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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

March 23, 2015 1 comment

Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants.  Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations.  Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement.  Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson.  Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too.  Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs.  In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there.  I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it.  Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.

 

 

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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.

Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.

His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.

“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”

He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.

He didn’t always do food this way.

The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.

He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter

“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”

Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.

“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”

Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.

His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.

“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”

Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.

“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.

He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.

The “blase” stigma that once attended country club cuisine is no more.
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His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition

Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus

 

“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,

He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.

“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”

Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.

His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.

“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”

 

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Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College


Jim Trebbien is one of those good-natured personalities you meet in the course of a working life who remind you that nice guys can finish on top. He’s had plenty of success as an executive chef and as the leader who grew Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts in every way possible. Under his reign ICA made great strides in terms of academics, facilties, student enrollment, and industry perception. He faced many challenges trying to elevate the fledgling program he took over in 1985 into a full-fledged institute. But as he retires this spring he leaves knowing he established it as a nationally respected and relevant institute. It took lobbying, pleading, strategizing, and good-old fashioned hard work. The educator and entrepreneur is still an integral part of Omaha’s maturing culinary scene through his Chef Squared and Omaha Culinary Tours businesses.

Read my New Horizons profile of Trebbien here.
Cover Photo

 

 

 

 

Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March 2015 issue of New Horizons

 

Food for life                                                                                                                                            As Jim Trebbien retires from heading Metropolitan Community College’s well-regarded Institute for Culinary Arts, which he was instrumental in building, he leaves with the satisfaction of a job well done. That job was 35 years in the making. Fifty-two years counting the time he put in learning the culinary trade before joining Metro.

He began teaching in the then-fledgling program in 1980 and became its director in 1985. He brought years of experience on the line, working at iconic spots and training under demanding chefs. He brought considerable food management experience at institutions. He gained some of his chops as a U.S. Army cook.

At Metro Trebbien transformed a struggling program, growing it from a few dozen students to 700-plus, boosting its reputation and overseeing a major facilities upgrade. It was all capped by the construction of the $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building. As soon as the glass-enclosed, state-of-the-art structure opened in 2009 it became the crown jewel and gateway of Metro’s Fort Omaha campus. Along the way, he and his staff put in prodigious time and effort to create a top-notch program that now owns the respect of prospective and current students as well as graduates and food service professionals.

“I feel really good about what’s been accomplished here,” Trebbien says. “I feel real good this is a name brand school that people come to from many miles away and from many states to attend. I feel good that people get a fantastic education here.”

For Trebbien, a 67-year-old father of three and grandfather of five, his passion for food has always been about making people happy. “Food is what gets people to talk around a table and to forget their troubles.” He says this idea of giving people a pleasurable experience over breaking bread is one he tried imparting to instructors and students.

“It’s not just about what happens at the stove, although flavorful food is really memorable. It’s the expectation of having good food that fits the occasion and it’s people sitting at a table, getting involved in that food, and talking. It’s all the conversation that goes on people remember.”

He says it’s no accident many religions connote paradise with a banquet. He grew up in homes with the image of “The Last Supper” hanging on walls.

For the cook who makes a banquet feast, he says, “it’s a high that gets repeated time after time after time.” The high comes just as surely for a home cook satisfying family and friends as it does for a chef pleasing paying customers. It’s all about doing a job well by serving people.

 

 

A work ethic was instilled in Trebbien growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls his father as “a complete farmer” who raised livestock and row crops, supplying homegrown meat, dairy and produce for family meals. The home cooking Trebbien’s mother and grandmother did with fresh, off-their-own-farm ingredients gave him an early appreciation for how good food is prepared and presented. The free-range chicken his mom pan fried still can’t be beat.

“You know what it was? Mom knew how to pan fry that chicken and dad raised that chicken and just the last week or so of its life he would feed it corn and that corn would put so much flavor in that chicken.”

Thus, long before the farm-to-table movement became fashionable with today’s foodies and restauranteurs, Trebbien lived it. He grew up knowing there’s no substitute for fresh, local food made with love. It’s something he championed at Metro, where the culinary and horticulture programs are closely aligned and the Sage Student Bistro serves seasonal-based menus utilizing the best local ingredients grown by Metro and area small producers.

“I always looked forward to Sunday dinner because that’s when we went to Grandma Winnie’s after church. She’d always had really good food – better food than you could get at your friend’s house.”

He’s practically rhapsodic about his mother’s potato salad. Her recipe, as with most of her dishes, isn’t written down anywhere. Trebbien, the formally-trained chef, finally found the secret but still can’t duplicate it.

“Nobody can make potato salad like my mom,” whom he calls the consummate cook. “I’ve even stood next to her while she made it to try and do everything she did. When she saw me cooling down the potatoes before adding the dressing, she said, ‘You ought to mix in the mayonnaise while they’re warm yet – just don’t stir them too much or you’ll have mashed potatoes.’ Instead of high-priced mustard she put in prepared mustard, which I consider yucky, but damn if that wasn’t what gave it that kick that made it good. Mom’s 89 years old and she still does a great job. She’s just got this understanding of flavors.”

Amateur or professional, he says good cooks share a knack for developing pleasing flavor profiles. It comes from experience and instinct but it’s all about love – for food and people. That kind of care will always translate into a good dish that makes a good meal.

“I think anybody’s who got a heart to do it can do it with enough practice and time.”

Cooking requires skill that’s part art and craft and gets better the more it’s applied. Learning the right techniques is where culinary training comes in. Where technique leaves off, inspiration takes over.

“I think it goes back to education,” says Trebbien, noting “everybody” in Metro’s culinary program is “classically trained. We’re trained on the cooking methods and on the ingredients. For example, everybody knows how to sauté, when to add the milk to something to make a hollandaise sauce. But most chefs in most kitchens don’t have recipes. The only time you have a recipe is if you’re working for a corporate  kitchen and you want that goulash to taste the same every time because people come to expect it. The same holds true for every franchise restaurant and place like that.

“But if you go to most fine dining restaurants you don’t necessarily expect it to taste exactly the same. It probably does because the chef’s back there anyway but maybe the chef has some fresh ingredient that just came in that day and so he’s going to use it a little bit.”

The addition of a new ingredient or the subtraction of an old one, the application of more or less seasoning, perhaps varying with the mood or whim of the chef that day, is bound to affect the flavor.

All these factors and many more enter into the equation of what makes food stand out enough to get people talking and coming back. The pursuit of that happiness is what’s driven Trebbien his whole career.

Though it took him a while to recognize it, he found his calling at 15, when he first worked in a commercial kitchen.

“I didn’t know it at the time, I really didn’t,” he says. “Even when you find your passion you don’t even know it’s your passion, you just show up for work every day and laugh hard.”

 

New Horizons Newspaper's photo.

Earning his chops, paying his dues                                                                                            For that first food service job he made onion rings and malts at Rick’s Drive-In in Milford, Iowa near Lake Okoboji, where much of his early food apprenticeship played out. Even way back then, he was “intrigued” by what made people happy or dissatisfied customers.

He went from that dive to the fancy Highpoint Hacienda, where he learned to make a good steak. He worked at Boys Town’a summer camp at Okoboji. “That’s where I met the famous chef Pierre (Bossant).” Trwbbien says he learned culinary basics from the classically-trained French chef who taught him no matter who you cook for and what you make, “you should make it the best tasting you can.”

After graduating high school in the mid-1960s Trebbien let himself be talked into being a college math major, first at the University of Northern Iowa and then at Mankato (Minn.) State. He wasn’t sure what else to study. He was in college as much to avoid the military draft as anything. But Uncle Sam caught up with him and in 1969 this former anti-war protestor found himself in basic training. His kitchen background landed him cooking duty at the Army stockade in Fort Lewis, Washington. Hearing the stories of men who’d been in Vietnam but were now behind bars for violating Army rules, he began feeling “a sissy or a chicken for not wanting to go over there.” So he volunteered for Vietnam, twice, but was denied and assigned to Korea instead.

 

 

 

With his two years up he came back home. He returned to the only work he knew besides farming (though by his admission he never was much of a farmer): food service. He was the assistant school dining hall manager at Boys Town, where he soon realized he was stuck in “a dead-end job,” saying, “I loved the people there and it was fascinating being around the boys, but I had to get out.” He saw an ad in the paper for a “night chef” at the Holiday Inn Central and applied despite warnings from colleagues he didn’t have the temperament to last under the tough executive chef there, Paul Goebel.

“I was a little scared when I went there, thinking, ‘What could this guy be like?’ The first night I report to his office he said, ‘I think you’re late.’ Well, he was late. He introduced me to his head sous chef, Ed Butterfield. ‘This is your new night cook.’ Well, I thought the title was night chef. Then he said to me, ‘I understand you won’t need a lot of training and that you’ve run a burner before. I said, ‘Definitely, where is the burner?’ and he said, ‘You’re looking at it.’ I didn’t even know where it was. I thought, Oh crap, I am really in trouble here. I didn’t know how stupid I was. Goebel yelled at me and after he left Ed said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be a good chef around here in no time.'”

Trebbien says the saving grace was, “I knew i could work hard, so I just worked hard and I got the system down.”

Goebel never became easy to work for but his perfectionism helped raise Trebbien’s own standards.

“Paul was always intimidating. There was one way of doing stuff and it was Paul’s way. But I kept in contact with that man over the years. Then I hired him to work for me out here (Metro). People that knew me and knew him asked, ‘Jim, did you hire Paul to get a little revenge?’ and I said, ‘Not at all, I treated him like my dad, I treated him with love and respect.’ People wondered why since he’d been so mean to me before – because Paul taught me an awful lot. He was so demanding that you figured out how to do it before he’d get there because you wanted to do it right and please him. I love the guy.”

While at the Holiday Inn Trebbien hired Danny Hunter, one of the first grads of the MCC culinary program, which started in 1974. “He was pretty good and so I thought, Well, maybe there’s something to it, so I came out here, met some people and started taking classes. I thought if I’m going to be in the industry I should get some training.” He was soon asked to serve on the advisory committee.

By the mid-1970s he dedicated himself to a food service career. He boosted his credentials earning an associate degree in Culinary Arts and Management and later being named a Certified Culinary Educator by the American Culinary Foundation (ACF). Many awards followed.

But when he broke the news to his family he was going to cook for a living not everyone rejoiced.

“When I told my grandma Winnie I was going to be a cook she cried.

She was totally disappointed. The images of cooks then was Mel’s Diner – short-order cooks in greasy spoons.”

Metro’s culinary program had a similarly negative reputation its first two decades, Trebbien didn’t know how poor it was until he tried attracting students and teachers. Before he took over there he worked at three Omaha institutions. The first was the Union Stockyards, where he ran the Livestock Exchange Building dining room.

“That was a booming place,” he says of the stockyards, “though I didn’t see the terribly booming years – I was right at the tail end of that.”

The dining room specialized in short ribs, minute steaks,       hamburgers and an item featuring seasoned, battered and deep-fried calves’ testicles. “I didn’t know about Rocky Mountain Oysters until one of the guys out in the pens brought this bucket in and said, ‘Make that.'” The acquired taste delicacy was washed down with copious alcohol. Trebbien recalls, “Oh, God, people used to have good times down there. These farmers and ranchers would come in and they’d work so hard to get their livestock in there and either they were happy to get the price or not, and they’d have a drink or two or three and eat some good food. They’d have a great time. When they were through they’d maybe go to one of the restaurants or bars in South Omaha.”

When the dining room closed he went to work as food and beverage director at the gilded J.L Brandeis & Sons flagship department store, whose wide dining choices included a buffet-style cafeteria, diner-like counter service, a hot dog stand and the fancy Tea Room.

“I loved working at the downtown department store and the coolness of all that. A year and a day after I started my boss called me in his office and said, ‘Jim, we’re going to close this store. We can send you to Des Moines to work there.’ I didn’t want to move.”

And so the intrepid Trebbien adjusted his chef’s hat once again and reluctantly took the job of executive chef and production manager at Began Mercy Medical Center. The pay was much better than he’d been making but he didn’t like the bland, often subpar food that hospital and others settled for in appeasing dietary restrictions.

“God, it was so boring. You could work so hard and we did making the food better but the cooks, who had all been there a long time, all had reasons for why you couldn’t do certain things to enhance flavor.”

He pushed the staff.

“It was really hard to do. I always looked at that as a challenge – to try to make it better.”

He met his wife Patty, a dietician, at Bergan.

He’d been married before but his first wife, Daise, died of complications from an infection.

At Bergan Patty prodded Jim to accommodate patients’ special requests. At her urging, he recalls, “I started meeting some of these patients and they were real people with families. I went back and told my cooks, ‘We cant have these people upset about the food, it’s unacceptable, we’ve got to find a way to make them happy.’ I had them meet the patients, too.”

He had mixed success changing that rigid culture. But the principle underlying that experience applies to the entire food service field.

“You’ve got to get in the mind of the customer,” he says. “No matter what you want to do you’ve got to find out what your customers really want. You’ve got to listen to them carefully.”

 

 

New Horizons Newspaper's photo.

 

The early Metro years and the steep ascent to excellence                                                  He was still at Bergan when he began teaching at Metro. The school’s culinary program was housed then in Building 5 but it originated at a 50th and Dodge storefront. The Dodge site, where CVS Pharmacy is now, is where Patricia Barron, aka Big Mama, attended. Culinary arts eventually moved into Building 10 and that’s where it stayed until Trebbien got its own building erected.

He admits being “petrified” the first class he taught. There were only four students and one lodged a complaint after he exhausted his flimsy notes in less than half the allotted four-hour time, whereupon he excused everyone to go home. A young woman complained she was being short-changed for her tuition.

“She didn’t care I was new and didn’t have time to prepare, she was still paying good money for an education, and she was right. From then on I always looked at things from the student’s point of view.”

More than one person warned Trebbien not to get too deeply involved with then-Metro Tech or its culinary program.

“I was told this place will never amount to anything. The program had a terrible reputation, too.”

He says an “absolute sweetheart” of a woman, Ada Max Brookover, ran the program when he joined the adjunct faculty but she struggled getting herself and the program taken seriously. It was more a home economics set-up than a professional kitchen. Trebbien says, “She had no backing in town whatsoever because she didn’t come up through the chef ranks, so she just wasn’t connected to those people she had to get connected with. She couldn’t get any money for what she needed and nobody understood what she needed.”

Things changed under former Metro president Richard Gilliland after he toured a successful culinary program at an Illinois community college. Ada was let go and Gilliand put out the word he was looking for someone with considerable industry experience. When her replacement didn’t work out Trebbien, tired of the hospital job, applied. Once again, people told him he was making a mistake. After getting the job and discovering just how monumental the challenge was, he had second thoughts. Despite it all, he stayed.

His willingness to stick it out, with a 50 percent pay cut, had much to do with his rearing.

“My dad always had high expectations. When putting hay in the barn there might have been a hundred bales and nobody expected you to do more than 50 but you got 70. Dad would say, ‘I think you could have got more of them, boys.’ And I’d be like, ‘Aw, I let my dad down, I could have got more done,’ And then he’d say something like, ‘You would have built-up a few more muscles, too,’ and I’d think, Yeah, I could have.’ So the next time I’d try to get a few more (bales).

“Failure never was an option. I learned you’ve got to try things. If you can’t do it, that’s fine, but if you say you’re going to do something, do it, and don’t do it half-way. That was the way we were all raised.”

Another factor that kept him from cutting and running, though tempted a few times, was his lifelong “desire to please other people.”

At the start, he says he had no grand vision for what Metro culinary arts could be and he didn’t necessarily see himself as its steward.

“I wish i could say, yes, but no I didn’t start out thinking that. It was more like, I’ll prove that guy wrong and I’ll prove other people wrong – we will make a go of it. But I really didn’t count on staying here. It was kind of a year to year thing with me. Each year I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up one more year,’ and each year it got to be a little feeling of ownership. I got that feeling from Richard Gilliland. He’d tell all of us, no matter what our area, ‘Just run that program like it’s yours.’ So I always thought if it’s mine I’m not going to answer to anybody, I’m just going to do it. So I would just start doing stuff.”

One thing he did was check-out the thriving Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts Program in Overland Park, Kansas.

“i asked the director, Jerry Vincent, ‘How did you do this?’ and he said I should take care of my college president. Whatever the president says, he told me, do it, and sometimes suggest something you can do, but don’t try to take care of everybody else because you can’t. You’ve got to concentrate on who’s important. The same with the board of governors. He advised getting to know those people because they’re going to vote sometimes on funding for your program.”

Thus, Trebbien became a political animal. He made it his business to know the college’s decision-makers and the restaurant community in order to build a broad support base.

“So I joined the Omaha Restaurant Association (ORA) and did all that stuff I never thought I had time for or that I thought was stupid before.”

In cultivating friends and advocates Trebbien learned “what makes something good is when a lot of people say it’s good.” When he heard a radio report about a bowlers hall of fame it sparked an idea. “I thought, Why don’t we do that?”

During the annual ORA dinner at the French Cafe he and colleagues Linda Anania and Ron Samuelson formed the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame. The outreach and collegiality from that bolstered the culinary program’s profile. At the suggestion of colleague Arlene Jordan she and Trebbien paid early morning visits to local radio and television stations hoping to pitch the program on the air. They came up empty until realizing the way to the media’s heart is through their stomachs.

“Nobody would let us in the door, everyone turned us down, so finally Arlene said, ‘Why don’t we bake them some cinnamon rolls?’ We did and all of a sudden they all let us in. Once inside the door we’d usually talk ourselves into being on the air. Sometimes it’d be two minutes. We were on KQKQ one time all morning long, even after they changed DJs. What I learned from that is that we have a story to tell.”

 

Turning the corner                                                                                                                        Spreading the word little by little meant getting to know local food writers, speaking to community groups, recruiting students at high schools and schmoozing at parties with potential donors.

All the while he worked to raise standards.

“The first thing I could ever identify that turned it around was rewriting the curriculum and making it tough. Expectations changed. And just like that the enrollment went down but the reputation started going up.”

Then he started attracting better chef instructors. For years though he couldn’t get any local top chefs to even consider teaching there.

“They wouldn’t talk to me. This wasn’t a real culinary school to them and the trouble was we really weren’t. Tightening up the curriculum, being involved in national groups and the exposure from my touring over 20 states to meet chefs and restaurant owners really helped.

“The restaurant industry started to catch on that we placed good graduates and a lot of chefs began wanting to teach here where they didn’t want to be associated with us before ”

New kitchens were added in 1987.

And where school counselors once used culinary arts as a dumping ground for students who didn’t test well or place anywhere else, the program began to have its pick of motivated students.

For all the progress being made, one key element was still missing.

“We needed a building. People wanted a name, like the School of Culinary Arts, that lent it credibility and they wanted an impressive building or campus. Although the enrollment was increasing. it was so crazy, so crowded. Our kitchens were behind the cafeteria.”

Out of sight, out of mind.

“It just didn’t say magic, it didn’t say this place is quality.”

Trebbien and other Metro officials sold donors and the board on the dream. He campaigned for a new name commensurate with the new building, Former Metro president Jo Ann McDowell pushed for the project, which when built greatly expanded and updated the teaching kitchens and added many other amenities.

“The building made a big splash,” says Trebbien, who agreed with McDowell that the structure provided Metro a gleaming front entrance and anchor symbolizing excellence.

Enrollment went through the roof. It’s leveled off some since but interest remains high.

Looking back and ahead                                                                                                                      To Trebbien, the Institute’s success is emblematic of how Metro has come into its own as an educational engine that serves tens of thousands of students. Ground has been broken on a major expansion of the Fort Omaha campus that will add three new buildings. Just like culinary arts overcome negative perceptions, so did Metro as a whole.

Trebbien is a big believer in community colleges and specifically in Metro. He says MCC offers an outstanding education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year school and that it’s the area’s clear applied ed leader for certain careers.

“If you’re studying culinary arts, here’s where you come, You can learn it here, just like plumbing, construction, electrical –. you go to Metro.”

He’s proud the Institute’s produced scores of graduates doing great

things here and from coast to coast, even overseas. He feels comfortable saying its students have helped grow Omaha’s culinary scene, which is far more than steakhouses these days.

“Some graduates have opened their own chef-driven places, like Paul and Jessica Urban with Block 16. I would guess a lot of new restaurants wouldn’t have happened because where would they have found the kitchen staff who understood food enough to execute their concepts? Before the Institute came into its own, a lot of people working in restaurants just weren’t trained.”

Trebbien twice flirted with being a restaurant owner before backing out of deals he just didn’t feel right about. But within the last two years he’s become a food entrepreneur with a pair of businesses he co-owns, Chef Squared, a gourmet oil and vinegar shop in Midtown Crossing, and Omaha Culinary Tours. With his Metro tenure ending he’s devote more time to his booming business pursuits.

“Chef Squared had three profitable months last year and so we’re happy that we’ve turned the corner,” he says. “Omaha Culinary Tours ended with a very profitable year and we feel really good about that.”

Being a business owner has been a learning experience.

“Running a business is a little bit different than talking about it. You’ve got to apply all those principles you’ve taught. When you’re counting your dollars instead of somebody else’s its a lot different.”

He’s planning to develop a new business, this time a Web-based      one-stop shop for all things food. “I’m just waiting to get the right people together. It’s going to be a big deal.”

Meanwhile, he walks away from Metro a departing patriarch anxious that the program he brought to maturation gets the TLC he feels it needs to sustain excellence.

“I don’t know if everybody realizes the building blocks. It’s easy to see what sits here now but what caused it to be is less obvious.”

He says to remain relevant and competitive it can’t sit pat or lose its edge but must maintain the energy and hunger that built it.

“All those principles still need to happen,” he says. “It needs to be rejuvenated all the time.”

Trebbien leaves on his own terms, content that the media now goes to the Institute for stories rather than the other way around. Since announcing his retirement, the media’s sought him out. That’s how he knows what he worked so hard to elevate has truly arrived.

 

 

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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) 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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

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 (http://omahamagazine.com/). 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
©Photography by Keith Binder
Originally published in (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

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.

 

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