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Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity

November 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a collection of stories I wrote for the Winter 2014 issue of Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) that focus on the theme of how responding to a starving world is within our reach. The stories explore the efforts of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and of four Omaha nonprofits – Food Bank of the Heartland, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, City Sprouts and No More Empty Pots – in taking on hunger and food insecurity through various programs and activities.

 

Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY

Within Our Reach: A Starving World

40 Chances: Addressing Global Hunger

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Father-son team bearing famous name pen book that calls people to action

Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett want people to know they can make a difference in a hungry world

Giving became synonymous with the Buffett name when Omaha billionaire investor Warren Buffett gave part of his immense wealth to his adult children’s foundations and pledged the remainder to philanthropy in the event of his death. Thus, one of history’s largest personal fortunes is now closely aligned to myriad efforts that address pressing human needs around the world.

The Wizard of Omaha’s eldest son, Howard Graham Buffett, heads a foundation focused on improving the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished, marginalized populations. Food security is among the foundation’s top priorities, not surprising given that its namesake chairman-CEO is a farmer with strong roots in his agriculture-rich native Nebraska. He’s also a staunch conservationist and an accomplished photographer.

A former Douglas County Commissioner now living in Decatur, Illinois, where he farms, Howard G. traveled to developing nations as a youth. His late mother, Susie, cultivated a social justice bent in him and his siblings. Those experiences helped shape the work of his Howard G. Buffett Foundation. His travels and the foundation’s work, told through the prism of experiences lived, relationships built and lessons learned, highlight his new book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.

He co-authored the bestseller with his son and former foundation executive director Howard Warren Buffett, who has extensive experience dealing with international and domestic issues. As a U.S. Department of Defense official he.oversaw ag-based economic stabilization-redevelopment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a White House policy advisor he co-wrote the President’s cross-sector partnership strategy. The Columbia University lecturer also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.

Growing up he made many trips with his father to challenging places. Like his old man he is a farmer, too, with a spread near Tekamah.

Now or never
The book by this father-son team calls readers to take action and do something good for the world, even if it’s in your own backyard. The authors proffer principles for doing and giving and making a lasting impact with the limited chances you’re granted in a lifetime.

“If there’s an overriding thought it’s that anybody can do something. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, it’s just doing something” that counts,” says Howard G. He adds, “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Even going down to your local food pantry to volunteer might be a risk for somebody. Make a long-term commitment – don’t just do it to see what it’s like. That message is to NGOs and foundations and everybody who works in any kind of philanthropic area.

“Figure it out, focus on it and then stick with it.”

The Buffetts hope their book gives people a sense of urgency to act.

“The truth is most of us just go through life,” Howard G. says. “We don’t think about the fact that by time we get out of college and get a little experience we’ve probably got 40 years to really make a positive impact. That’s our prime. Just do it right. We cant take stuff back and eventually we do run out of time. That’s what the title is about.”

“That gets to the core of what 40 Chances is – about having a limited number of opportunities to do the best job we can in our life,” Howard W. says. “And that can be being the best mother or father, being the best mentor, being the best resident of a neighborhood or community. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just that you seize those opportunities.”

 

 

Lessons learned
Much of the Buffetts’ work plays out overseas, where the West’s expectations or assumptions don’t hold much currency amid the developing world’s harsh realities. Howard G.’s seen many entities try to come up with First World solutions for Third World problems, but the metrics don’t always apply. The consequences of planting the wrong seed crop for a certain climate or soil in a vulnerable place like Eastern Congo, for example, can be disastrous.

“Everywhere we go and work in the world life is not predictable,” Howard G. says. “If you’re a small farmer struggling feed your family, if one thing goes wrong you can have a child die, so the consequences of what can happen are so significant and magnified.”

His foundation works in some tough environments, including Eastern Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, where food and water insecurity, poverty and conflict are constant threats.

He supports a research farm in South Africa, where the foundation does conservation work returning cheetahs to the wild and supporting anti-poaching measures. The farm grows cover crops, with the goal of making these crops available to several countries on the African continent. He makes a point of visiting wherever his foundation’s active, no matter how remote or unstable the site, in order to put his own eyes on a situation.

“Each trip leads to something,” he says. “I see something, I learn something. I would argue it is important to do it and I think other people need to do more of it. Anything I’ve ever learned that’s stuck with me has been in part because I’ve gone somewhere and experienced it. I think it has to do with my being a photographer. It makes you pay attention to the detailed scene of what’s happening. I absorb a lot of things by osmosis. As a photographer you have to be there to get the photograph. I think the same way with this, you have to be there.

“When you see a lot of pain and see death it’s very hard to deal with. I don’t care who you are, you internalize that somehow. What a camera allows you to do is to take pictures of that to show the world what’s happening. It gives you a whole new purpose of what you’re trying to do, so photography’s been a huge thing for me.”

This “journalist at heart” has published several books of photography featuring what he’s “seen and experienced” around the globe.

He’s learned the only way to truly appreciate the jeopardy people face is to go where they live and witness their peril.

“You can’t understand what people go through unless you see it for yourself. I can tell you what it’s like to go into a landfill where kids are living and dying because I’ve been to where people literally live in trash. When you walk in there your eyes burn and you can’t breathe. You have to experience that.”

Want is as near as our own backyard
The Buffetts say even if you can’t travel the world, opportunities to make a difference are as near as a local pantry or the Food Bank for the Heartland, where Howard W.’s volunteered. In the middle of America’s Breadbasket people face hunger and malnutrition daily.

“The numbers have grown so much in this country of people who are food insecure,” Howard G. says. “I think there are roughly 250,000 food insecure people in Neb. That’s right in the heart of America. You have to say to yourself, That’s not right, something’s totally wrong with that.”

Teaching people to grow their own food is part of building a secure, sustainable food culture. When Howard W. discovered all Omaha Public Schools’ designated career academies had been fulfilled except one – urban agriculture – he helped establish an Urban Ag and Natural Resources career academy at Bryan High School, where he also helped form a Future Farmers of America club. Both are thriving there.

“I’ve been able to mentor some of the students at Bryan and have an impact on their lives,” he says. “Those relationships and the gratification I get from being involved with very local things are extremely rewarding. It’s so enriching what takes place there.”

Father and son encourage folks to get out of their comfort zone and give time to worthy causes like these in their own community.

“I just think being there and showing up is so important,” Howard G. says. “You don’t have to have money to make a difference.”

He says America’s generosity and volunteerism stand it alone.

“Nobody volunteers like Americans. Americans are great volunteers, and they’re great volunteers right here in Omaha.”

Staying focused
If he’s learned anything, it’s that mitigating problems like chronic hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition is gradual at best in places without America’s entrepreneurial-volunteer spirit.

“I’m very impatient and I’ve learned I have to be more patient. I’m a Type A personality, so I’m like, I’m going to go in there and figure it out when I get there. It doesn’t work that way. One of the things you learn is there’s no short-term fix or involvement. You have to be in this for the long haul. That changes how you do things. For us it means we have to stay very focused.”

He may not have the legendary focus of his father but he’s gotten better as he’s learned to say no and to accept he can’t do everything.

“I realized the consequences if I don’t stay focused – I get distracted, I’m wasting money, I’m not making impact. That’s just something I had to get better at. If I’m going to be focused and have impact I just have to say no to people, even very good friends. If I did all those things people come to me with I would get nothing done.”

His advice for organizations and individuals is the same.

“Figure out what you want to do and just do that and don’t get distracted, don’t get sidetracked, don’t try to save the world. If you’re going to try to save the world you’re going to save nobody. You’ve got to be focused. The more narrow you are the more impact you’ll have.”

Coming full circle
Doing the book brought many benefits.

“It helped the foundation itself gain additional focus and learn lessons from the past,” Howard W. says. “It allowed us to start honing in and narrowing down where we wanted to go from there, whether multi-year crop-based research on new varieties of corn or better ways to reduce soil erosion over a decade of no till with cover crops.”

Or building a new hydroelectric plant in Eastern Congo that will bring light to the masses to catalyze investment in agribusiness that will in turn create jobs for people whose only alternative is conflict. Or reducing poaching as a way to cut off funds (from the sale of elephant tusks and rhino horns) to rebels.

“For me personally this retrospective and introspective look was almost like going through a whole other undergraduate degree,” Howard W. says. “My dad and I hadn’t as much time to travel together the last couple years, so working on this book together was a new kind of journey of taking everything we had done together in person and then analyzing it. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”

The Howards were joined by family patriarch Warren, who wrote the book’s foreword, for the launch in New York City. The paperback version from Simon & Schuster is out this fall.

“That was fun. It brought us all together,” Howard G. says.

If there’s one thing Howard G. wants people to take away from the book, it’s for people to do something.

“I just feel like if we do these things it will make a difference. Even if it doesn’t make a difference, we tried and we might learn something from that failure. My dad talks about staying in your circle of confidence. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at, so I stick with that. But that’s a big enough circle for me to still step into things I’m not comfortable with.

“Like I tell young people, ‘Get uncomfortable, just go do some things that make you go, Holy crap.’ That’s what’s going to make you grow, that’s what’s going to make you want to do more because you’re going to gain some confidence. Some things might not work, but so what.”

 

 

 

Collective Impact

Food Bank of the Heartland

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Distribution key to getting food to where it’s most needed

Collective effort to reduce food insecurity includes Food Bank

It’s no secret that in the land of plenty, a resource gap exists for many folks, including right here in the metro, The problem with poverty is not just low income, it’s lack of education and access. Want often translates into people experiencing hunger and inadequate nutrition.

Every night, a segment of poor Nebraskans goes hungry. An estimated 250,000 in the state are chronically food insecure, a dramatic increase since the 2007-2008 recession. Most of the affected adults are the working poor. One in five area children are at-risk of hunger.

The mosaic of helping agencies and initiatives addressing the issue includes food pantries. community gardens. healthy cooking classes and nutrition education. A key player in that mix is the Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland. Established in 1981, FBFH is one of only two food banks in the state along with the Lincoln Food Bank.

Scaling up
Until five years ago FBFH served just Omaha and Council Bluffs but it now covers most of the state, plus western Iowa, for a total of 93 counties and 75,000 square miles. In what’s been a transformation for an organization that depends almost entirely on donations and fundraisers, a completely new leadership team and staff came on board in 2009 to scale the operations up. That’s meant a new, expanded facility at 10525 J Street, a fleet of big trucks and a tech-driven warehouse order and delivery tracking system.

“We have online ordering for our customers just like Amazon that tells us what they want, when they want it and reserves it in inventory,” says president-CEO Susan Ogborn. “We have Roadnet, the UPS software, to track our trucks and to route them efficiently. We have bar coding in the warehouse so that everything is tied to an item number. It tells you when to pick and how many to pick.”

All of it’s needed to distribute the estimated 16 million pounds of food FBFH will distribute this fiscal year.

“We can’t do this without being as efficient and effective as possible. We monitor everything we do and how we do it.”

Volunteers are critical for sorting and repackaging pallets of food.

In its mode shift the Food Bank’s gone from “order taker to business seeker,” she says. “Before, we waited for people to come to us. Now, I have two full-time food sourcing professionals who do nothing but look out for food and work with the people who give it to us.”

The organization’s increased the number of retail and processing vendors it contracts with to provide food, much of it perishable meat, dairy and produce, from fewer than a dozen to more than 200. Procuring enough edible resources for its many food partners, who include pantries run by the Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission in Omaha, has “changed our entire business model completely,” Ogborn says, adding. “We are first and foremost a distribution center now. We’ve got five people on the road all the time in rural Nebraska. We’re an entirely different business.”

Heart Ministry Center director John Levy says, “The Food Bank plays an absolutely critical role in us being able to serve people in need. We can access a much wider selection of food by using Food Bank and also keep our costs much lower. By having a wider selection of food, people are more likely to come back to our Center because they had a good experience. Because we are able to get the food for free or drastically reduced prices, we have more money to spend on helping clients with their underlying problems.”

Ogborn and her staff all came to their jobs with no previous food banking experience, which she says has worked to their advantage.

“We don’t know what we can’t do, so we just we just try anything and don’t let anything stop us.”

Outside-the-box
Most satisfying to Ogborn, she says, is “finding some creative way to serve people we haven’t served before,” For example. identifying the rural poor in the Sand Hills region was proving difficult until she thought of an outside-the-box way to reach them.

“I sent out a letter to the sheriffs in those counties that said, ‘You know who the people are in your community that are in need, I don’t, how about I send you some food boxes and you give it to them when they need it?’ I didn’t know if I’d hear back or not. Well, the sheriffs in those counties, especially Nance and Merrick counties, are now distributing food on a regular basis. They’re supporting mobile pantries and we’ve got all kinds of services going on there.”

Closer to home, FBFH operates programs that provide meals to at-risk children after school, on weekends and during the summer through such youth-serving organizations as Completely Kids.

“Where we identify a gap where people aren’t being served by anybody else we will start a program.”

The effects of hunger and poor nutrition are far-reaching, especially on children’s health and school performance. Often hunger or malnourishment results when people can’t afford or find fresh, local food near them. Those living with food insecurity and residing in food deserts often don’t know what eating healthy entails and need to be taught how to source and cook things that don’t come out of a box.

Growing your own food is an option for some. But for most folks a food pantry or the SNAP (food stamps) program is more realistic. Not everyone knows about or chooses to use these remedial options. Ogborn says as many as a third of those eligible to receive SNAP benefits in Neb. fail to do so, often, she suspects, out of embarrassment.

She agrees with colleagues that mediating hunger in the Heartland requires a collaborative effort to make the needed collective impact.

“In the food banking world we have a saying – you can’t food bank your way out of hunger. And you absolutely can’t. There is enough food to feed everybody in America but how we get it and people connected is very challenging. It’s a distribution challenge process. It’s also an issue around nutrition education, cooking healthy meals.”

That’s why the Food Bank partners with ConAgra Foods Foundation, Walmart and other mega food processors and purveyors to get healthy food to where it’s needed. “We could not do what we do without them.” It’s why it partners, too, with the Hunger Free Heartland coalition and the Hunger Collaborative to do the same on a more intimate scale.

Hunger Collaborative shared services coordinator Craig Howell says FBFH not only provides nutritious food to pantries that clients might otherwise not access but supplies hot meats for children outside of school they might miss at home. He says it also assists eligible clients get signed up for SNAP. “The ability for us to make sustainable changes cannot happen without the work of the Food Bank.”

Another part of the answer is fast food giants and school cafeterias offering healthy alternatives. Ogborn says reaching people where they live with their habits will make a profound difference in their nutritional levels over time.

Ogborn says the ultimate goal is for all Nebraskans to be self-sufficient in terms of secure, sustainable access to food. “We’d love to put ourselves of business.” Until that day arrives, fundraisers are needed to help support its work. In Sept. a city-wide spaghetti feed garnered thousands of dollars. Proceeds from the ConAgra Foods Ice Skating Rink during the annual Holiday Lights Festival will go to the Food Bank. On March 12 FBFH’s big annual fundraising dinner will feature celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian at the Embassy Suites in La Vista.

Money, food, volunteers and vendors are what keep the Food Bank going. Visit http://www.FoodBankHeartland to get involved.

 

 

 

More Organizations Working to overturn food Insecurity

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Community response to hunger fosters collaboration

Different approaches come together to make collective impact

Organizations working to make at-risk populations food secure agree more can be done collectively than alone to combat hunger. Omaha’s replete with efforts that feature collaboration and cross-pollination. Some players, such as Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue or City Sprouts, have distinct niches. Others, such as No More Empty Pots, are more comprehensive in scope and thus all roads lead there.

One way or another, these organizations connect with coalitions like Hunger Free Heartland, a ConAgra Foods Foundation’s originated-initiative that’s evolved into the community-wide Child Hunger Ends Here-Omaha Plan. Members of the Hunger Collaborative – Food Bank for the Heartland and pantry operators Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission – collectively work to end food insecurity and to provide an array of human services.

New collaborations are always surfacing, including the Prospect Village Community Garden Program that finds City Sprouts, No More Empty and Big Garden, among others, promoting the benefits of engaged, cohesive neighborhoods through community gardening.

Three organizations among many making a difference in creating a secure, equitable food system are:

Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a communal effort to feed one. Experts agree no one source can solve food insecurity, Instead, ending hunger takes multiple approaches. One is capturing excess food otherwise thrown away and giving it to hungry folks. That’s just what Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue does.

Formed in late 2013 by Beth Ostdiek Smith, Saving Grace rescued more than 200,000 pounds of perishable food in its first 10 months of operation. Ostdiek says a pound of food equals one meal, meaning Saving Grace provided 200,000-plus meals to its recipient partners, who include nonprofits such as Table Grace, Heart Ministries and Open Door Mission that serve vulnerable youth, adults and families.

Smith, who’s long been concerned about the amount of food that gets wasted and the number of hungry people needing square meals, says she “found a niche that really wasn’t being fully addressed” in Omaha.
The response to her food rescue and delivery organization indicate’s she’s helping fill a gap.

“I can’t emphasize enough how excited our recipients are by what we’re bringing them. This is really healthy, nutritious food.”

Response from food vendors is equally positive.

“I think it’s because we’re offering this consistent, professional model that comes out to food vendors. We have refrigerated trucks and our drivers have food handling licenses. We keep it simple and seamless. We get food from here to there.”

Trader Joe’s, Akins Natural Foods, Greenberg Fruit and Attitude on Foods are a few of the biggest participating vendors.

“We just signed on CenturyLink Center’s Levy Restaurants, so we’re going to capture all the excess from the concessions and parties there.
QT has expressed interest in donating all the perishable excess from their convenience stores.”

She says she sells vendors on the give-away with a basic appeal. “Rather than throwing your excess food away in the trash we can rescue your food and get it to people that need it. It just makes sense. We like to say we’re feeding bellies rather than the landfills. It’s exciting to see how much people care and want to make this happen. We need to honor our donors who take and make time to donate.”

Part of Saving Grace’s mission is enhancing awareness and education on food waste and hunger. For example, the organization informs vendors and recipients it has the means to capture unsellable but still edible dairy, produce, proteins and grains that otherwise get thrown away.

“A unique thing we do is match the food to recipients’ needs because many times people have great hearts and take things down to food pantries the pantries can’t use. When we bring on a food recipient partner we interview them to see what their capacity is – whether they have refrigeration and freezers – how much they’re serving and what’s most in demand. Then we match our food to their needs.”

She wants to add more recipients but she says she won’t “until we get more food donors – I don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.” She says there are vast segments of the food industry ripe to be tapped, including corporate, school and hospital cafeterias, country clubs, caterers and arena-convention centers. She estimates more than 80 percent of perishable food goes uncaptured and therefore trashed. “There’s huge potential to procure more food,” she says.

Helping her with the logistics and food sourcing is Judy Rydberg, who brought 12 years experience with Waste Not Perishable Food Rescue and Delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Smith used that program as the model for her own. Smith feels she’s hitting a wave of interest in mitigating hunger. “I think we’re starting to see a movement, and if we can be a catalyst for the movement with our other food partners that would be a great thing.”

She also sees a need for more collaboration and communication so that food partners can identify how they best align. As for Saving Grace, she says, “what we need to have for this to be sustainable is more dollars and food donors,” adding, “We’re looking for Saving Grace Friends to help us get the word out, raise funds and open doors.
We’re just getting started. We’re a very small but mighty organization.”

Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org to see where you can make a difference.

City Sprouts
In 1995 City Sprouts began as a small community garden meant to bring harmony to the then-violence plagued Orchard Hill neighborhood. The nonprofit’s evolved into a one-and-half acre campus from 40th and Seward to 40th and Decatur. Its education center, community garden and urban farm have a mission to enhance food security, promote healthy lifestyles, employ at-risk youth and build community.

The land produces fresh vegetables and eight hens in a chicken coop produce eggs for use by area residents, many of whom tend plots in the community garden. Youth from challenged backgrounds learn horticulture and life lessons in addition to earning money working on the farm, which includes a hoop house that extends the growing season from early spring through late fall. The fruit and vegetables interns grow from seed to table are sold at an on-site farmer’s market. Classes and workshops by horticulture and other experts cover nutrition, canning, dehydrating, cooking and non-food topics. Events such as potlucks, discussions and seasonal celebrations invite area residents to engage with staff, volunteers and visitors.

“We are part of a larger movement locally and nationally trying to foster a connection with your food, with your neighborhood. Our work is supported by this great resurgence of people going back to gardening, knowing where their food comes from and eating more locally, more seasonally,” says City Sprouts director Roxanne Williams.

A turning point for City Sprouts came in 2005 when a vacant house at 4002 Seward Street was donated as its education center.

“Getting the house was a huge asset,” Williams says. “That is one of the things that has enabled us to grow our organization. It changed the whole direction of City Sprouts and made so many more things possible.”

The house allows the organization to be engaged with the neighborhood year-round through classes and programs held there.

In addition to the interns who grow on the urban farm, young children are introduced to gardening on campus. Next spring children from two neighborhood elementary schools, Franklin and Walnut Hill, will learn gardening and nutrition in programs City Sprouts is planning with them, including developing a school garden with Franklin staff and students.

With northeast Omaha considered a food desert because residents have limited access to fresh, local, nutritious food within walking distance, the garden and farm take center stage in good weather. Williams says City Sprouts is one of many players trying to improve food options there and in other underserved metro neighborhoods.

“It’s not one answer, it takes a village, it takes so many people working together. There’s lots of groups making a difference. I think we’re making inroads. But there’s always going to be a need.”

Community gardeners, ranging from entire families to single moms to senior retirees, grow on 45 raised beds surrounded by fruit trees and perennials. In exchange for a nominal fee gardeners are assigned a bed and provided plants, seeds, water, education and encouragement. Gardeners are responsible for maintaining their own beds.

Getting buy-in from neighbors is taking time, especially in an area with many rental properties and therefore much turnover. But there are growers who return every year. Several young professionals and students living in the area who also happen to be backyard farmers and foodies are regulars at the community-building events.

Williams, a master gardener who comes from an education and fundraising background, came on board three years ago as the nonprofit’s first full-time, year-round director.

“It is my ideal job. I absolutely love what I do here because it encompasses all my interests and experience and weaves them together. I get to work with kids, teens, all the way up to, seniors, I garden, I fund-raise, I teach.”

City Sprouts partners with many organizations in carrying out its mission and depends on volunteers to maintain the campus.

“There’s always weeding and watering and harvesting to do,” Williams says.

Its big fund raisers are the spring Omaha Gives, the August Gala and an end-of-year campaign.

For donation, volunteer and event information, visit omahasprouts.org.

No More Empty Pots
It started with 2010 conversations, then a summit, around people’s passion for fresh, nutritious, local flood – growing it and getting it to where it’s most needed. Discussions about building food systems that tie together local producers and underserved consumers, that educate users, that support entrepreneurial opportunities and that do much more led to the creation of No More Empty Pots.

The catalyst organization is all about identifying needs in the local food ecosystem and partnering with others to address those needs. The hoped for collective impact aims to reduce food insecurity and to grow a sustainable, healthy food culture.

Co-founder Nancy Williams says while food deserts are lessening as there’s more access to fresh, local food, too many people remain disconnected from their food.

“There are a lot of people working on this,” she says, “and it’s going to take a lot of people putting forth effort, working together, securing resources and engaging folks to make that happen. I believe that will happen and I see evidence that we are on our way to getting there.”

The nonprofit does its part by convening stakeholders, hosting workshops and presenting gardening and cooking demonstrations. It partners with Truck Farm to send a garden on wheels to schools and other youth-serving organizations to educate students about how food grows. NMEP also supports things like Community Market Basket, an initiative through Tomato Tomato’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that makes fresh, local food accessible to folks who might otherwise not get it.

Even with all this activity, she sees gaps that need filling.

“There are still some self-sufficiency issues we need to help people address so that they know how to produce their own food and to use seasonal food for proper nutrition at a reasonable cost.”

She says eating healthy within a budget, on a limited income, is doable when people are informed.

She sees much potential in food business development. She’s fundraising for renovations to new space NMEP recently acquired on North 30th Street. She envisions a food hub there focusing on the aggregation, processing, distribution and recovery of food waste to extract and add value within the food system.

“The problem is not that we don’t have enough food, but that we don’t have the logistics, people, resources to ensure it gets where it needs to be at the right time to be used by the right people for the right thing. America throws away more than 40 percent of the food we grow. There is so much that can be done with logistics and growing food people want to eat and know how to use.

“Restaurants can get more local food but they need a place where they can get it in the quantity they need it, so working with distributors to get more local food is an opportunity as well.”

Where there’s waste, she sees opportunity.

“There’s lots of room for aggregation and processing. There’s lots of farmers growing food but they don’t always have somewhere to take the food after the markets because people aren’t educated and encouraged about the benefits of buying local and may not be accustomed to paying market price. The hub will give farmers a place to take excess produce and create value-added products.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for incubating and developing food-based businesses. It’s why we’re looking at having an accelerator to help cultivate entrepreneurial ideas and to connect new entrepreneurs with people who can help make their ideas come to life.”

She envisions a bakery and bistro at the new site along with shared commercial kitchen spaces that food entrepreneurs can rent by the hour.

In order for NMEP and others to make a lasting difference, she says, collaboration is key. Her goal is to replicate best practices here and elsewhere. No matter who you are, she says, “there’s space at the table for everybody to contribute to make this better.”

To assist NMEP’s growth, human resources are needed, including volunteers to garden, cook and teach.

“We also need professional support with marketing, fundraising, design and community outreach. We’re recruiting board members to help guide the organization to realize the community-driven vision. We’re actively seeking to fill internships in marketing and project management. We plan to hire staff as more projects become active.”

Keep up with NMEP at http://www.nomoreemptypots.org.

 

Big Mama, Bigger Heart: Serving Up Soul Food and Second Chances

October 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Patricia Givens Barron of Omaha has branded herself and her business under the Big Mama’s name and it’s working out well for her and her family.  Their soul food restaurant has been featured on the Food Network and other cable food shows, she’s been written up about a number of times, and the success has spawned a satellite sandwich shop.  She’s made her place a real community gathering spot, even hosting a monthly community forum called the Hungry Club.  In line with her heart for her African American community and its disproportionate numbers in and out of prison, she’smade a point of  hiring returning citizens when they leave prison.  It’s a personal mission for her because two of her daughers served time and she saw how much they struggled to find a second chance.  I wrote this proifile of Patricia for Omaha Magazine. You can find an earlier profile I wrote about her on this blog.

 

 

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Big Mama, Bigger Heart

Serving Up Soul Food and Second Chances

October 1, 2014 by 
Photography by Keith Binder

 

Patricia Givens Barron, the woman behind Big Mama’s Kitchen in North Omaha, is known for her soul food. And for giving folks who’ve run afoul of the law a second chance.

Her desire to give individuals reentering society a break is not some vague, do-gooder’s impulse; rather, it’s a deeply felt advocacy and activist calling borne of personal experience and heartache.

The North Omaha native grew up the daughter of popular band leader Basie Givens. After a four-year U.S. Navy hitch, then decades in the telecommunications industry, Barron, who did catering on the side, opened her restaurant in 2007. Her interest in giving a helping hand began long before—when two of her daughters went to prison.

“It was such a shock,” Big Mama says, “because they had been raised in a Christian home with a mother and a father.”

Even after serving time and turning their lives around, her daughters struggled finding societal acceptance.

“They finished college. One became a counselor and the other one a nurse, only you could not get a license if you were a felon. I watched them go through the process. It took them a couple years to get their record expunged. The thing I went through with my daughters gave me an awareness” about a problem in our community. “How many other people went wayward, and it will be held against them the rest of their lives so that they can’t get a job or can’t get into a certain profession? I decided whenever I opened my restaurant, I’m going to hire felons and give people a second chance.”

Barron knows first-hand the power of second chances. She experienced two failed marriages, including one involving abuse, before finding the love of her life. It was on an operating table that she underwent a pivotal spiritual experience. She was called to serve a larger purpose.

Through her church she became active in Crossroads Connection, a ministry outreach to inmates. She believes the barriers ex-offenders face are the root of many inner city ills. She and then-State Senator Brenda Council tried getting a bill passed banning the felony box on applications. The attempt failed, but Barron’s still doing her part.

“We’re promised the pursuit of happiness in this country,” she says. “One should be able to pursue their happiness even if they are a felon. I feel like I’ve lived a pretty decent life, and so now it’s time for me to give back and to help other people pursue that happiness. If it’s by offering jobs, by giving second chances, that’s what I’m going to do because I feel like that’s my purpose.”

One of the first people she helped was her granddaughter, Diondria Harrison, who was incarcerated several years ago. After her release Barron took her on. Today Harrison is the lead cook at Big Mama’s.

Right from the start Barron, whose place has been featured on The Food Network, made it known she cut ex-cons a break. She hosted job fairs for ex-offenders that attracted hundreds.

“When I opened my restaurant most of my help was on work release,” she adds. “They worked for me during the day and went back to jail at night.”

Her open hiring policy led her to partner with others on reentry employment efforts and to offer internships to at-risk youth.

People regularly show up looking for their second chance. A woman who served 14 years in military prison for killing her abusive husband heard about Big Mama’s and had her parole officer inquire about a job when she got out. Eager to learn the culinary trade, the woman didn’t wait for a reply. The day she arrived there was no job available, so  she eagerly shadowed kitchen staff before being hired as a waitress. Today, she’s working another job and nearing completion of her culinary degree at Metropolitan Community College.

“I understood where she was coming from,” Barron says. “Through all that she’s been through, she’s really kept it together. She loves to cook. Loves to bake. And that’s what I’m about, so she just fit in perfectly. She’s doing very well on her own now.”

Cornell Austin didn’t know about Barron’s big heart for felons when he appeared seeking a job after his release from prison. He’d caught her on television and, with years of food service experience behind him, he figured Big Mama’s would be a good place to start over—if its owner would get past his criminal background. She did.

“I had tried at a lot of places,” Austin says, “but I had that felony hanging over my head. When I interviewed with her I was apprehensive to tell the truth about my background, but I decided to put everything on the table. I told her what happened. She accepted it. And she didn’t judge me. She gave me a shot at a new beginning. She helped me change to be the man I am today. She gave me another chance to believe in myself—that I can make mistakes, but I can also achieve things in life as well.”

Austin now cooks at the Doubletree Hilton and still helps Big Mama on occasion. He’s only months from getting his culinary degree at Metro. He hopes to one day open his own catering business.

Barron’s happy for Austin. “Everything is going great for him. I am so proud of him. I’m glad to be a part of his life to help him get on track. He’s another black man that got on track, so I feel good about that.”

Not every ex-offender works out, she says.

“We’ve been burned by people who stole from us, lied to us, but that’s on them. I don’t let that stop me or discourage me. Most people really want to change their lives. They just need to be given a chance.

Barron, who estimates she’s employed some 200 ex-offenders, says offering folks a fresh start “makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and that my purpose here is being fulfilled.”

Cornell Austin and countless others would agree.

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives.  Fine dining options were, well, rather limited.  With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note  food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences.  Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between.  Food trends took a long time to get here.  The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare.  Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu.  There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera.  Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here.  But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles.  The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality.  I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be:  The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes.  These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here.  A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction.  Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below.  Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.

Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.

Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.

A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.

Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.

Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.

A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.

 

 

 

 

The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.

On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” “

Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”

“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.

Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.

“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”

“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.

“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”

 

 

 

 

Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.

“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”

“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.

“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”

Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.

“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”

 

 

 

 

Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.

“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”

While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.

“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.

For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

October 22, 2013 1 comment

Food, wonderful food.  A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities.  This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers.  At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision.  The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks.  My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage.  You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.

 

 

Photo: Good morning all you local food lovers...it is a spectacular morning to attend the last Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market and if you haven't found a copy of the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha stop by the information booth and pick one up.  And get your final Farmers Market fix tomorrow at the Aksarben Village market and attend Food Day Omaha too!

 

 

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the  Harvest issue of Edible Omaha

 

Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.

It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.

Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.

“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.

“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.

“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”

Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.

“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”

 

 

Oystrein Solberg

 

He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common

“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”

Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.

Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.

“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.

“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”

 

 

Sage Student Bistro

 

Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”

For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:

rhubarb

currants

arugula

kale

leeks

radishes

beets

romaine lettuce

zucchini

bok choy

fennel

swiss chard

basil

saffron

onions

spinach

peas

mint

nasturtium

carrots

red sorrel

wheatgrass

“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.

“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”

Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.

“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.

“So I try to push them.”

 

 

 

 

The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.

“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”

He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.

“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”

Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”

Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.

Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises  “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.

Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.

As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”

The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”

Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.

He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”

His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.

Both men agree the collaborative is a success.

Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”

“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”

And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”

The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

August 13, 2013 1 comment

A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens.  My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.

 

 

Nancy Williams

Susan Whitfield

 

 

 

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).

“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,

Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.

In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.

Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.

There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.

“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.

“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”

Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.

Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”

WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.

“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”

Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.

“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”

Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.

“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”

Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.

“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.

 

 

 

 

She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point  “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”

“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.

“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”

NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.

“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”

NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.

Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”

By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.

NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.

“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.

“People are becoming more and more educated.”

Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 2 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

 

 

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

Chocolate Gone Wild

November 24, 2012 2 comments

 

Chocolate.  Say no more.  This delectable indulgence makes anyone with a taste for it weak in the knees with anticipation.  Count me among the afflicted.  When I heard about a local festival dedicated to chocolate I thought perhaps I had died and gone to heaven.  This is a story I did advance of the most recent Great Omaha Chocolate Festival held earlier this fall.

 

 

 

 

Chocolate Gone Wild

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

Year two of the Great Omaha Chocolate Festival at UNO celebrates one of popular culture’s great food indulgences.

Organizers of the September 30 event, which benefits the Omaha Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, say chocolate’s diversity will be highlighted in displays by 44 vendors. Sample wares ranging from cupcakes to cookies to candies to frozen yogurt to dog treats. Chocolate lotions, candles and clothing items, along with cookware, will also be available.

Big O 101.9-FM radio personality Dave Wingert will emcee the proceedings.

Bakers Candies of Greenwood, Neb, is the corporate sponsor and its general manager Todd Baker says the event will offer “chocolate made to almost every conceivable taste, from the highest end elite artisan confections all the way down to the mass produced broadly available consumer products.”

Festival co-chairs Beth Friedman and Joanie Jacobson, who’ve partnered on several NCJW projects together, say whether you’re a connoisseur or not the fest’s Willy Wonka-like sampling should please anyone looking to get their chocolate fix.

“It’s the variety,” says Friedman, a Brooklyn transplant. “I think it’s the fact that no matter what you may want you can find something to satisfy your chocolate fancy. A lot of it is about the vendors, we could never ever do it without the vendors’ participation and support. They provide the samples that fuel the festival.”

Jacobson, a Des Moines native, doesn’t believe the strong response to last year’s inaugural fest, which drew 2,200 people, has anything to do with a foodie fad.

“I just think chocolate is the ultimate, quintessential comfort food,” she says. “It is ambrosia. It’s this staple that’s a part of people’s lives. There’s T-shirts and mugs and greeting cards and lewd magazines that talk about chocolate. Chocolate’s everywhere and I think it always will be because I don’t know anything else like it.

“It’s amazing the appeal of chocolate. It makes people happy.”

Jacobson’s enthusiasm for the subject is personal.

“I’m a registered, card-carrying chocoholic. I’m 66 years old, so I’ve been eating chocolate for a long long time and I really believe with all my heart and chocolate soul that a good 75  80 percent of the public is in love with chocolate.”

 

©photo The Jewish Press

 

 

 

Todd Baker says while chocolate never goes out of style there are trends and the festival showcases what’s new or hot in the chocolate universe.

“The festival will be a great place for not only vendors but the general public to see what’s happening within the industry,” he says. “What you’ll continue to see this year and actually got a hint of last year is really unprecedented manufacturing attention in the field of dark chocolate. As the American palette has matured more Americans have developed a taste for dark chocolate.

“Industry studies also point to the superlative health benefits of dark chocolate – everything from lowering blood pressure and stroke risk to increasing happiness and well being. The only thing people needed to eat more chocolate was an excuse and the studies have provided that for us.”

 

 

 

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He says Bakers will not only scout for new products and ideas there but introduce new flavors at the company’s own booth.

“We’ve worked very hard on three new meltaway chocolate flavors to debut at the chocolate festival this year, which is the most new flavors we’ve ever added in any one year.”

In 2011, he says, “Bakers Candies became the first candy company in the world to mass produce a chocolate potato chip cluster.” It was introduced at the fest, where samplers were blissfully unaware of the logistics behind it. “It took a tremendous amount of work on the automated production technology side to get potato chips and chocolate solidified before they got soggy and ruined the formula,” he says.

Baker, whose father Kevin launched the company after a career as a missile defense contractor, realizes most chocolate lovers don’t care about where the chocolate they enjoy comes from. But Baker says they might be interested to know the U.S. now has “access to all kinds of coca we’ve never had access to before,” adding, “The variety of chocolate available to the American consumer is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It’s quite fantastic.”

It’s why he says there’s never been a better time to be a chocolate fan, though he says the automation that’s allowed companies like his family’s to grow comes with the price of compromising the flavor of old-time, hand-made recipes. On the other hand, he says some of the best chocolate innovators are small shops just like the ones slated for the festival.

Proceeds support local social action projects by the Omaha Section of NCJW, whose mission, Friedman says, is improving the lives of women, children and families. While she concede chocolate won’t fix bullying or domestic violence, it’s a safe, fun, family-centric thing. The Iowa Western Community College Culinary Arts program will offer hands-on chocolate activities for kids along with The Cordial Cherry. Cooking demonstrations are planned too.

The noon to 5 p.m. event takes place at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Field House. The $5 admission includes buys five samples. Children under 10 get in for $3 and receive tickets for three samples. Extra samples may be purchased.

The irony for Friedman is that since becoming co-chair she’s been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, meaning she’s had to eliminate all sweets from her diet. No matter, she’s just glad to carry the chocolate banner for a good cause.

For details, visit http://www.omahachocolatefestival.com.

 

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