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I knew we had stumbled upon a gem when my daughter Sarah and I entered Range last night, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  A bar with unknown microbrews on tap is a good sign. The ambience is old farmhouse meets cozy romance. A large fireplace graces one end of the space and warm light bulbs hang from the rafters. But the clean, white walls are a modern contrast to dark wooden floors and funky chandeliers made of cattle ear tags.

We started with the Quinoa soup, a delicious combination of spinach, mushrooms, quinoa and parmesan croutons. Sarah had the chicken sandwich glazed with orange pepper, vanilla bean aioli and white cheddar on a warm ciabatta roll and served with herb fries. She devoured it before I could take a bite.

cattle ear tags encircle the light fixtures

cattle ear tags encircle the light fixtures

imageI was tempted to try the hanger steak because I love to see how different chefs prepare this under-appreciated cut, but couldn’t resist comparing the range burger to our own so I went with that.  I’ve read about Tall Grass grassfed and wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation. I was happy to see it did. Cooked rare, the only way to eat grassfed, it was moist and tasted amazing. It didn’t hurt that they serve it on a warm spring wheat bun and slathered it with onion-bacon marmalade. I’m already planning to imitate the recipe for my next Morris Grassfed burger.

Range serves seasonal foods, constantly rotating locally-grown produce, beers and cheeses. Our waiter was friendly and looked like he had just stepped out of an ad for Mr. Porter in his skinny jeans and scuffed brown loafers (I know, that has nothing to do with the food.)  I love that they celebrate real food and offer items like “bacon fat fries” and garlic creme fraiche, served as a side with my burger. It’s hard not to like a place where the people are friendly, the setting is comfortable and attractive, and the food is prepared with care and high quality ingredients. All around, a winner if you’re near Lincoln Park.  Range:  11119 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, IL  60618 (773) 549-5747  www.rangechicago.com

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Think big. Be informed.

March 2, 2014

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, calif.

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, Calif.

A recent Tedx Manhattan talk, “In praise of big organic,” given by the founder of one of the nation’s largest organic salad companies, defended big organic. She listed reasons to support big organic farms: less chemicals, essential part of the healthy food revolution, the organic industry is too small, and we need to grow it. All true, sort of. Certified organic farming follows a strict set of protocols that conventional methods do not. The rules prohibit certain substances and practices, such as using pesticides and other chemicals that pollute waterways and are linked to cancer. Size matters: the more acreage that is farmed organically, the better.

Her impassioned plea to support organic – no matter the size – also talked about the “soul” of organic: “The last misconception I want to talk about is the criticism I hear sometimes that when organic gets big, it loses its soul. … What I have seen first-hand is that being part of the organic food industry often opens people’s eyes and transforms them.” She went on to describe how one of their growers happily transitioned to organic because he liked not having to worry about pesticides on his pants when his kids hugged him. It’s a jump to equate one pair of clean pants with an entire industry’s soul.

The social and biological implications of “Big Organic” are not addressed by its set of USDA protocols.  I worked in the big organic industry from 2005-2010 and while most of the 1,800 employees at the company where I worked seemed content enough, I saw lots of instances that gave me pause for reflection. Employees were not trusted enough to have Internet access at their desks. They were routinely excluded from the hefty profit sharing and annual bonuses enjoyed by owners and a select few in upper management. The then CEO routinely hired unqualified relatives for plum positions and earned more than $600,000 annually, plus a $500,000 bonus and stock options, while workers on the wash lines were paid $8.40 an hour, less than $20,000 a year. Salad wash line workers stood for eight hours in a 38 degree room while inhaling chlorine fumes. Half the workforce was laid off for five months a year when the lettuce crops moved from Salinas Valley to Yuma, Arizona. They collected taxpayer funded state unemployment benefits. Saru Jayaraman, who gave a talk at the same Tedx Manhattan series, on restaurant workers, summed it up: “We cannot have a truly sustainable food system without sustainable conditions for the workers who touch that food.”

The same CEO regularly made inappropriate advances towards female staff members and was eventually accused in a lawsuit of sexual harassment by a C-level officer. Big distribution also means big problems when there is a flaw in the production process.  A nationwide E.coli outbreak originating in one of our facilities led to the death of three people and sickened hundreds more. Although E.coli could happen to any farmer, small farms don’t bag it up and ship it to 50 states. Most recently, the company was named “Company of the Year” by our local Chamber of Commerce. When its name was announced, attendees described an awkward silence that filled the packed banquet room as they slowly realized no one from the company had bothered to attend the dinner. Framed and signed certificates, embossed with seals of the State of California and United States Congress sat at the podium, unclaimed and unappreciated. It was such a divergence from previous years’ winners who had bought new suits, prepared speeches and invited family members to witness such a big event for their businesses.

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed at Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista. The company was ground zero in the spinach fiasco. (PATRICK TEHAN -- MediaNews staff )

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed in a San Juan Bautista facility.  Photo credit: PATRICK TEHAN

The company was sold once while I was there, to a Dallas based private equity firm, and flipped again four years later to a Denver based company that describes itself as “a leading consumer packaged food and beverage company that manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells branded Plant based Foods and Beverages, Coffee Creamers and Beverages, and Premium Dairy products throughout North America and Europe.” As with the private equity firm, profits from the company flow out of the local community and into the pockets of upper management and shareholders in Dallas, Denver, New York and anywhere-but-San Benito County. They do provide local jobs, but they are low-paid, without many benefits afforded to desk jobs and seasonal. As organic gets big, so does its business-model. Just because an organic apple is displayed in a wooden crate, atop recycled brown bag shreds, doesn’t mean it was ethically produced.

Big organic uses the same tilling, bare soil methods of conventional farming. Thousands of acres of organic farms in San Benito County, Calif. have exposed topsoil, void of regenerative cover crops that capture water and sunlight, prompting photosynthesis and solar energy flow. In a recent report by the Rodale Institute, researchers describe the effects of bare soil: “Bare soil is detrimental to carbon sequestration and to soil health in general. Bare soil is an indicator of practices that are not maximizing atmospheric CO2 removal nor minimizing soil carbon losses. Agricultural soils that are left fallow or are heavily tilled are exposed to wind and water leading to erosion of the carbon-rich topsoil. Fallow land also fails to accumulate biomass carbon that it would otherwise by continuously growing plants. Tilled, exposed, eroded soils lead to the breakdown of soil aggregates, allowing formerly stable soil carbon to be released as a greenhouse gas (CO2).29,30 Tillage further undermines soil carbon sequestration by debilitating the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which are important for long-term sequestration through their role in aggregate formation. Reducing or eliminating tillage, using cover crops and enhancing crop rotations ensure that land will not be left bare and that soil carbon will be fixed, rather than lost.” There is no requirement to maximize atmospheric CO2 removal in Big Organic, but there is a requirement to maximize profits for shareholders.

Big organic’s soul depends not upon its USDA certification, but upon its management. This isn’t to say you can’t be big and ethical. Multinational companies like Zappos and Patagonia put premiums on employees’ happiness and environmental stewardship. Nor is it to say that small equals ethical. In another healthy food revolution development this week, a small, local slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California was shut down by the USDA for processing diseased cattle. All the beef that went through the plant in 2013 has been recalled. No exceptions. Every ounce of meat remaining in the public food supply has to be turned in and destroyed. Owners of this small scale slaughterhouse, well known by farmers and ranchers in Northern California, chose to bypass federal food safety laws and jeopardized dozens of small to mid-scale farm and ranch businesses that have taken decades to build.  That’s nothing to celebrate.

So maybe it’s not a question of “Big or small?” “Organic or local?” but rather “Who and how?” It really comes down to management. If it matters to you, ask yourself: “Who is producing this food and how do they do it? Do they pay a living wage? Treat their employees with respect? Is their management improving the soil? My health? The community’s health?”  Think big, but be informed. 

Who Really Owns Organic? Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

Who Really Owns Organic?
Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

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