Bay Produce

12 08 2009

By Emily Larson

“I make the boxes!” the man told me proudly as he held up a shallow box reading “The Superior Tomato” for me to DSC_8365photograph. The completed box continued down the line on a conveyor belt to be filled with hand-picked tomatoes, weighed, stickered and delivered to customers. Behind me, three women selected grape tomatoes one by one, inspected them for quality, and placed them into clear plastic containers. They paused only to smile widely for a photograph with their pile of grape tomatoes, and then carried on diligently.

Bay Produce in Superior, Wisconsin is a year round hydroponic tomato hot house run by the Challenge Center, a rehabilitation center for adults with developmental disabilities. 365 days a year, Bay Produce grows delicious vine ripened tomatoes bursting with the taste of summer. “We grow a great tomato,” said Debbie Gergen, Work Services Director, and they grow a lot of them. Over the course of a year, Bay Produce grows over 350,000 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes, 50,000 pounds of grape tomatoes and also grows red, yellow and orange bell peppers. Each is hand picked when it is vine ripened.

The grower, Henk Vandenbrink, and two plant technicians guide and teach 25 paid consumers, all of whom are developmentally disabled. Much of the work in the greenhouse and packing warehouse is done by the consumers. Jobs include: picking the tomatoes and peppers off the vine, hand pollinating some of the plants, individually examining each tomato and rating its quality, box making, applying Bay Produce stickers on tomatoes and plastic containers. Each step prepares the tomatoes to ship to local grocery stores and restaurants.

Bay Produce has been in operation for twenty plus years with the goal of providing employment opportunities for the consumers and generating revenue for the Challenge Center. Bay Produce seeks to employ and empower people with developmental disabilities and to sell a quality product.   The consumers of Bay Produce are proud of their company and hold it to a high standard. Sometimes when Debbie helps out with packing, one of the consumers will tap her hand that she is not following the quality standards and isn’t scrutinizing the tomatoes close enough. This forces Debbie to pay closer attention to her work as they scrutinize her packing. “They own it; it’s not just a job. They are very proud of the role they have at Bay Produce,” Debbie said.

Debbie and the Challenge Center also believe that Bay Produce serves another important function for their clients: therapy. All day long, their job challenges their decision-making processes and bodies as they are forced to think, analyze and work with the plants. Therapy sessions are not isolated to a clinic room, but are in and amongst the tomato plants and next to stacks of boxes.

Tim, a man with cerebral palsy, cannot speak and struggles to move his hands. Henk has taught him how to hand pollinate the flowers on the plants. Three days a week, Tim walks down the long rows of tomato plants and utilizes the pollinator that vibrates the truss so the flower becomes pollinated. Six to eight weeks later, a vine riped tomato is ready to pick off the vine.   When I saw him, he sat on a scooter and slowly made his way down one long row, picking all the ripe grape tomatoes. When Tim works at Bay Produce, he must make decisions as well as use the muscles and coordination in his hand; “They are constantly forced to think,” Henk explained, and because plants grow and change, nothing is ever the same.

DSC_8334Two years ago, Debbie saw an article in the newspaper about St. Luke’s Hospitals local food efforts and realized Bay Produce fit perfectly with their mission. “It makes sense to have a partnership with them,” she said. And for the hospital, they have the joy of fresh, delicious local tomatoes all year round. Because of the volume of tomatoes grown, Bay Produce can provide more than enough tomatoes to feed the hospital. Not only that, the hospital supports the efforts of a wonderful organization and allows them to continue serving their employees.

St. Luke’s support is not an isolated case. The Duluth and Superior communities have been very supportive of their work, and they have made Bay Produce what it is today. They have the unique opportunity to buy fresh, vine ripened tomatoes all year round. In Duluth, MN in the dead of winter, few things would provide more refreshment or more hope for the coming summer than a red and juicy tomato.

To view more photos of Bay Produce, please see the Flickr slideshow.


St. Luke’s Hospital

12 08 2009

By Emily Larson

In a bright blue plastic kids pool — one you assume has a whale or a mermaid on the bottom — grew circles of lettuce and spinach. The greens contrasted nicely with the vivid blue of their retired pool turned planter, and looked happy and healthy swimming in their rooftop spa. Along the brick wall sat eight tomato plants, neatly caged with chicken wire. Inside one, I spotted three ripe cherry tomatoes, ready for the picking. This rooftop garden also has an herb garden, sitting contentedly beside the satellite dish. “It’s a joke, really,” St. Luke’s Hospital Director of Hospitality Services Mark Branovan said of their new garden.

The Healthcare Environmental Awareness and Resource Reduction Team (HEARRT), an organization that addresses environmental issues in Minnesota Health Care, approached Mark about giving a lecture on the development their roof top garden. He told them no, they didn’t really want him to talk about the garden. He thought the garden too little to be of importance. On the contrary, the very fact that a hospital was raising a garden made it important and unique, regardless of the size. No one else is doing it on any level, HEARRT told Mark. While yes, the garden is the size of a kiddie pool, it is the baby steps that hospitals like St. Luke’s take that show other hospitals how environmental sustainability and fresh local produce can be incorporated into the hospital’s ethos. Small it may be, a joke it certainly is not.

Rooftop GardenThis is not the first time St. Luke’s has been the front-runner at environmental consciousness or fresh produce; the hospital is quite used to being an example to other hospitals around the nation. The hospital’s environmentalism has been featured in Time Magazine, Minnesota Public Radio, and newspapers around the state. In 2007, St. Luke’s and another Duluth institution, the Institute for a Sustainable Future (ISF), won the Governor’s Partnership Award for Excellence in Waste and Pollution Prevention, the first hospital in the state to win this award. St. Luke’s was the first hospital in the country to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge, an initiative by Health Care Without Harm to make the health care industry focus on local, fresh, and environmentally sustainable food. The pledge argues that “by supporting food production that is local, humane, and protective of the environment and health, health care providers can help create food systems that promote the well being of the whole community.” A hospital with a value system like this fits nicely into Community of a Plate.

Since Mark started at the hospital 10 years ago, he has worked to incorporate more local ingredients into the cafeteria menu. With the guidance of Jamie Harvie at ISF and the connections of hospital staff, Mark reached out to local producers. Now, St. Luke’s Hospital buys a wide array of local foods, ranging from buns to buffalo. Mark is positive, flexible and eager to try new things, which is why he works so well with Jamie at ISF. Jamie visited the hospital while I was there and pitched the idea of an environmental film festival to Mark and Julie one of the managers. Mark and Julie loved the idea and good-naturedly agreed to try and implement it. That seems to be the standard operating relationship between Jamie and Mark.

After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, Mark attended culinary school in San Francisco, worked as a chef in restaurants in San Francisco and co-owned a restaurant in Colorado before he got into the health care industry. Needless to say, he knows food and has strong food ethics. His position as Director of Hospitality Services gives him the ability to incorporate his own food ethics into the hospital cafeteria.

The St. Luke’s plate consisted of local ingredients from producers where Mark routinely buys food. For the main Buffalo Burgercourse, a buffalo juicy burger from Quartermaster Buffalo in Esko, Minnesota, on a bun from Johnson Lakeside Bakery in Duluth; on the side, a lettuce salad with broccoli from Lois and Farmer Doug at the Duluth Farmers’ Market, grape tomatoes from Bay Produce in Superior, Wisconsin; finally, a Thunder cookie from Positively 3rd Street Bakery, a mere four blocks away; and a carton of hormone-free milk complete the meal.

The first morning I arrived, Mark and I went to the Farmer’s Market. Each Wednesday morning, Mark stops at the Farmers’ Market on the way to work to pick up fresh local produce for the hospital. The Duluth Farmers’ Market is in a large red building with built-in stalls for around 15 vendors, selling everything from chocolate to fresh produce. Lois Hoffbauer is the chair of the Farmer’s Market. She and her husband, Farmer Doug, raise vegetables, Christmas trees, and everything in between. She contacts the vendors at the market and buys all extra produce they have, then Mark buys everything from her for the hospital. For the last four years, Mark has bought everything he can from Lois, but it is never enough to fill the cafeteria with local produce or satiate Mark’s visions of a fresh and local cafeteria.

On this particular Wednesday, I watched Lois move through the market talking to vendors, but no one had any excess. Mark got 17 pounds of broccoli from Lois and Farmer Doug, who have the largest farm at the market. As we carried two paper grocery bags overflowing with broccoli into the hospital, Mark lamented that he can never get enough produce for the cafeteria. “I want to fill up the back of a pick up,” he said. The challenge facing Mark is that most farmers don’t have produce to spare; they have to allot enough for the Farmers’ Markets, their CSA shares, and other commitments. After that, what little extra they have doesn’t go very far in Mark’s cafeteria.

BroccoliAfter we delivered the broccoli to the cafeteria, we took the elevator up the ninth floor, walked through an education classroom, and out a door onto the roof. After the indoor fluorescent lights, the natural light blinded my eyes as they struggled to adjust to the sunlight reflected off the shiny metal roof. Once I could see, Lake Superior materialized in front of me, massive and beautiful. You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful location for a hospital in Minnesota than on the shores of Lake Superior. Looking south I could see the iconic Duluth aerial lift bridge looming above the city, and up north there seemed to be nothing but lake.

I followed Mark carefully across the roof as the rocks shifted under my feet. Around the corner, next to the satellite dish, sat the garden. Mark filled up all the empty milk jugs in the rain barrel that captures all the grey water from the roof, poured them into a green watering can before getting to work. It amused me to see him water the little garden in his shiny black dress shoes, black dress pants, white button-up shirt, tie and official hospital identification badge. His tie he carefully tucked inside his shirt so as to not drop it into the water. I can imagine that instead of cigarette breaks, people in the hospital can take garden breaks, a brief respite from their computer screens to nurture a growing plant.

For this first year, the garden was an experiment. Now that Mark knows that vegetables can grow on the roof just fine, next year he will expand the garden and buy actual planters so the hospital community will literally enjoy the fruits of its labor. The garden is little, yes, but not only is St. Luke’s setting a precedent for themselves, but they are leading by example for other hospitals around the country. While St. Luke’s will never be able to grow all its own food, a hospital supplementing their cafeteria with lettuce sourced as locally as upstairs is a pretty rare accomplishment.

“Very few people want to be the first to do anything, worried they might fail,” Mark told me. With St. Luke’s as an example, 254 hospitals around the country have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, agreeing that environmentalism and buying locally can improve quality of life in the hospital. The fact that the health care industry is paying more attention to the environmental impact of their work is incredibly exciting given the great extent to which health care interacts with people’s lives. The Institute for a Sustainable Future is a key player in creating a Green Guide for Health Care, a rubric to evaluate the sustainability of health care facilities, all the way from the planning stages to building maintenance. The Green Guide and the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge are just two examples of the changing mentality of the health care industry as it accepts sustainability and environmentalism as a public health issue.

St. Luke’s cafeteria has room for more local food, and Mark wants to find ways to incorporate more. The challenge comes in finding enough food to feed the 1,200 to 1,500 people who eat in the cafeteria every day. However, the creative juices of Mark and the hospitality managers are more than up to the challenge. I look forward to seeing their work in the years to come when they can look back and laugh at the size of the kiddie pool because of how much they have grown.

To view more photos of St. Luke’s Hospital, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Quartermaster Buffalo

10 08 2009

by Emily Larson

When I first spoke to Don Solwold at Quartermaster Buffalo in Esko, Minnesota, he asked if I’d ever been introduced to a buffalo before. No, I hadn’t. I had been introduced to all kinds of things: new foods, new people, new activities, but never buffalo.

BuffaloI drove from Duluth to Esko to visit with Don on his Buffalo ranch. Once I got off the interstate, I passed Buffalo House Restaurant, and I had to wonder which came first, the ranch or the restaurant. Electric fences lined the driveway, enclosing a large pasture filled with rich green grass, as well as some the remains of some vintage cars that just ended up there. Millie, Don’s dog, barked my car into its parking spot, and then together we walked over to find Don.

Don invited me into his beautiful old farmhouse which he expanded himself. Inside, there were was a small collection of antiques that made me smile: a pump organ, spinning wheel, two wood burning stoves from two different eras, a beautiful dining room table, and the feeling of an old house well loved and respected. I greeted his wife, daughter and grandson who welcomed me warmly and were interested to hear what brought me to Esko. Over a bowl of buffalo sausage soup, complete with Don’s secret buffalo seasoning and his daughter’s homemade flatbread, I explained Community of a Plate and told them about myself, and then Don told me his history.

Don and his family lived in Montana while he was in the military, and then moved to Minnesota because of his enlistment in the Air National Guard. Now he has been raising buffalo in Minnesota for 35 years and has the longest running buffalo farm in the state. Despite his age and years of experience, his interest in buffalo farming doesn’t wane. “I’m as fascinated by buffalo now as I was then,” he told me. He raises his buffalo without hormones, steroids, or antibiotics of any kind- buffalo don’t need preventative medicine, he told me.

Buffalo meat is “America’s first health food,” according to a pamphlet Don gave me on Quartermaster Buffalo. In a way, that is exactly right. “Even without today’s statistic evidence, our ancestors recognized the meats’ superior taste and nutritional value,” the pamphlet said. Bison is healthier than beef, pork, turkey, and even skinless chicken; it has less calories, cholesterol and fat per serving. So for St. Luke’s hospital, in Duluth, Minnesota, serving buffalo in the cafeteria is a health choice as well as a local choice, although Mark Branovan, the St. Luke’s Director of Hospitality Services, didn’t realize just how healthy it was until I read him the pamphlet like an infomercial.

St. Luke’s was initially connected with Don through one of the Hospitality Managers that lives near Quartermaster. She suggested they start serving Quartermaster Buffalo in the cafeteria, and in the adventurous spirit of the Hospitality Department, it happened. In July, the cafeteria switched to serving buffalo burgers every day, instead of just once a week. Don’s biggest customer, though, is the restaurant down the road which buys 40 percent of his buffalo.

After we finished our soup, Don, his grandson and I hopped into the pickup to visit the buffalo. It was the moment I had been waiting for, and I was not disappointed. Buffalo don’t look real. If academically I hadn’t known they were animals, I’m not sure I would have believed it. They remind me of massive animatronic animals used in Disney Land rides or zoo exhibits entitled something similar to “The Dinosaurs are ALIVE!” where they make robotic versions of the prehistoric beasts. Unlike the dinosaurs, buffalo are very much alive, and are truly incredible animals.

Don’s bull, the father of most of the calves, weighs two thousand pounds and boasts the name Nitro. Nitro has a mane Nitroof dark, thick afro hair that framed his face, descending into a large goatee that King Tut would be proud of. Weaving in and out of buffalo, Don pointed out cows he’d had for many years, and whose horns displayed their proud age by the amount of rings around the base. At this point in the summer, a buffalo’s hair is matted and unattractive, but Don showed me some beautiful, thick winter pelts. He has a large pelt on his bed, and I bet he never gets chilly on cold January nights.

Back inside the house, Don showed me the tricks to cooking a perfect bison burger. I watched him sprinkle the burger with the secret seasoning as his daughter commented, “Even I don’t know what’s in it!” After he cooked the burgers, he used the remnants in the pan to make an au jus which he poured over the burgers to keep them tender; because buffalo meat is so lean, it becomes dry if you cook it just a bit too long. As Don’s pamphlet boasts, “Healthy never tasted so good!” We sat at the counter on high stools and enjoyed our burgers before going back to the buffalo.

Don SolwoldBefore I headed back to Duluth, I wanted a picture of Don with the buffalo, so this time we went inside the pasture, stepping through the non-electrified electric fence. Millie came with us, of course, as did a bucket full of feed with which to coax the buffalo over. Millie knows the farm, and she knows the buffalo. She also clearly enjoys annoying them as she barks at them and makes a scene, only to have them run at her, as she happily dodges their advances. I imagine the buffalo view her as a large, spotted, irritating fly. When I backed out my car from its spot, I had Don reassure me that Millie would get out of the way. “Oh yes,” he told me with a smile, “she learned that from the buffalo.”

To view more photos, please see the Quartermaster Buffalo slideshow.