Being the Change: Fairfield County Residents Work to Improve Food Choices
Feb 27, 2014 04:10AM
● By Nicole Miale
There is mounting evidence that much of the food widely available in the U.S. food supply is questionable in nutritional value at best and toxic at worst. This food is mainly developed, manufactured and sold by agri-business and approved by government regulators charged with keeping us safe. Concerns over the quality and long-term effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and new understanding about the systemic physiologic effects of both natural and artificial sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup and aspartame add up to a distressing effect when it comes to feeling good about food. This is further compounded by increased concern about grain processing and the ongoing controversy about the use of antibiotics in animals destined for slaughter. The problems are big; these are systemic and pervasive issues being uncovered and investigated.
As history has proven, even in the face of large, institutional challenges, one person can make a significant difference. This is evidenced by the ripple effects from individual whistleblowers’ exposing unsafe, inhumane or illegal activity in the food supply industry, as well as farmers and consumers who rigorously defend their right to be free of GMO seeds. In Fairfield County, we have many such “one persons” who have begun initiatives, created companies and launched educational foundations based on their concern for what is happening and the need to make meaningful change in whatever way they can. Their individual experiences and work are not related but they share a common cause and motivation: improving the health and wellbeing of people by raising the quality bar for the food we prepare and eat. Instead of letting the problems get them down, they are holding the torch high for others to follow. Here are their inspiring stories about being the change they want to see in the world.
Eat Well Ridgefield
Ridgefield nutrition therapist Meredith Mulhearn had not even launched her business, Cucumber and Chamomile, when the idea for her initiative to take the guesswork out of healthy dining in Ridgefield restaurants began. “Eat Well Ridgefield was born of a conversation with a client when I was finishing my training,” Mulhearn said. The client’s concern was that she could control the health of her food when she was at home, but it was harder to know what to order when out to eat, since ingredients and preparation were a mystery. A mom who was tired of having nothing healthy to order for her daughter from the kids’ menus, Mulhearn was intrigued and motivated to consider this topic on several levels.
“My goal from the beginning was to make it very easy for health-conscious individuals in Ridgefield to take their families out to dinner and support healthier eating for the whole family,” she said. “I had a grand vision of making Ridgefield a destination for people to come to for healthy food in Fairfield County.”
Eat Well Ridgefield, which is completely free to restaurant participants, and has been pro-bono work on Mulhearn’s part for the past year, does not espouse to be a “diet” or lifestyle guide. “It’s not low fat and it’s not low carb,” she said, citing two popular but scientifically flawed diet strategies. “This does not take calories into consideration. This is about educating restaurants about universal food preparation recommendations and adjustments, which will make their overall offerings healthier, no matter who eats them.”
These include Mulhearn’s primary list of qualifications: whole foods, not processed or canned, organic and non-GMO where possible, no refined sugar and selection of appropriate oils for preparation of dishes to diminish concerns about potential carcinogenic effects. Even healthy fats like olive oil, she explains, can become toxic if they are heated too much. A restaurant switching from olive oil to grapeseed oil or coconut oil, which have higher smoke points, would be making a significant difference to the healthy quality of their dishes, even with no other changes, Mulhearn said.
She has collaborated with town leadership and numerous restaurants along the way and it has not been an easy road. Her vision was to have a decal on the window of each participating restaurant and an icon on the menu items which met the Eat Well Ridgefield criteria, so diners would know those items were healthier choices. It surprised Mulhearn that this was been one of the biggest hurdles; restaurants were concerned the Eat Well Ridgefield icon would signal that the other meal items were in fact, unhealthy. Mulhearn said people know better and understand health is a relative and comparative term. “If someone is in the mood for a burger, they’re going to order a burger and they’re not going to care whether it has an Eat Well Ridgefield icon next to it or not,” she stated.
Cost has also played a factor in the slower-than-expected uptake of the project. “The biggest concern by far for the restaurants is the potential price difference, because at the end of the day, for the restaurants it is about making money and earning a living,” she said. “But the reality is that the health-conscious diner in Ridgefield knows and expects to pay a little more. We’re talking a matter of a few dollars per meal. I think they will spend that if given the choice. I know I would.”
Mulhearn has a few success stories with coffee shop Tusk & Cup on the Ridgefield-Wilton border and long-time Ridgefield staple Early Bird Café, which recently added gluten-free bread options and quinoa selections to their menu. Eat Well Ridgefield has been adjusted to a blog format, with Mulhearn offering insights about specific Ridgefield restaurant’s offerings in a “here’s what I would order” kind of way. She is disappointed the program didn’t take off the way she’d hoped, but is pragmatic and still hopeful that her efforts have not been in vain. “It takes time to make these kinds of changes and I get that,” she said. “It requires that restaurants develop confidence in this partnership, and sometimes that only comes with time.”
Everyone Deserves an Allergen-Free Cupcake
Like so many great ideas, Izzi B’s Allergen-Free Bakery in Norwalk was conceived initially through necessity and forced change. Owner Pam Nicholas was already a seasoned chef and baker when her daughter Isabella B (Izzi B) turned one and was found to have an allergy to eggs. With the big birthday party looming, unsatisfactory box mixes not fitting the bill and the “need” for cupcakes her daughter could enjoy sparking her creative culinary juices, Nicholas began to experiment. “A cupcake should be great,” she said. “I vowed to myself at that point that I was going to make the most delicious allergen-free cupcake.” As that process began, Nicholas began to hear from other children’s parents about a growing list of allergens to be avoided: milk, nuts, fruit and soy wheat, to name a few. That’s when she realized her daughter’s allergy might be pointing her down a path toward a new business.
True to the original mission now as its namesake turns eight years old and no longer has an egg allergy, Izzi B’s many products are free of gluten, wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, all nuts and casein. There are no preservatives or trans-fats and no refined sugar. They are vegan and kosher-certified as well as celiac friendly. All ingredients are either all-natural, organic or Fair Trade. All food colorings are made of natural derivatives of plants.
Developing a bakery with baked goods meeting the above criteria was not an easy task, even for Nicholas, who is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and had previously opened and run restaurants all over the country. “There were so many allergens to think of and so many ingredients I hadn’t used much before, especially in combinations,” she said. She noted that baking is an exact science, so there was a lot of trial and error along the way. She wanted to accommodate everyone’s needs (including people who just care about what they eat - even sweet treats) and developed her recipes so those following vegan and low-sugar diets can enjoy her cupcakes too. They contain mostly organic ingredients such as organic sweet potatoes and butternut squash, organic palm fruit shortening in frostings, organic cocoa, organic evaporated cane juice and organic agave nectar.
Nicholas said people are surprised when they taste the cakes and then hear the ingredient lists. “They always ask what the secret is,” she said. “It’s simple; you can have great food that is good for you too. I use great ingredients and I cook them with love. That’s the secret.”
Izzi B’s Allergen-Free Bakery is a wholesale bakery that does not have a retail storefront but fills individual pre-orders daily with pick-up by appointment or hand delivery.
The bakery also supplies frozen and freshly baked cakes, cupcakes, cake pops, cookies and more to retail establishments in Fairfield, New Haven and Westchester Counties as well as New York City. Individual pre-orders may be shipped to customers across the country right from the bakery.
A Man with a Nutritional Literacy Mission
Westport’s Craig Gordon, founder and director of non-profit educational foundation Nutrition and Education vs. Addiction and Disease (N.E.A.D.), is a man on a mission. Nutritional illiteracy is his target and, for more than 30 years, he has taken aim and fired at cultural behavior that may create addiction and disease and misleading labeling. According to Gordon, the word “natural” should be seen as a red flag when selecting food these days. His advocacy for change stemmed from intensely personal motivation after life-changing and eye-opening experiences. In Gordon’s case, his mother and a former girlfriend were addicts – food, drugs, and alcohol – and his experiences with them shaped his future. “I was fortified with the knowledge and incentive that would come to fuel my life’s passion and mission,” Gordon said. “I turned pain into purpose and began gathering and studying research…I had to take action.”
What he learned led him to create N.E.A.D. and start delivering presentations at schools, churches, rehab centers, prisons and Connecticut’s court-mandated probation and DUI programs. Gordon explained N.E.A.D.’s mission this way: “We seek solutions for and promote open, informed debate about society’s nutritional choices.” Using humor and creative, non-threatening means such as banner signs, magnetic car bumper signs, T-shirts, workbooks and other items with stirring or confrontational messages, Gordon regularly attends community health and wellness events to educate, inspire and motivate others to join the cause.
N.E.A.D. often cites a link between poor diet, excessive sugar consumption and progression to addiction and disease in its literature. Conventional scientific evidence is inconclusive in terms of proving a direct causal link between the various illnesses but what is known and ongoing research findings about nutrition and sugar’s addictive and mood-altering qualitiesare validate the path Gordon is highlighting and working to steer others away from.
“People think that because they shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, the food and drinks they get must be healthy,” Gordon said. “But nothing could be further from the truth. Those stores have some great foods. And they also have some foods which are loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which is the first step for many people on the path to addiction and pain.”
Gordon and N.E.A.D. are actively seeking community volunteers and sponsors to support and expand their efforts. Recent and upcoming meetings with such organizations as Hippocrates Institute and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine give Gordon hope that times may indeed be changing, along with hearts, minds and eating habits.
Local Farm-Fresh Food on the Doorstep
Mike Geller didn’t realize spending two months in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana would forever change his relationship with food, but it did. The time away from “civilization” led him to question not only what he was eating, but HOW it was grown and WHERE it was coming from. It didn’t make sense that vegetables in Botswana would taste better than those purchased at Whole Foods but he couldn’t deny what his taste buds and body told him. When he came back, Geller became a student of not only healthy eating but learning how food is grown, where the seeds come fromand how food is raised, packaged, shipped and displayed. He immersed himself in the culture of sustainable farming and agriculture in the Northeast. That was the origin of Mike’s Organic Delivery, based in Greenwich and now serving parts of Fairfield and Westchester Counties.
“Food tastes better when it is fresh,” said Geller. In addition to years of marketing, advertising and event management experience, he brings to his now 4-year old business a lifelong interest in cooking, gardening and fine dining. “Mike’s Organic Delivery is a bridge between the small, local farmers of the Northeast and individual families.”
Several times a week, Geller and his team make trips to local farms, pick up the freshest produce and meat and deliver orders to customers’ doors, complete with recipe ideas to guide consumers about how to use unfamiliar items from their baskets. The produce, meats and eggs picked up by Geller are the freshest items available that day at each individual farm, ensuring the highest quality and flavor of the goods.
“Knowing where your food comes from and how it was raised are two of the most important parts of healthy eating,” Geller said. “We have close relationships with some of the best, brightest and most reputable small organic/local farms in the Northeast… All produce is chosen according to what is in season and freshest the day that we go to the farm.”
Geller is dedicated to being part of the local community. His first employee, Chris Kimball, went to the same high school and is a true ambassador of the Mike’s Organic mantra of “Great Food. Great Service. Big Smiles.” Geller said, “Chris has become a huge part of what we do, he shares our philosophy of doing things the right way and going above and beyond for our customers.”
The company operates year-round and customers can order weekly deliveries or sign up for full season packages. In most cases, Geller said, vegetables go from being in the ground to a customer’s door within 24 hours. There is a minimum order of $50 for deliveries and the company currently offers delivery to these areas in Fairfield and Westchester Counties: Greenwich, Riverside, Cos Cob, Old Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Rowayton, Norwalk, New Canaan, Westport, Chappaqua, Rye, Harrison, Larchmont, Scarsdale, Armonk, Bedford, Mamaroneck, Mt Kisco, Valhalla, Eastchester, Hawthorne, New Rochelle, Tarrytown and Irvington.
If you live outside of these areas but are close by, please inquire, as the company is adding new areas to its delivery routes. “Be a locavore…support your local farmers by eating food grown or raised no more than 100 miles away,” Geller said. “It’s better for you and better for the environment…plus it just plain tastes better!”
N.E.A.D. • Craig Gordon • 203-981-3222 • NEADusa.org