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Green Carts, Shared Kitchens, Backyard Chickens, and Whole Hogs

Reporting from the FamilyFarmed Expo



If farmers are the rock stars of the sustainable food movement, does that make last weekend's FamilyFarmed Expo its Pitchfork? Hosted by, an organization devoted to connecting local food producers with local distributors and consumers, the expo ran Thursday through Saturday at the UIC Forum and was lousy with not just farmers but chefs, grocers, community gardeners, beekeepers, chicken enthusiasts, activists, food bloggers, and policy geeks of all persuasions. One local speaker, whose panel was up against both a cooking demo by Rick Bayless and another panel featuring Paul Kahan, conceded defeat: "I'll be lucky if I can get my family to come. I'm like the Celtic music off in the corner of the park." Over three days I sampled a host of workshops and panels, some convened as part of the fifth annual Chicago Food Policy Summit, which shared the forum's meeting rooms on Friday.

Meals on Wheels I made it to the Financing Farm to Fork subconference Thursday morning just in time to squeeze into the breakout session on "Building Food Access." And I have just two words for you: Green Carts.

Karen Karp and Sabrina Baronberg came to town to represent the public-private partnership driving New York City's innovative Green Carts program, an awesomely elegant marriage of supply and demand. New York's always been more friendly to mobile food vendors than Chicago, but even so there are more than 10,000 people on NYC's waiting list for permits.

The Green Carts program saves aspiring mobile food vendors from the purgatory of the list and gets them into business quickly, as long as they sign on to two conditions: they can only sell fresh fruits and vegetables, and they have to set up shop in a neighborhood with limited fresh food options. Start-up costs (paperwork, carts, inventory, etc) run less than $5,000. The program launched in the summer of 2008, and so far there are about 350 of a possible 1,000 carts on the street—but another 5,000 vendors have applied, and permits to operate in Manhattan and Queens are almost gone.

It's so simple, could it work here? Several people from City Hall snuck into the lunchtime follow-up (as did USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who sat right behind me). Given the city's track record with elote vendors, it seems a stretch—but stranger things have happened.

Community Food Security In the hierarchy of issues that resource-strapped resettlement agencies like the Heartland Alliance are dealing with, community food security—the access to affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food—isn't high on the list.

That's where Sarah Eichberger comes in. One of the only dieticians in the U.S. working specifically with refugee communities, she assesses the nutritional needs and risk factors of refugees—including groups like the Bhutanese.

Between 2007 and 2009, after 17 years of negotiations during which 100,000 Bhutanese lived in refugee camps in Nepal, the UN resettled more than 25,000 to third-party countries. So far about 600 have landed in Chicago, mostly in Albany Park, Edgewater, and Rogers Park.

Refugees arriving in the U.S. are often anemic, with depressed immune systems and compound health problems. They can quickly develop hypertension and diabetes from the unfamiliar diet and gain weight from a suddenly sedentary lifestyle. Other factors that increase their risk for food insecurity? Ignorance of food benefits (they may not know they can use a Link card at the farmers' market, for example), and—after years in the camps—they may have no idea how to budget. Refugees are also likely to be mistrustful of government. One Bhutanese speaker said that there was widespread fear among refugees in Chicago that the Department of Human Services office is really the police station, and that if they go in and ask for help they'll be arrested.

Factor in a general lack of familiarity with Western industrialized foods, and things can get blackly comic. In one instance, said Eichberger, she discovered a refugee client was using the cans she received from a food pantry to decorate her apartment—she didn't realize they actually contained food.

Eichberger has helped start up two community gardens here, one in Rogers Park's Schreiber Park and another in Edgewater's Chase Park. "It was so nice that we had the food grown by our own hands," said Bhutanese refugee Menuka Kafley. "The old people in our community were so happy to see the fresh fruit and vegetables that we grew. The old people wanted to come join us and grow food."

What's Next for Shared-Use Kitchens You want to do business in the city of Chicago? You gotta have a license. But what kind of license?

This was the question of the hour at Friday's panel on shared-use kitchens, a last-minute addition. In a nutshell: the city has told business owners like Kitchen Chicago's Alexis Leverenz and Logan Square Kitchen's Zina Murray that every caterer, baker, confectioner, and jam maker using their facilities needs to have their own retail food establishment license, the basic license that covers all spaces used for food prep, service, and sales. But when their tenants try to apply for that license—which costs $660 and is valid for two years—they're told they can't get one because a license already exists for that address: namely, the ones held by Leverenz and Sadowski.

(Monica Eng reported here and here on the disastrous visit of a public health inspector to the shared-use Kitchen Chicago. Be sure and watch the video.)

Shared-use kitchens (there are three in Chicago) are examples of a new concept that dovetails perfectly with the needs of a food scene increasingly geared toward locally sourced products and small-batch production. They allow artisans and other entrepreneurs to ramp up their businesses with a minimum of risk. As food systems advocate Jim Javenkoski, who also sat on the panel, pointed out, they can become economic engines for a city, strengthening the infrastructure of the local food system by helping small entrepreneurs become viable.

In the long term, Leverenz would love to see a new category of food license brought into play. It could be acquired for a reduced fee and travel with the holder, who could then legitimately use any shared-use kitchen.

In the short term? Well, would you believe there's a line in the licensing code (Chapter 4-4-020) specifically earmarked as the license for "businesses and occupations not provided for by any other code provisions"? That one might work.

Using the Whole Hog From trotters to head cheese, pigs are so hot these days that, as the Reader's food critic and originator of the Whole Hog Project Mike Sula remarked while moderating Saturday's panel on snout-to-tail cooking, you can't throw a rock in a new Chicago restaurant without hitting a plate of artisanal charcuterie. So I was pleasantly surprised that this discussion turned out not to be some bacon-crazed celebration of carnivorousness. Instead the panelists—chefs Rob Levitt (Mado) and Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), plus Ehran Ostrreicher of E & P Meats and Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms—were united in their conviction that whole-animal cooking can save the world.

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