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The Ukrainian Jewish Dumpling Maker (and Other Stories I Discovered When My Husband Brought Home Frozen Food from Target)

Posted Nov 26 2008 10:34am

"Take the headphones off when you're around people," I suggested to my older daughter as she and her sister got in the car last night, my attempt at "headphone etiquette" a new line of conversation here ever since a ten-year-old portable CD player (remember them?) was found in a pile under a bed last week.

"You want to be careful not to close yourself off from people," I added. "And besides, don't you want to hear about the Ukrainian Jewish dumpling maker?"

Headphones came off, and my younger daughter perked up as well. I do have to tell you, my dinner time (and other time) stories have definitely picked up since I started this blog several years ago. Before then, I was starting to feel like I was rotting here in suburbia. Now, not a day goes by without some really unexpected, inspiring exchange with strangers.

This one started innocently enough. My husband came home from Target the other night, all excited about some new frozen food brands he found there. Now, before you jump on me (Kate!), I do cook absolutely all the time, mostly with farm and garden-fresh ingredients and simple whole grains, yet I, like most busy, working moms, appreciate an occassional frozen stand-by on that day when what I thought would work for the lunchbox went suddenly bad or when we simply can't face another night of my soup or pasta or rice or salad. I look for food that is minimally processed with a short list of ingredients, mostly (if not all) organic. Plus, now that I'm on a "reduce packaging" kick, that factor counts, too.

But these brands were specifically targeted toward children--young children, which mine really aren't any more. However, I was as intrigued as my husband. Was this going to be the kind of food I would serve my kids, or it is oversalted, sweetened, jazzed-up junk? My first reaction, of course, was that the marketing folks at Target had concocted these brands to make it seem like they were started by some moms in their kitchens feeding their babies, a la the movie Baby Boom. A little research, however, revealed that, in fact, these brands were the real thing, and the lists of organic ingredients looks pretty solid (and sodium, in particular, is downright miniscule in most of the products--a nice change of pace from most frozen foods). Yet, I was still not convinced. Yesterday found me interviewing the owners of all three companies, and here is what I discovered:

MomMade: Yes, this was started by a mom in her kitchen, the kind of story that several moms right here in my town have--made food for own baby, gave to friends, starting selling at farmers market, discovered by regional Whole Foods buyer, went to that big natural foods trade show, got discovered by Target. Voila.

But here's the interesting part. Heather Stouffer and her brother were raised by a single mom. Her mom would call home every day at 4:30 PM and tell the kids what they were going to have for dinner and ask them to start prepping. She would then come home at 5:45 and the family would sit down to eat at 6 PM. Flash forward all these years later: the brother is a professional chef and Heather runs MomMade. Interestingly, when Heather got the idea to start this business, she called a family meeting that included her husband, parents and brother. They sat and hashed out the details for five hours. I like this family, and I like that Heather believes that a busy life does not have to mean that you compromise your health or the food you put into your body.

My favorite little detail: She uses whole sweet potatoes to make sweet potato puree for the recipes, and the skins are fed to horses at local farms.

Plum Organics: New York-based Gigi Lee Chang found her way to the kitchen as an extension of her impressive business career, and that background is highly evident when talking with her. Sure, the baby brought her into the homemade baby food circle, but the branding experts and R&D pros and "Plum" as a "lifestyle concept" smacks more of P & G than peas and carrots. Not that that's bad. In fact, if I had to put my money on it, I'd say that Plum will probably explode into other aisles of Target before you know it.

My favorite little detail: Although I'm not such a fan of "fortified foods," the DHA added to the recipes is algae-based, so at least it's okay for vegetarians (as opposed to fish-derived DHA)

Kids Organic: And now for Gary Verkholaz. Take a boy whose family tries to escape the Ukraine following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and gets stuck there for ten more years, eventually making their way to the United States when the boy is 16. Speaking no English, he goes to high school, gets jobs washing dishes and deliverying pizza, goes to college to become a dental tehnician and then works in his father's Russian dumpling business, eventually buying his uncle's small factory. And then, as with the others, a spouse and baby enters the picture. While hanging around with moms at daycare, Gary discovers how frustrated they all are with the lack of healthy, convenient food choices for children. And Gary, the dumpling maker, decides he can make a difference.

Here's what I like about Gary's solution, Kids Organic. Gary manufactures his products right there in San Francisco, with locally and regionally-sourced organic ingredients (the fruits and veggies are from Oregon). He thinks he is the only one using organic olive oil. As a result of his Chernobyl experience, Gary was concerned about damaging the earth and using resources that future generations would need. As a result, he searched out a packaging solution that involves NO OUTER PACKAGE. His packaging solution (from ) cuts energy and material consumption by 30% and eliminates boxes and sleeves. The tray and its cover film are both recyclable. In fact, Gary's packaging just won Best Innovative Package of the Year at Pack Expo International in Chicago two weeks ago.

My favorite little detail: The dumpling factory is going green now, too!

So how is the food, you ask? I can't really answer that yet (although Gary's pinwheel pizzas got a solid thumb's up from my younger daughter yesterday). But, in fact, there are things that concern me about each and every one of these products. One says it has whole wheat but the ingredient list includes wheat, not whole wheat. One has annato, which is not organic and is used just for color and frankly, I think it's unnecessary. The fact that these products need to have an extended shelf-life means ingredients are added (like in all processed food) that you simply won't find in my home kitchen. And the whole fortified-food thing is a direction I find questionable (mostly because the majority of additives are from China, and let's face it, there are huge food security issues with China right now). But each of these companies are run by individuals who are sincerely trying to make a positive difference. And I thought you should know that.

To Heather, Gigi and Gary--I hope I wasn't too hard on you yesterday. Many of my questions were just me thinking out loud, having the kind of debate about ingredients and processes and waste that I have with myself when I stand in that supermarket aisle trying to make sustainable decisions.

To FoodShed Planet readers--I encourage you to question companies when you find yourself pondering in the aisle. Call. Email. Ask. You will then be able to make a more informed decision, and by giving your feedback to the Heathers and Gigis and Garys of the world, you may even be able to impact decisions that they make moving forward.

Oh, and kudos to Target for searching out these small, private labels and giving them a shot at the Big Time.
Nurturing sustainability close to home and around the world. (And other food for thought!)

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