Alexis Leverenz of Kitchen Chicago and Zina Murray of Logan Square Kitchen
Alexis Leverenz of Kitchen Chicago and Zina Murray of Logan Square Kitchen Credit: Leslie Schwartz

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.

“As long as we’re going to eat animals, we should eat as much of them as we can,” said Sula. “We should eat the skin, the bones, the weird bits, the blood. We do this not to horrify our vegetarian friends but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the sustainable thing to do. And it’s delicious.”

Whole-animal cooking, the panel pointed out, is sustainability in action. “Everyone wants a pork tenderloin or a boneless, skinless chicken breast,” said Gunthorp, who raises pastured pigs, chickens, and ducks in LaGrange, Indiana. “But you take a pig carcass that weighs 200 pounds and maybe three pounds of that is going to be tenderloin. So there’s a huge percentage left over that a farmer like me needs to figure out how to deal with. It’s not a sustainable process to just sell those three pounds of tenderloin.”

At Mado, said Levitt, a 200-pound pig will last him a week and a half. And while he doesn’t have the space to handle a whole cow, he can get a good deal on the leftovers. “I call up cattle farmers every week,” he said, “and say, ‘What do you have that nobody wants?’ We get a lot of tongues, hearts, kidneys.” The night before, he added, the restaurant sold more beef heart than chicken. For that to happen on a Friday (aka “amateur night”) says something about the mainstreaming of offal.

The USDA and the city don’t see things quite the same way, though, and at the end of the panel the good vibes gave way to controlled frustration with a health department that over the last few years has shut down restaurants’ charcuterie programs and poured bleach over pounds upon pounds of house-made preserves.

“If the city wants to truly be green,” said Kahan, with feeling, “they need to get on top of this.” The sentiment was echoed by a crowd of nodding heads.

Backyard Chickens Keeping chickens is legal in Chicago, no matter what you might have heard. Martha Boyd, the program director of urban initiatives at Angelic Organics Learning Center, could not stress this enough at at Saturday’s packed panel on chicken husbandry. Who knew there were so many people interested in keeping chickens?

In 2007 an amendment banning city chickens was proposed in City Council, but—thanks to some quick action on the part of Boyd and other pro-chicken advocates—it didn’t go anywhere, although, notes Boyd, they’ve got some policy suggestions drafted and ready to go should the subject pop back up.

Drinking Local It seemed appropriate to wrap up three days of immersion in local foods with a local cocktail, so I made my final stop of the expo at the panel on “drinking locally.”

This has been a boomtown for brewers and distillers for the last couple of years. Half Acre opened a brewery in Lincoln Square, Metropolitan Brewing and neighboring Koval Distillery both hit the ground running, and just last month Revolution Brewing threw open its doors to almost unmanageable crowds (see page 25 for the Reader‘s new review). As moderator and Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall pointed out, the last time the city’s seen this many brewery and booze start-ups was probably right after the repeal of Prohibition.

Panelist Adam Seger’s another newbie. Best known as the award-winning mixologist behind Nacional 27’s innovative cocktail program, he recently got into the production side of things with something called Hum Spirit. Basically it’s rum (distilled by North Shore Distillery) infused with cardamom, hibiscus, kaffir lime, and ginger. Potent, peppery, and herbal (think amaro), it’s probably best served, as Seger recommends, on the rocks with lime and soda, but today, mixed with some of Goose Island’s Matilda Belgian-style pale ale, it made for one tasty beer-tail.

Seger’s innovative recycling strategy is even more intriguing than his product. He’s started urging restaurants that stock Hum to hold on to the bottles so he can pick them up and return them to the distillery to be washed and refilled, and as he expands production and heads into retail, Seger’s talking with milk distributors to figure out how people can return empties to the store for a deposit.

Also on the panel: Joy Neighbors, of White Owl Winery in downstate Birds, and Brian Ellison, president of Madison-based Death’s Door Spirits, whom Hall referred to as a “big dog” in the field of local liquor.

While the hotel that spawned Death’s Door, on Door County’s Washington Island, shut down in January, the spirits company is booming. Death’s Door vodka, gin, and white whiskey—distilled from wheat grown on the island—is in 14 states now, and Ellison hopes to soon be in a whopping 39. They just rolled out some spiffy new bottles, and are picking up both mad press and prestigious accounts. Staying at the Hard Rock Hotel? You can now find Death’s Door in the minibar.

Asked “Do you ever worry about getting too big and not being local anymore?” Ellison replied, “I always run it by the kitchen-table test. Can I go up to the island and sit down with Tom and Ken [Koyen, the farmers who grow the wheat used in Death’s Door products] and say, ‘Hey, they want us in San Francisco, but we’re not going to do that because we don’t believe in it. We want to stay local.’ And you, know, they would look at me like I was crazy, and say ‘GO TO SAN FRANCISCO.'”   

See the Food Chain for Martha Bayne’s complete posts from the expo.