Eichtens Hidden Acres

27 09 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Eichtens Hidden Acres - by Meredith HartThe air thickened as three cheese makers leaned over a 600-gallon vat of curdling milk, stirring by hand. They began the churning at 6 a.m. By 11, the curds were only just congealing from the whey. “It’s what Little Miss Muffet ate,” said Eileen Eichten Carlson of Eichtens Hidden Acres Artisan Cheese and American Bison in Center City, Minnesota. “But she probably had to add cinnamon and sugar because it wouldn’t have had any flavor.”

Eileen knows her cheese—and how to flavor it.

By noon, the cheese makers season the curds by adding dashes of sun-dried tomato, basil, parsley, onion and garlic from an heirloom family recipe. Eichtens’ Tomato Basil Gouda is now one of their top sellers, but there wasn’t always a market for such uniquely flavored cheeses. Eichtens developed their first seasoned cheese in 1976, nearly 20 years ahead of high consumer demand.

“We were far ahead of the trends, and that’s why we had such hard times in the beginning,” recalled Eileen.

Thirty-some years ago Eileen’s parents, Joe and Mary, came to the unfortunate realization that the cattle feed bills on their dairy farm were higher than their milk checks. Joe, a progressive farmer with an innovative spirit, knew the family needed to add value to the milk to survive. So in 1976, Eichten’s signed on to a University of Minnesota pilot program to turn their farm into a farmstead cheese plant operation. University researchers wanted to explore the market for cheese fresh from the farm, just like in Holland. The Eichtens knew people craved something more than traditionally processed American and Cheddar cheeses.

Dutch Gouda - by Meredith HartSo with 30 cows and zero marketing know-how, the Eichtens began their artisan cheese-making venture by crafting the gourmet Dutch cheese called Gouda.

Because the raw milk cheese had to age for 60 to 90 days, the Eichtens barely pulled through by selling small amounts of milk to local creameries. When the cheese was finally ready, the Eichtens ran into another problem.

“No one knew what Gouda was,” recalled Eileen.

Thus the family resulted to what Eileen calls common sense marketing: dragging the 10 Eichten children to local grocery stores and handing out fliers and gouda samples. Slowly but surely, Eichtens gained a following of loyal customers. But Mary, the head cheese maker, thought Eichtens needed more than one cheese to offer customers. She developed seasoned goudas and gourmet gouda cheese spreads. Mary also spent three years perfecting her recipe for Tilsit cheese, an all-natural cheese that can achieve quite a pungent aroma when maturely aged, just as it is in Denmark. However, “We had to think about what our American consumers wanted,” Eileen said. Because the American market wasn’t one for extremely aged cheese, Mary painstakingly developed her Tilsit to be sharp, yet creamy as it aged.

Making Cheese - by Meredith HartAlthough Mary’s Herb Gouda and Danish Tilsit cheeses were natural and creamy, they didn’t take off immediately. The larger United States market didn’t seem to care for anything but the standard American, Cheddar and processed cheeses. That’s where the turmoil evolved, Eileen recalled of the tough early years. So in efforts to compliment the natural cheese, Eileen’s brother introduced American bison to the farm in 1987. From their father’s time growing up in the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, he was able to naturally develop seeds for the prairie grasses the bison would eat.

In the 1970s when the craze for natural, organic food started, the Eichtens found themselves puzzled. “Dad didn’t know what they meant by ‘natural product,’” Eileen said. Everything the family had ever produced had been “natural.” “We weren’t doing anything special but what we knew best, and that was natural foods.”

With a final push from the organic trend, Eichten’s natural and original cheeses broke into the larger market. Their first wholesale cheese account came in natural cheeses through the Cheese Rustlers Cooperative in Minneapolis. Now Eichtens specializes in Baby Swiss, Cheddar, curds and string cheese, making 2,000 to 2,400 pounds per week from fresh cow’s milk provided by area farms. Although the Twin Cities is Eichten’s main market, they sell in Chicago, Denver, and as far as Florida. Eileen has traveled as far as Macedonia and Jamaica to train communities in the art of cheese making. Additionally, members of the agricultural community have come each year from Sweden to tour the same facility Eileen’s parents launched 35 years ago.

But for such a wide-reaching presence, Eichtens keeps the facility small and the techniques traditional.

“We still have the feel of the curd,” said Eileen as she observed her cheese makers hand-stir sun dried tomatoes into the vat of Tomato Basil Gouda. This procedure, replaced by machinery in industrial cheese making, allows Eileen’s team to ensure curds don’t dry out in the churning process. After the cheese properly thickens, workers squash sections of the sponge-like mass to drain out excess whey. Every 100 pounds of milk makes just one 10-pound wheel of cheese, so the left over protein-enriched liquid is fed to the bison.

Aging Cheese - by Meredith HartWorkers then mold, compress, and seal the cheese. Eichtens used to hand dip the cheese three times in wax, but consumer demand for convenience changed the seal to Cryovac. Cheese is a living protein substance, Eileen said, and the Cryovac wrapper becomes the second skin. The living cheese is then sent to the aging room kept at a brisk 44.9 degrees. The longer the cheese ages, the sharper and stronger the taste. After looking through a series of colored tags hanging from wooden shelves lined with giant wheels of cheese, Eileen said their oldest wheel had aged eight years.

Friendly women in hairnets swiftly cut the cheese with wire and reseal it for wholesale to grocery stores, co-ops, and restaurants like St. Martin’s Table in Minneapolis. Just down the road from the farm, Eichtens Market and Café also features cheeses and bison products.

Eichten’s has also picked up a loyal following at area farmers’ markets. After 30 years at Twin Cities farmers’ markets, Eichtens Hidden Acres is now a market mainstay. Eileen says she’s known there as “The Cheese Lady.”

“You become very in tuned [with your customers],” said Eileen. “They expect to see the same person every week.” Sometimes commitments at the café keep Eileen from the markets, a reality that disappoints customers who want to have a friendly chat with the woman so energized about her family’s cheeses.

“If you just stay natural and keep things the way they should be naturally, then you’re good,” said Eileen.

Eichtens Hidden Acres has incessantly kept their practices old-fashioned and natural. They’ve come up with delectable creations such as Garlic Blue Artisan Gouda Spread and Smoked Gouda with Bison Sausage. They’re continuously developing new cheeses and spreads. They’re also rummaging through their records for Mary Eichten’s long-lost Wensleydale cheese recipe.

The family has spent years breaking barriers, a truth in which Eileen clearly takes pride. “We’re there now,” said Eileen. “But you have to keep up quality.” The family business doesn’t try to compete with “big cheese” makers, she said. Rather Eichtens embraces its humble beginnings and maintain the value Joe Eichten added more than 40 years ago.

To view more photos of Eichtens Hidden Acres, please see our Flickr slideshow.


Women’s Environmental Institute

9 09 2009

By Emily Larson

DSC_8527Smooth, new blacktop on Highway 95 stretched into the countryside in Chisago County. Pristine, rolling farmland punctuated with groves of trees surrounded the road as it twisted and turned farther away from North Branch, MN. On Highway 12, the rough pavement soon dissolved into gravel. The lonely road snaked past trees and large, sunny pastures until a large sign announced: WEI. Women’s Environmental Institute.

The winding, woody driveway opened into an apple orchard in front of a large farmhouse. Inside, the house was completely devoid of people but full of chairs and pamphlets about WEI projects. Throwing my camera on my back, I walked through the orchard to the huge tomato field where people tied back the sprawling plants. I introduced myself to the interns fighting the weeds and they stared at each other for a moment before one said, “Let’s go find Jackie.”

Jacquelyn Zita works as a volunteer Farm Manager at the Women’s Environmental Institute during the DSC_8558summer months. During the summer, she does everything on and off the farm: outreach, research, policy, organizing, planting, weeding, hoeing, and writing – you name it, she does it. In the cool of the house, she removed her large sun hat and comfortably sat in one of the many rocking chairs filling the room. We began our conversation.

WEI was born almost six years ago with a mission to raise awareness of environmental justice in Minnesota, and implement programs that allow communities to actively help themselves: “Our research is about finding information, giving it to people, then letting them take control,” she insisted passionately.

The certified organic CSA farm began five years ago as a means to engage in agriculture consistent environmental justice values, or “walk the talk,” as she said. The farm connects agricultural justice with environmental justice, builds community, connects urban and rural people, creates opportunities for farm-related education and of course, is “a whole lotta fun!” The farm sits on about 16 acres; six are in active production, seven and a half host a beautiful apple orchard and another three are currently unused. The land is stunning: rolling hills, lush green grasses, dense forests and old farm products hiding in overgrown grasses. This season, the CSA farm has 180 shares which they drop off around the Twin Cities. Open Arms Minnesota, a non-profit in Minneapolis serving people with HIV/AIDS and cancer, receives 10 boxes and whatever extra produce the farm has each week.

DSC_8522After moving onto the farm, the goal became the challenge: to connect with the rural community. WEI doesn’t want to be seen as “city folk” who move to the country to impress upon rural communities organic methods of farming, but it has been difficult to connect to their rural North Branch neighbors. WEI makes a concerted effort to employ local people so they can support the community around them. While the Twin Cities communities have been very supportive of each sector of WEI’s work, that’s not enough for Jackie: “I look forward to the day where what we are doing locally is received locally,” she said.

With this in mind, WEI has implemented a rural development project – the North Circle Project – to create a local organic growers collaborative and to increase interest in local, organic, fresh produce and value-added products. A big breakthrough in the North Branch community is that the local County Market Grocery Store wants to sell North Circle produce. Having the Women’s Environmental Institute name on a shelf in the grocery store will greatly help reach the community and raise awareness and understanding about supporting local farmers and the cause of environmental and agricultural justice. North Circle farmers and producers were also present as a group at the Minnesota State Fair this year and will soon be advertising value-added winter products via an e-commerce virtual farmer’s market hosted by WEI.

To see more photos of the Women’s Environmental Institute, see our flickr slideshow.

Larry Schultz Organic Farm

28 08 2009

By Sarah Milnar

The Truck - by Meredith HartFrom the gigantic white chicken cartooned on the side of Larry Schultz’s delivery truck, you’d expect to be greeted by the clatter of clucks and squawks upon pulling into his farm. But we were greeted by something else: silence.

Where are all your chickens, Larry?

“They’re soup right now,” said Larry. But then he added that he shouldn’t joke about that. People were going to think he was insensitive.

Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, Minnesota, specializes in free-range, cage-free, certified organic eggs, chickens and turkeys. Larry is a new, but very eager, supplier to Open Arms, a Minneapolis nonprofit delivering meals to individuals living with serious and life-threatening diseases. Larry, his wife Cindy, and their six children have operated the farm since 1992.

“Do you guys want something to eat?” offered Larry’s 7-year-old daughter, who’d apparently gone into company mode as we entered the kitchen. “No, thanks,” we assured her. Marveling at open cartons of perfect brown eggs on the counter was enough.

“The baby chicks were moved in before we were,” said Larry, grinning at his wife. “Right honey?”

Owatonna farming has been in Larry’s blood for some time. His father was born on the farm just a mile down the road – in the living room, actually. It wasn’t until last winter that Larry’s 81-year-old father made his first visit to the hospital. There’s just something about farming organically, living off the land and keeping it simple that the family believes keeps the body and soul healthy. Larry’s mother always claimed that she didn’t necessarily think she’d live longer by farming sustainable, but that she’d have a better quality of life. His mother’s words have always been an axiom for Larry. “And if I’m 81 before I have to go to the doctor for anything I’ll be perfectly fine with that,” he added.

Larry grew up milking cows on his family farm, but they always had a ready supply of fresh eggs. Now Larry has taken advantage of the niche poultry market on his own farm. But despite the success of his poultry business, Larry has an enduring fondness for cows.

“I didn’t like chickens,” said Larry. “They’re so stupid.”

Well, he clarified, chickens aren’t as personable as cows. Chickens scare easily and get dirt in your face as they flutter away in Larry Schultz - by Brett Olsonpanic. Larry demonstrated with his arms. Then he apologized once again that people were going to think he was insensitive to chickens.

Although he mocks their intelligence with a smirk, Larry takes good care of his chickens. He keeps them in a barn, not in a cage, in four sections of 600. He even sends some of them to nearby Amish farms to ensure they have adequate pasture space. A commercial chicken farm would cage up to 56,000 chickens in the same space, he noted. And commercial chickens don’t get playful visits from the Schultz children.

Larry has always maintained a pleasant environment for his chickens, but in 1997 he decided it was time to bite the paperwork and become certified organic “to better represent” what they had.

“It gives us the ability to grow with the demand and still keep things with the integrity we had,” said Larry. “But as far as farming practices, I didn’t change anything,” said Larry.

Larry disappeared into his living room and emerged with a square iron contraption the size of a shoebox. The Schultz family used to hand-collect and hand-candle eggs with the iron egg candler Larry said was from the 1960s. Larry plugged the candler into the wall and a small light glowed from a hole in the side. Before upgrading to a candling machine in an outside barn, Larry and his wife used to candle the eggs right in the kitchen.

A candling room needs to be dim so that the yoke and fissures in the shell can be seen when light from the small hole in the candler hits the egg. Larry grabbed a brown egg off the kitchen counter and shaded the candler with a cardboard box to illuminate the egg’s inner features. He spun the egg around quickly in his fingers, pointing out the unfertilized yoke. The family used to stack the kitchen table high with egg cartons and hang thick curtains over the kitchen windows to block out light during candling. Four people could candle 900 eggs an hour, 400 of which Larry could do by himself. He got so used to handling eggs that he could distinguish between a large and an extra large egg – a difference of just a quarter of an ounce.

Schultz Home - by Meredith HartLarry said he found it amusing that some customers thought that brown eggs were organic and white ones were not – really the variety or breed of the chicken determine the color of the egg – and packed up the candling machine. Meanwhile his four-year-old son climbed up the porch railing and made faces at us through the kitchen window. Larry added that most people want white eggs at Easter, but then he interrupted himself.

“Right. Open Arms. Food,” he said, realizing he’d gotten off track. Although he’s clearly knowledgeable about eggs, Larry said he encourages friends and family to kindly say, “Thanks for sharing, Larry,” when he goes off on tangents.

“Their goal is a good one that fits exactly with what I’m trying to do,” Larry expressed of Open Arms. Although Larry’s only been with Open Arms a short time, the organization has already asked him to provide Thanksgiving turkeys. He’s enthusiastic to jump on board and offer his organic, fresh, healthy product to help someone in need. Thanks for sharing, Larry. Really.

To view more photos of the Larry Schultz Organic Farm, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Hope Creamery

25 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

A step into Hope Creamery in Steele County, Minnesota is a step back in time. Not only is the rough brick building from the early 1920s but so is the current basic process of butter making. A climb upstairs reveals a historical community artifact, a social Hope butter - by Meredith Harthall where people from all around the county once danced, discussed, listened, and gossiped. These days the creamery is still used for the very purpose it was built for, to make butter, and delicious butter at that.

“Careful. It goes straight to your thighs,” warned Jay Logan jokingly, an assistant butter maker at Hope. Just the tip of a spoonful of fresh Hope butter is enough to know that this is the real stuff. The butter made at Hope is not like the stuff that comes in a tub or in single serving containers. This butter is made the way it once was on the frontier, by churning.

Of course, times have changed somewhat. Metallic machines have replaced the wooden churn and hairnets have replaced the bonnet but the basic idea has remained: local ingredients and authentic techniques guarantee a quality product. For Hope, patience is key. On Tuesday each week when the cream arrives from Sauk Center, MN, it is sent to the 800-gallon pasteurizer vat where it is slowly heated to 170 degrees, held at this temp for 30 minutes then slowly cooled to 70 degrees with well water.  The cream is then further cooled with chilled water to 40 degrees for overnight storage.  This process takes 5 to 6 hours. It is then sent to a giant rotating barrel that churns the cream until the butterfat solidifies. Half of the cream that comes through the doors turns into butter while the other half becomes buttermilk that Hope sells to other creameries and manufacturers. Straight from the spigot buttermilk is actually quite refreshing and almost sweet, however a quick taste is enough. It is difficult to get past the idea of drinking butter remains, even if all the fat was removed.

Once the process has finished the employees pull open the heavy jaws of the churn, revealing a huge cylindrical mound of pale yellow butter slowly morphing to the flat surface. A heap of butter this massive seems only appropriate for a butter sculpting contest or an attempt at the world’s largest cupcake record. But in this case, mounds of it are scooped up in the hands of an Scooping the Butter - by Meredith Hartemployee and slapped into the packing machine where each pound is individually wrapped. This process happens every week throughout the entire year resulting in an impressive 300,000 pounds of butter annually, 60,000 being organic. By taking the time to do it right, Hope creates a product that is unmatched by large-scale butter makers.

Most people who use Hope butter know what they’re getting into before they buy it. The vegetable parchment paper packaging states the company’s alliterated slogan, “The Butter that Betters the Bread,” and for customers like Margaret Schnieders and her husband, it certainly did at their wedding. When planning the food for the big day they decided they had to use Hope butter not only because it’s local but because of its supreme quality. By using fresh local cream and churning it the real way, the small company can ensure excellence from every batch.

For people in Steele County, donated Hope butter can turn up at any type of community function including church potlucks, community events, and fundraisers. “We are here to support what’s going on,” said Victor Mrotz, Hope Creamery’s owner since 2001. Their commitment to the local community is a tradition that Victor would like to expand even further and the building’s unkempt upper floor is raging with potential. On a small wooden stage, where a dusty piano sits, Victor imagines a local band playing music. Beneath a wood slat ceiling, he sees multiple tables with people chatting and eating good food.  With a hefty amount of rehab and rebuilding, Victor sees this room becoming a place for people to gather over meals catered with local produce and listen to live music.

Building Artifact - by Meredith HartFor now, Hope Creamery is focused on retaining its good reputation simply by continuing with its local emphasis and personal interactions. “There’s no corporate boardroom up here,” said Victor, standing among ancient butter production machinery and scrap wood. In fact, lack of a website means Victor gives out his cell phone number to customers instead of referring them to the Internet. He summed up his business philosophy simply saying: “I believe in the handshake.”

Hope butter is not just a product but a tradition. Not just a factory but a community landmark. With each hand-delivered one-pound package of Hope Creamery butter comes not only the promise of its slogan to “better the bread,” but also to better its community of customers in Hope and the rest of Minnesota.

To view more photos of Hope Creamery, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Dream of Wild Health

23 08 2009

Gardening lessons from a Master Gardener, nutrition and cooking lessons from Graduate Students, Finances 101 from a banker and creating marketing plans for a farmer’s market sales all fit into a normal Tuesday in Hugo, Minnesota. Throw in lessons on gardening tools, harvesting, century seeds, ceremonial tobacco and traditional art lessons and you have a week at Dream of Wild Health, a summer program that 55 Native American children from the Twin Cities will participate in this summer. Pulling into the gravel driveway to the site of a tepee I had a feeling that we were in for an enlightening treat.

We walked up to a group of children being taught a lesson about seeds from a Minnesota Extension Master Gardener and ventured inside the house on the property to meet the Program Director, Diane Wilson. Inside we caught scents of herbs and fresh produce and were quickly greeted by a smiling face that couldn’t wait to show us around.

Diane led us across the 10 acres that Dream of Wild Health has called home since 2004, Three Sisters Garden by Megan Hinesafter a move from the original site in Farmington that started in 1998. Through extensive fundraising, Dream of Wild Health now owns all of the land and the house where the full time staff farmer lives without any debt, which is quite the feat for a non for profit. In addition to the house and land, Diane proudly showed off their greenhouse and walk-in refrigerator that were added in the past two years through grants from Wells Fargo. We walked around the site and were impressed with its features which included an archery range, Women’s medicinal garden, Women’s sweat lodge, permanent tepee and most importantly several gardens planted with century seeds – this was definitely no summer camp I had ever seen before.

The work is split up so that the boys and girls are not in the same areas the same time, which is not only more traditional but more efficient, she told us with a grin. It seems that everything there is done strategically. As we walked around the property, we met the full time farmer, Emily, and two lesson teachers, Ernie and Hope that all help in making the mission come to life.

Ernie is a long time practicing artist and teaches the children cultural lessons ranging from painting to archery and tobacco drying for the boys. Before lunch he took the boys out to the fields to practice using different kinds of tools, Boys Working by Megan Hinesstarting with traditional tools made with animal bones and moving to metal ones. Hope heard about the program from past participants and helps with different lessons on site, typically staying with the girls when the work is divided by gender. The girls maintain the medicinal garden and sweat house and also tend to the flower gardens from which they create bouquets to sell at the market.

Several of the gardens are all planted precisely, using a traditional Three Sister’s Garden layout, and careful attention is given to distance between breeds so they aren’t cross pollinated. Some gardens are planted in the pattern of a sun, as they would have been centuries ago when they thrived in open spaces. The fragrant medicinal garden grows each year but they don’t yet have someone on staff that can properly teach the children about it.

I was fascinated about the stories behind the seeds, and as it turns out so was someone else that was essential to the success of the program. In March of 2000, a woman named Cora Baker heard of Dream of Wild Health and felt that her prayers had been answered, as she knew she was approaching the end of her long time battle with diabetes. Cora had become known as an Indian seed saver and had more than 90 varieties of corn, beans and squash in her collection that she feared would never be used again by future generations. Her collection included Cherokee Blue Dent from the Cherokee Trail of Tears and ceremonial tobacco varieties, and upon her death she willed the seeds to the program to ensure that children will continue to realize the importance of gardening to their heritage and the seeds’ stories will not be forgotten. Some of the plants growing in the small Hugo garden were among the last of the preserved varieties.

To participate in the program, the children have to apply for limited number of coveted opportunities – and for students between the ages of 13 and 18 their four-week participation includes a stipend for their hard work on the land. This year over 150 students applied and the interest continues to grow since past participants tend to talk about how amazing the food is all summer long.  The children write an essay explaining why they want to be part of the program and I can’t help but be impressed that a younger generation is starting to recognize that they are becoming separated from their history.

We’re told that the children come excited, then there is a shock from surrendering their cell phones and ipods and tasting their first meals made from scratch with traditional food that tend to be very different from their diets at home. Diane notes that, “for the kids, once the city wears off with the hard shell of survival they’re really kids and connect and are safe and they are really having fun.”

After touring the property, we snuck inside to see lunch being prepared and it was quite a Cooking by Megan Hinesmenu line up for the day. A neighbor had donated antelope which would be featured in pot stickers, a fragrant brown rice was being prepared with fresh green onion from the garden, and a vegetable stir fry was coming together using a colorful array of vegetables and a quick sauce. Antelope pot stickers? Yes, antelope pot stickers. In no time we were working along side the kitchen crew because we were so fascinated by what our lunch would be.

Marcellius, Shane, Alberto and Sean were on cooking duty, learning how to cook each item from Cassandra, a graduate student studying Nutrition at the University of Minnesota that had owned her own restaurant and was completing her field experience at Dream of Wild Health. Shane got a lesson in chopping vegetables, something that he found to be a lot harder than he expected after watching Cassandra’s expert hands quickly slice carrots into even thin slices. Marcellius quickly became a pro in the art of making pot stickers, rushing back and forth between filling the wonton wrappers on the kitchen table with Sean and the stove where he was in charge of cooking them. Alberto darted back and forth between the kitchen and the walk-in cooler in the garage to make sure that everything was ready while simultaneously The Ready Dishes by Megan Hinescombining the ingredients to finish the brown rice. The kitchen was a bustle and the aromas of ginger, sauteing vegetables and hot pot stickers made it hard to wait for everything to be ready.

Finally the meal reached completion and each item was carried outside where the hungry kids started to swarm around the fragrant warm dishes. As the final plate reached the table, the group formed a circle to participate in a prayer led by Ernie. We were invited to eat first as guests and spooned the warm delicacies on to our plates. I couldn’t wait to try an antelope pot sticker and I wasn’t let down. They had a fabulous texture with hints of grated carrot that was incredible with the dipping sauce Cassandra had made. The stir fry was crisp, colorful and a wonderful mix of textures that brought us back for seconds. We listened to the kids chat about the meal and we could hear their interest grow as they examined the vegetables on their plate.

Dream of Wild Health does more than just serve as a summer camp, it connects children to their history while teaching them important life lessons. In 2007, less than 1.2% of Minnesota’s population was from American Indian decent, the majority of which live in the Twin Cities area*. Living in a major metropolitan area is rapidly separating younger generations from their rich history with a close connection to the land. The changes in the landscape have forced many to forgo agricultural practices and traditional diets, both of which have had dramatic effects on the average American Indian body. American Indian children and adults alike statistically report higher levels of Type 2 diabetes, in some areas of the United States at rates of twice the national average, which has been attributed to high levels obesity**. These are problems that can’t be ignored, and Dream of Wild Health is actively working to educate younger generations to the culture of their ancestors and how to lead healthier lives.
To view more pictures from Dream of Wild Health, view the Flickr slideshow.

*U.S Census Bureau “Minnesota Quick Facts.” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/27000.html
**American Diabetes Association “Total Prevalence of Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes” http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-statistics/prevalence.jsp

Good Life Catering

23 08 2009

“We got interested in local food before local food was really trendy,” says Jenny Breen of Good Life Catering. For sixteen years, long before the ideas of slow food and being a localvore existed, she and her high school friend Karn have been cooking for clients using local and seasonal ingredients directly from farmers and producers. The business moved from their kitchen into a full restaurant, then back to catering out of a community center and now finds its home in the Midtown Global Market.

Sustainability has several different meanings, typically involving a balance of social, economic and environmental principles, all of which apply to the business philosophy of Good Life Catering. Jenny and Karn have realized that for their business to be successful that they need to find a balance of cost, time and energy that can allow them to enjoy what they are doing. They realized that at that time, raising families and growing their business wasn’t a sustainable choice for either of them.

Five years ago, Minnesota Bride magazine featured Good Life Catering in an article on green caterers, which exposed them to a new group of potential clients and also served as a motivation to rev up their business, which meant finding a more permanent home and creating a marketing plan to make their business more sustainable long term. Now situated in the Midtown Global Market, they cater both large and small events, teach cooking classes on and off site and continue to use local, organic and seasonal ingredients. Jenny and Karn work directly with producers to place their orders.

Throughout the year, Good Life Catering partners with several organizations including Renewing the Countryside to put on demonstrations, which is how Margaret made her initial contact with their business. Working with other like minded organizations has allowed Good Life Catering to become more involved in different communities throughout the Twin Cities, and has expanded their customer base in the process. As people are becoming more aware of food related issues, they have found that their business has steadily grown.

For Margaret’s wedding, Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables donated all of the produce, and Good Life Catering Staff by Laura Ivanovashe personally specified that she wanted to use Hope Creamery butter. Though most customers don’t have such specific requests, Jenny was excited to work with Featherstone and she found it easy to accommodate the butter since Hope butter is something they regularly use. Jenny also makes a point to make a menu card for each event, detailing where the items came from and the names of the suppliers. “All I do is cook with food, they’re the ones who produce or grow it,” she says.

The food communities that they have become a part of know how important those relationship are to the success of their business and have kept their supply of fresh, local food coming over the years. Jenny and Karn’s food ethics have always translated directly into their work and they have seen that people are more interested in supporting local and organic catering. Their motto is, “Live Simply. Eat Well. Enjoy Life,” which they will continue to do for years to come.

Open Arms Minnesota

16 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

Zucchini after zucchini, squash after squash. Zucchini, squash, zucchini, squash. Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop.
Interns Chopping - by Lila Gilbert
After thirty solid minutes of quartering summer squash, we began to develop blisters. It may sound like we were in the back of a busy restaurant, working hard to prepare dishes for antsy customers but we were not. The squash massacre occurred in the humble kitchen of Open Arms Minnesota, a non-profit in Minneapolis that prepares and delivers hundreds of meals a week to Twin Cities residents battling HIV/AIDS and cancer. Not only does the community around each plate exist between the organization and its clients but also the thousands of volunteers, staff members, and donors that help out every day preparing and delivering food, managing the office, and providing resources. To be a part of the Open Arms community is special because not only are you providing a service to people in need but you are also getting the feeling that your work matters. This is especially true for Aleisha Dudley, the Assistant Food Services Director at Open Arms.

“I wanted to take a step back and do something that I can feel good about,” said Aleisha with a smile. And certainly taking a job at Open Arms Minnesota was the perfect way to achieve this goal.

Each day from sun up to sun down the busy office and kitchen of Open Arms is alive with the bustle of staff members and volunteers, all performing tasks that come together as a fantastic production. With over 530 clients, the operations must be tightly synchronized in order to assure that the thousands of meals prepared each week make it to the mouths of the people they serve in Minneapolis.

“It’s like a ballet every day, all these people and pieces have to come together and there’s always someone with a sprained ankle,” said Kay Mitchell, the Director of Programs and Planning, speaking of the difficulties of achieving such a complicated mission.

Delivery Bags - by Meredith HartDespite the organizational challenges, Open Arms has managed to make significant leaps since its beginnings in a church basement over 20 years ago. Although originally it served exclusively HIV/AIDS patients and their families, the organization could no longer turn away the people with other illnesses that were in need of healthy meals as well.

“Eventually we decided there was more room at our table,” said Kay. And in 2004 meals were loaded into the trunks of volunteer vans and delivered to the homes of breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and ALS patients.

Ever since the start, their numbers have increased exponentially. During the entire year of 2006, Open Arms served 138,627 free meals but that was nothing compared to the 145,026 meals served in just the first half of 2009.

Open Arms truly outdoes itself, however, in its most recent effort: to serve as much organic and local produce as possible. Because their food is either bought through grants or donated by local coops and farmers this new goal comes at a hefty price, sometimes three times more than normal. Still, they know that the healthier the food, the better they are doing their job.

“If the work is authentic, money follows,” said Kay with confidence. It has. Every year since its inception, the organization has come out financially even, never sacrificing for or gaining from its work but creating a community of people dedicated to eliminating hunger.

From the endearing look on the clients’ faces, it is no doubt this dedication is appreciated.

After filling a 15-gallon bucket to the brim with bite-sized yellow and green summer squash, we removed our ladybug-printed aprons and bandannas and prepared to make a meal delivery. Despite the detailed driving directions we still managed to make three U-turns on our delivery route but as the heavy door of a small apartment swung open, revealing the beaming face of a client, we forgot all about our navigational frustrations. The following deliveries were just as fulfilling as we were welcomed and thanked many times over.

Zucchini Bread - by Meredith HartOnce we left it’s very possible that one of the recipients, a breast cancer patient, could have began to pack the freezer with the new meals. She may have noticed a few of her choices for the week: roasted organic squash from The Women’s Environmental Institute in North Branch, MN, a vegetable frittata with eggs from Larry Schultz in Owatonna, MN, or a whole-wheat pasta dish with free-range beef meatballs from 1000 Hills Cattle in Cannon Falls, MN. These meals get as locals as a jaunt to the farmers’ market and as delicious as a trip to grandma’s and yet, they are enjoyed by hundreds.

“The closer to home the food would be produced, the better it would be for our clients,” said Kay, enthusiastically.

Close to home means a lot of things at Open Arms. It may be the commute for a regular volunteer, the motivation for a donation from an illness survivor, or the aroma of a locally sourced traditional dinner. As Open Arms opens its arms wider, its community grows stronger and its home gets bigger. Like their motto says, they “nourish body, mind, and soul” and this is true not just of their clients but everyone in their vast community lucky enough to get a taste of the Open Arms mission.

To view more photos of Open Arms, please see the Flickr slideshow.