CAN WE HAVE A DRUM ROLL PLEASE…
Edible Monterey Bay readers choose our 2014 Local Heroes
By Deborah Luhrman
Nancy Birang (pictured)
There are so many fabulous organic farms, fine food artisans and creative chefs in our community, it’s difficult to single out the very best, but the readers of Edible Monterey Bay have had their say. In online voting, they selected our Local Heroes for 2014. Please join us in celebrating all of them!
“I’m honored,” says Jeff Larkey of Route 1 Farms, who started farming on a 11⁄2- acre plot on the banks of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz back in 1981. “People seem to like us because we do a good job communicating our cultivation practices and principles to our customers at the farmers’ market and through special events, like our summer dinners on the farm.”
Nowadays Larkey and his crew organically cultivate 65 acres, including 40 acres along the north coast at Waddell Creek. They grow dozens of varieties of vegetables, and their basil, cilantro and specialty lettuces are highly sought after by customers at the Downtown Santa Cruz, Westside and Aptos Farmers’ Markets. A consistent supply of high-quality Route 1 produce can also be found in Santa Cruz shops and through its year-round CSA. Runners up were: Caleb Barron and Johnny Wilson of Fogline Farm in Soquel and Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farms in Monterey.
Chef of the year Brad Briske heads up the kitchen at Carmel’s smokin’ hot La Balena restaurant and actually met the restaurant’s owners while cooking at EMB’s first Local Heroes dinner back in 2012. Emanuele Bartolini was impressed with Briske’s skills in converting a pile of farm- fresh vegetables and pasture-raised meat into a delicious feast reminisent of meals he’d enjoyed in his native Florence. A rustic, Tuscan restaurant concept was born and several weeks later, La Balena opened.
“I’ve been surprised by the success and how busy we are,” admits Briske, who makes his own exquisite charcuterie and fresh pasta daily. “My style is light and fresh and all based around what’s available in the farmers’ market or at a handful of small, local farms. Nothing on the menu is out of season. It’s pretty simple, but people have become very loyal.” Runners up were: Ben Sims of Bantam and Paul Geise of Ristorante Avanti, both in Santa Cruz
For the third year running, EMB readers chose New Leaf Community Markets as their favorite food retailer. Owner Scott Roseman sold a controlling interest in the company to Portland-based New Seasons in 2013, but maintains it’s still a local market: “The [original] owners are still owners, though with a smaller share of the company. But more importantly, New Leaf has always done business with local farmers and local producers and that’s certainly going to continue or even expand.”
New Leaf in 2013 also earned certification as a B Corp through a rigorous assessment of its business ethics. “Being a B Corp is a badge of honor that I’m proud to wear,” says Roseman, noting that New Leaf is only the second grocer in the world to become certified—and the first was New Seasons. In the next few months he expects to unveil the locations of the 9th and 10th New Leaf stores, likely to open in 2015. Runners up were: Staff of Life and Shopper’s Corner, both in Santa Cruz.
“It’s beyond amazing,” beams Tabitha Stroup, on learning she’d been voted best food artisan for the second year in a row. “I’m working about 80 hours a week with my head down, so when something like this happens, it makes me stop and realize I must be doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Stroup took her tasty jams and condiments national last year and they’re currently available in 20 states. She also started selling in large 4-pound containers to bars and restaurants to reduce the ecological impact of jam jars—now made with all recycled glass. With an eye on the environment, she’s also switching over to new eco-friendly FiberStone labels, made with no paper or water usage.
As for new flavors, last fall she debuted Pisco Pear Butter, made with French butter pears, candied ginger, nutmeg, pepper and a shot of Peruvian pisco. In 2014 she plans to release a new Kumquat Shrub, crafted with whole candied kumquats, bay leaf and Meyer lemons— perfect as a cocktail base, meat glaze or garnish on cheese trays. Runners up were: Kendra Baker of Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz and Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. in Pacific Grove.
“Wow, we never win anything!” says a very pleased Emily Thomas, when she learns her Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing company had been selected best beverage artisan. Now in its ninth year, SCMB is a comfortable, friendly place to hang out and has a rotating menu of popular craft beers.
Last year Thomas began partnering with local nonprofits for Thank- You Thursdays. “We decided to put the beer to good use,” she says, explaining that $1 per pint is donated to the organization of the week. In this foamy way, SCMB raised about $15,000 for 25 nonprofits and in the process made loads of new friends and alliances. Runners up were: Kate Appel of 3 of a Kind in Monterey and Discretion Brewing in Soquel.
“We link together community resources to solve the childhood obesity problem,” explains Nancy Birang, president and co-founder of Nourishing Generations along with Karen Haralson. Birang is a nutrition instructor at Bauman College in Santa Cruz and Haralson is a holistic chef with Vibrant Foods Catering.
Their project, which won the best nonprofit award, teaches children ages eight to 11 about nutrition through cooking, fitness and mindful eating. “When you get kids excited about cooking, they make healthier food choices,” says Birang, who conducts afterschool classes at three elementary schools in the Live Oak district of Santa Cruz, using food donated by Live Earth Farm and volunteer trainers from Toadal Fitness. Kids are taught to make healthy snacks and dishes like quiche or rainbow frittata, then sit down to eat together by candlelight. Nourishing Generations also partners with Dignity Health to provide nutrition programs for youth living in Parkhurst affordable housing in Aptos, and they work with kids at Starlight Elementary in Watsonville through a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank. Runners up were: the Homeless Garden Project and Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts, both in Santa Cruz.
Foraging for food for farm workers was Nancy Costello’s life work
By Tom Adams
Monterey County has some legendary foraging sites, from the forests of Big Sur with their chanterelles to Point Piños’ shellfish and seaweed. But few know about the foraging possibilities presented by the loading dock behind the Crossroads Safeway in Carmel or the parking lot at Trader Joe’s in Pacific Grove.
Nancy Costello saw those foraging opportunities some 43 years ago, realizing that supermarket “sell-by-date” rules mean that every large grocery store in America throws away most of a truckload of perfectly edible food every day. And because of her six day-a-week diligence, Nancy’s Project (as her nonprofit corporation came to be called) now provides a weekly shopping bag of food for some 2,000 poor migrant farmworkers and farmworker children.
Costello vehemently objected to being anointed a saint for doing it, and truth be told, few saints have likely had her business-like approach or unwillingness to suffer fools. To her it was simply foolishness that markets were throwing food away while people nearby went hungry; the fact that those hungry people were the same hardworking and underpaid folks who produced that food was beyond foolishness. It was an injustice that needed righting, so she took matters into her own hands.
Costello never let up on this mission until last June, when her doctors made her retire. Five months later, on Nov. 8, she passed away peacefully at home in Monterey. She was 95.
It has taken more than 40 people to keep the project going. But to her great satisfaction during her short months of retirement, Costello got to see that Nancy’s Project would outlive her. Volunteers led by coordinator Betty Kasson moved the operation from the Costello family home on Via Cimarron in Monterey to a self-storage unit on Highway 68, and the loading of Costello’s flatbed six mornings a week continues, as do the afternoon deliveries to a dozen or so distribution points throughout the Salinas Valley.
Of course, several food programs have sprung up in the years since Nancy’s Project started in 1970. But most of those are diverting food from higher up the distribution pipeline. Nancy’s Project remains one of the few local charities, along with Ag Against Hunger, that salvage and recycle, intercepting the castoffs of the well-to-do to feed the seasonally working poor.
“I backed into it,” Costello said in a September interview when asked how she conceived the idea.
It all began shortly after the end of the legal guest worker program of the bracero era. Cesar Chavez and others had created the predecessor organizations to the United Farm Workers union in the early 1960s. The nationwide boycott of California table grapes, which began in 1965, had raised awareness to a national level of the miserable conditions of some agriculture workers.
In 1970, Costello’s husband Jimmy, city editor of the Monterey Herald newspaper, had been assigned a group of summer interns from Stanford, allowing him to expand the paper’s coverage and develop a series of investigative articles on conditions in the farm-labor camps then dotting the Salinas Valley landscape. The series documented many cases of farm owners providing workers substandard food, housing and other services.
But, as Costello told it, what caught her eye was one article in the series highlighting a grower who tried to do better by his workers, going so far as to provide their children an aboveground swimming pool. But, the reporter noted, no kids were swimming during the times he was at the camp, explaining that they didn’t have shorts to wear in the pool. Having just raised six children, Costello had a lot of shorts in lots of sizes, and so did her neighbors.
The next day she was on the road to the camp with boxes of shorts. But when she got to the camp, she realized the needs of the farmworkers were much more profound than shorts to swim in. Upstairs in the barracks-like camp housing she found just one adult, a grandmother left in charge while the parents worked, and a dozen or more babies, each lying on a bare cot with just a diaper on.
That did it. The next day she explained the situation to a meeting of the League of Women Voters; she returned to the camp with her station wagon stuffed to the roof with clothing and other necessities. Since then, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, 51 weeks a year: pack the truck, home for lunch and a siesta, delivery run to the valley. Foraging on a grand scale came to Monterey County.
Migrant farmworkers in the United States do not enjoy the same legal employment protections as other workers, and in various ways their plight has only worsened with time. Figures published by the U.S. Department of Labor show that farmworkers earn an average $7.25 per hour—less than the minimum wage—and many farmworker families subsist on wages that fall below the federal poverty line.
So over the years, Costello recruited many local institutions to help. Beyond Safeway and Trader Joe’s, she lined up nine local churches, two church schools and uncounted individuals to regularly bag dried beans, help load and unload her truck, collect clothes and wrap Christmas presents for kids who weren’t going to get any otherwise.
Costello ran a tight ship, ranging from a blanket prohibition on donuts and the other more deadly forms of American dulces to her custom of saving cakes and cupcakes for families having kids’ birthdays that week to the fact that the cargo net on the truck had to be anchored down just so.
At the other end of the delivery pipeline, “clients” turned into friends over the years. At her various stops, Costello came to know the families, the number of kids, their special dietary needs, their family histories. She would describe with pride the kids who grew up to get good jobs and start raising good kids of their own. The day the team had to tell one group that Costello was retiring, a woman whose eight children Costello had helped feed for 30-plus years after her husband died in an auto accident said, through her tears, “She was like a mother to me.”
Eventually, the local television station KSBW gave Costello its Jefferson Award and even talked her into taking a few days off to go to Washington to be one of the recipients of the national award. She was back in the truck a few days later. Once, when accused of being a saint, she said simply, “No I’m not; I’m a truck driver.”
Tom Adams is a senior research director for IHS Inc., which in 2010 acquired Adams Media Research, which he founded in 1993 to track the impact of digital technologies on the media industry.
How to help: To volunteer for Nancy’s Project, write to Betty Kasson at email@example.com. Tax-deductible financial donations to cover expenses may be sent to Nancy’s Project, P.O. Box 1, Monterey, CA 93942-0001. Contributions of clothes, toys, blankets and other goods may be left at Saint Dunstan’s Church, 28003 Robinson Canyon Road, Carmel.