and two members of her staff were accused of taking more than $86,000 in gifts from schools contractors.

Frankly, I’m shocked. I have met Ms. Esaian, at meeting in December to discussing CPS’s healthy initiatives as they relate to school lunch, and I’ve met Mr. Bloomer multiple times, at events we have both attended. Both of them are friendly, regular people. Where did their common sense go? When negotiating bids for several million dollar contracts for food service at the third largest school district in the country, it seems obvious that no one should accept gifts from the very people up for the contract. I can only assume that Ms. Esaian thought either that getting free stuff is no big deal or that no one would ever know that she received special perks and gifts.

Nor should this all be on her. What about the company? I believe that it is not prudent to offer up these gifts because it cheapens the deal. Honestly, the only word to describe those negotiations now is “shady.”

The article in the paper goes on to state,  “Esaian joined CPS after working several years at a private company in the hospitality industry, where she said such gifts are a standard way of doing business, according to the report.”

As I wrote in my book, I was an employee of Kraft Foods for four years where I worked directly with Kraft’s customers (retailers and wholesalers). But my job was not in sales. I never had to convince anyone to buy Kraft’s products; I just had to make sure that when the products were bought, Kraft invoiced them correctly and that shipping occurred in a timely manner. I know that salespeople would offer incentives to the customer, but I was never involved in those dealings. Ms. Esaian is right that in the business world that practice is incredibly common.

What’s more common and acceptable is going out to business lunches. As a Kraft employee, I was sometimes included when sales would take the customer out to lunch. It’s my understanding that many business deals happened over lunch. Actually, that’s part of why I think it’s good for kids to learn the value of having lunch with other people: Most of the time it’s not about the food, but instead about making meaningful connections. Or not…I remember one business lunch where the waitress tripped and dumped a whole tray of drinks on my coworker, soaking her to the skin. Needless to say, that lunch was cut short so our boss could take my friend to a nearby department store to buy all new clothes.

But working in school food is different than corporate business-to-business transactions. The multi-million dollar contracts that Chicago Public Schools makes with food service management companies are contracts that they depend on for survival. I mean, $52 million dollars is no chump change. While I think it’s totally within rights to go out to lunch with food service companies since a meal for one can be kept under $50, no one should be under the illusion that the companies are doing that “for fun” or just “to be nice.” Regardless the sum, there is an implied quid pro quo. It ain’t no free lunch.

Chicago Public Schools does NOT have “pink slime” in the cafeteria


Back in the day — Day 68: hamburger (no pink slime!)

Chicago Public Schools confirmed this week that they do not purchase pink slime from the USDA to serve to students in cafeterias across the Chicagoland area. Here’s the exact info from the article:

“None of the meat served at CPS schools contains pink slime as part of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. None of our food contains any of this substance,” said Frank Shuftan, from the office of communication at the CPS.

That’s good to know. I also spoke with Mr. Shuftan and he confirmed that quote. I’m relieved to know that when I ate school lunch for a year, I did not eat the dreaded “pink slime.”

But I did eat a lot of beef that year. Beef in the form of patties, beef in the form of crumbles in a sauce and beef as a Salisbury steak. Beef finds its way in a lot of dishes. As a meat eater, I don’t have a problem with beef or meat for that matter. But reading all the research recently makes me think that I may need to back off our family’s consumption of meat in general, and red meat in particular. The Los Angeles Times just reported “All red meat is bad for you, new study says.” The article goes on to report:

Adding just one 3-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat — picture a piece of steak no bigger than a deck of cards — to one’s daily diet was associated with a 13% greater chance of dying during the course of the study.

Even worse, adding an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon, was linked to a 20% higher risk of death during the study.

“Any red meat you eat contributes to the risk,” said An Pan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and lead author of the Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

So you are probably not eating a steak every day. I mean, who is?  But how often are you eating red meat? Should I eat meat everyday? Most days I do, but should I change my habits? What about processed meats? Truthfully, bacon on Sunday mornings will continue to be served at my house…

Going back to the whole “pink slime” debacle, that’s why I blogged previously that we should maybe think about other protein options. Replacing pink slime (in the districts that buy it) with regular ground beef that could cost more and might strain already-strained budgets. I’m advocating for some kind of plant-based protein like beans. How about black bean burgers? Anyone?

{Guest post} The New American Classroom: Farm-to-School Cooking in Berkeley

Mrs Q’s picture of last summer’s basil plant — yum!

The New American Classroom: Farm-to-School Cooking in Berkeley

By Carrie Fehr

As we have become distant with our relationship to food, cooking at school offers children the opportunity to experience food in a completely new way, weighing each word, measuring each ingredient— it captivates all of their senses and highlights the love of food that nourishes the body, soothes the heart, and stimulates the mind while connecting them to the source.  Cooking in the classroom provides our schools with a new opportunity, a new responsibility to play a leading role, of participating in shaping a healthy future that our children will inherit.

The following excerpt is about a day in the life of cooking in the classroom at The Berkeley Unified School District, where the lesson spotlights the Harvest of Greens.                                                                                                                        

Love is Greens: Since Valentine’s Day is celebrated during the same month as the Harvest of Greens cooking class, we share our feelings of love and how it relates to our nature’s bounty, which is a natural and perfect springboard into our lesson, Love is Greens!

Setting the Stage:  The culinary stage is set with table arrangements of tools, measurements, colorful mats, and mason jar centerpieces filled with harvest greens, which look like a still life against the backdrop of blue-and-white checkered bistro tablecloths illuminated from the sunlight that pours into the room like honey, transforming a bland space into a vibrant cooking lab.  The drama of the table setting announces the cooking adventure, and students dance with excitement into the classroom.

The Symphony:  The elements of cooking, math, and science come together like a beautiful symphony, with each section keeping tempo and harmonizing with the next. Beginning with the rhythmic staccato of chopping garlic against the cutting board, followed by the smooth rolling movement of knives slicing long cylinders of leafy greens that squeak, when very fresh. Students dangle thin ribbons of chard between excited fingers, placing them along the edge of their rulers, admiring each strand as though it was a special star before recording the longest and shortest measurement on a notepad. The grand finale erupts when a round of applause from the skillet of sizzling greens piled high like Mt. Everest, reach its crescendo that make students, jump! “Steam.“ “Evaporation.” “It’s Shrinking,” are a few of the excited responses students shout with joy.  And then softly like a distant murmur that melts into silence, an unspoken signal to all, it is time to enjoy the fruits of our labor, in the recipe, Mac N’ Greens.

Silver Lining:  Mac N’ Greens formerly known as, The Pasta and Greens Recipe, morphed into a little jewel, due to an unfortunate circumstance. The supermarket where I grocery shop, was sold out of my pasta of choice, and as a result, I settled on elbow macaroni. When I arrived to cooking class with the macaroni, my student’s eyes poured over with excitement and cheered, “Yes, we’re making Mac N’ Cheese,” the idea stuck and I re-named it, Mac N’ Greens, a kid-friendlier version, which was an instant success.  I like the ease of preparation of this recipe it’s healthy with inexpensive ingredients and tasty!  Greens are a nutritional powerhouse too, mix and match for a contrast of flavors and textures, Collards, Chard, Kale, or add a little Broccoli Rabe for good measure. To make a creamier version, try some grated sharp cheddar cheese, and for a little crunch, top it with toasted breadcrumbs.

The Recipe: http://kidseatingright.com/recipes-5/mac-n-greens/

Carrie Fehr begins her twelfth year as Chef Teacher for the cooking & gardening program in the Berkeley Unified School District. When not teaching or writing on her food blog, http://www.kidseatingright.com        Carrie practices Bikram yoga, and devotes many hours to cycling.  She is an advocate for school food reform and is working on a book about her cooking lessons learned from the classroom. 

Carrie is available for consulting please contact her at carriefehrATgmailDOTcom or visit her blog, http://www.kidseatingright.com and follow on twitter @carriefehr

Pink slime? Waste not, want not?


Last week it came out that the USDA is looking to buy 7 million pounds of “pink slime” for school lunches. If it sounds like pork spending, you’re close. It’s the ammonia-treated trimmings of beef left on the bone that has to be processed to be “edible.” Basically, it sounds weird and vile. Even worse? I most likely ate a lot of it in 2010.

The intrepid Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray started an online petition to ask the USDA to stop buying “pink slime” for school lunches. She wrote:

“Pink slime” is the term used for a mixture of beef scraps and connective tissue (formerly used only for pet food and rendering) that is treated with ammonia hydroxide to remove pathogens like salmonella and E coli.[…] Even apart from safety concerns, it is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering and were not considered fit for human consumption.

Due to public outcry, fast food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King have stopped using pink slime in their food. But the federal government continues to allow its use in school food and has just authorized the purchase of ground beef which collectively contains an additional 7 million pounds of pink slime for consumption by our nation’s children.  

Of course I signed the petition and so have more than 150,000 people. Not only do I want to see “pink slime” removed from school cafeterias, I think any kind of ammonia-treating-meat process should be permanently stopped nationwide. I don’t use ammonia-based products to wash my floors much less use to rinse off animal flesh for my child’s consumption.

The meat industry has also taken note of Bettina’s petition and issued these statements:

Boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) is a safe, wholesome and nutritious form of beef that is made by separating lean beef from fat.[…] One process uses food grade ammonium hydroxide gas, something commonly used in the production of many foods, to destroy bacteria. Whatever process is used, it is all done under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and according to strict federal rules. Lean finely textured beef is blended into foods like ground beef. Producing BLBT ensures that lean, nutritious, safe beef is not wasted in a world where red meat protein supplies are decreasing while global demand is increasing as population and income increases.

I like not wasting and of course meat supplies are costly. I don’t think that Bettina is trying to say that she doesn’t understand the spirit in which this is being done. The meat industry is wants to get every last snippet of beef and gristle to market. Go ahead and rescue all usable parts of the cow – but try to skip ammonia and don’t give them to my students.

I have to wonder though… if the USDA goes ahead and disavows the use of “pink slime,” what will replace it? Another flavor of slime?

As a speech pathologist, I work to correct speech behaviors. I can’t just tell a kid to stop doing something cold turkey; I have to have an alternative behavior at the ready. So instead of stuttering at the beginning of a phrase, we’re going to try as easy onset. Or instead of giving me a blank look when I ask a question, I might teach a kid it’s ok to answer “I don’t know” (Seriously, so many kids don’t think it’s ok to say they don’t know the answer to something – just a reminder to all of us: it’s okay not to be perfect).

So, USDA? If you read my blog, I’m going to suggest that instead of ammonia-rinsed beef that you purchase more beans. How about 7 million pounds of beans? Beans are already a USDA-recognized protein and we already know that we need to be eating more plant-based protein. Hey, I love meat and eat beef about once a week (chicken, turkey, bacon, and sausage round out the week). But we all should be trying to eat less meat for our health and for the health of the planet.

My mom makes amazing black bean vegan “quesadillas” and, although I haven’t quite been able to replicate her recipe in the kitchen, they would be perfect for school kids. Just add some cilantro grown in a school garden or some chopped tomatoes in the school’s salad bar (salad bar update coming soon!) and “pink slime” would be but a memory.

Technical blogging difficulties

I hear crickets.

Lots of crickets.

Sorry I’ve been pretty much absent over the past couple weeks. I lost my blogging mojo at the same time I experienced connectivity issues here at home. Tonight my husband and I ended up abandoning my computer’s WIFI connection, moving my desk to the TV room, and hooking my computer up directly to the network. I noticed a difference immediately in internet speed.

But I have to say that when I lost my internet connection, I gained some other things. When I couldn’t go online, I could do the dishes. When I couldn’t go online, I gave myself a reasonable bedtime. Months ago I couldn’t even fathom setting a bedtime, but I can tell you it has made a difference.

While I was blogging like crazy for those two years, I knew that that pace was unsustainable. I have a full-time job and I have a family. Over the weekend my son was under weather and then he had a really bad day on Monday. When your child is sick, everything shuts down. I also have a lot on the agenda for 2012 (some really big things). I just can’t keep up like I used to. I need an assistant! Or even a virtual assistant…any takers? I’ll pay you in…sporks?

I hope to be able to blog more consistently now that everything loads so quickly, but I can’t promise anything. I’m working on achieving balance, which requires taking breaks from the computer.

Many of you are curious about when I’m going to launch another blog with my lunch photos. I’m still taking the photos, I just need to upload them and tweak another webpage. I keep thinking I’m going to find time on the weekends, but I really don’t have one spare moment. I see myself working on it over spring break. At the moment all my spare moments are focused on this little guy:

He really likes being outside — and yes, that’s a black cat hat! 

Getting him to stay still for a photo was really hard. I had to tell him he was going inside if he didn’t pose for me! This is the best I got.