Waco Trib Article: Natural, Healthy Food.

Natural, healthy food: How to reap the benefits of eating locally

Aaron Alexander checks an organic vegetable garden at Homestead Heritage. In the background is a large cistern that collects rainwater and is part of a gravity-driven irrigation system for the garden.

Aaron Alexander checks an organic vegetable garden at Homestead Heritage. In the background is a large cistern that collects rainwater and is part of a gravity-driven irrigation system for the garden.


Story by Kat Nelson

Thursday July 22, 2010

Imagine a year-round farmers market with aisles full of ripe, colorful fruits and vegetables. Envision grass-fed meat and dairy, free-range poultry and eggs, an assortment of artisan-crafted cheeses and whole-grain breads, fresh herbs, local honey, homemade jams and relishes. All of these items are gathered fresh from the surrounding farms and whisked to your town at the height of flavor.

Chicken, vegetables and zucchini pasta — made with free-range chicken, organic vegetables and whole wheat pasta — and freshly baked whole grain bread all from Forever Yum at Friends for Life.
Chicken, vegetables and zucchini pasta — made with free-range chicken, organic vegetables and whole wheat pasta — and freshly baked whole grain bread all from Forever Yum at Friends for Life.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

Markets like these are found in the Dallas and Austin areas. But not quite yet in Waco.

Hopefully, that will change soon. The movement toward community-supported agriculture is gaining followers who want fresher, tastier fruits and vegetables offered by local growers.

Driving interest are the health advantages of locally produced organic/natural foods, the economic rewards of keeping food dollars local and the reduction of our ecological footprint as we decrease fuel and shipping costs. Buying local produce also reduces packaging and eliminates unnecessary preservatives and additives.

By definition, a sustainable food system is the inter-relationship of agricultural enterprise with social, cultural, economic and technological structures. A sustainable food system is designed to protect the environment, promote humane treatment of animals, support family farmers and offer consumers the chance to choose home-grown, natural foods.

Local bakery chef Ullja Kuntze recently moved back to Waco after a two-year sojourn in Italy. She is helping organize a year-round farmers market in Waco. In May 2010, she launched the website for Ullja’s Gusto, Waco’s local sustainable food movement. Her goal is to promote and support a local sustainable food system, and to teach the joys of eating fresh, healthy, preservative-free food.

Ullja Kuntze has launched a website called Ullja’s Gusto, Waco’s sustainable food movement, and is helping to organize a year-round farmers market for Waco.
Ullja Kunze has launched a website called Ullja’s Gusto, Waco’s sustainable food movement, and is helping to organize a year-round farmers market for Waco.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson
Joe Worthington of Worthington Orchards, one of the growers at Ullja’s recent market gathering, carries watermelons to a customer’s car.
Joe Worthington of Worthington Orchards, one of the growers at Ullja’s recent market gathering, carries watermelons to a customer’s car.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

A chef trained in Milan, Italy, Ullja understands food from the standpoint of taste as well as its chemistry.

“So many of the foods available at our local grocery stores have preservatives and substances in them that are synthetic — created in a lab rather than occurring freely in nature,” she said. “High fructose corn syrup from genetically altered corn is included in so many products. This type of sugar travels directly to the liver and turns into fat. It can interfere with the body’s sensation of fullness and increase appetite even as actual hunger has been satisfied.”

Ullja’s message is ‘plate to planet,’ a reminder that healthy, unprocessed foods are the ones that come from the earth to our table quickly, with few stops in-between. Her Italian heritage shows in her approach to fine dining. “Food should be a joy, a celebration with family and friends, the chance to be creative, learn new ways to cook, spend time with your kids and teach them healthy habits for their lifetime,” she said.

However, gathering a large number of local produce and meat suppliers for Waco-area customers is easier said than done. Today, the average age of the small farmer in Texas is 59, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Fewer young adults are choosing a career in farming or ranching. Obstacles include high start-up costs, natural risks and government trade policies. Also, low net incomes may require those working the family farm to take second and even third jobs to make ends meet.

Texas’ roster of small farmers continues to dwindle. They have little chance of competing, price-wise, with the efficiency of huge industrial farms and the “per unit” economy of scale offered by giant grocery chains, said Butch Tindell, an instructor at Homestead Heritage, a Christian agricultural settlement located in Elm Mott.

But cheaper isn’t always better, he said. Locally farmed produce is more likely to be picked at the height of ripeness, when it tastes best and is most nutritious. Local suppliers grow for optimal taste and tend toward natural, organic farming practices that enrich the soil.

Homestead Heritage offers courses in organic gardening, cheese making, bread making, canning and preserving.

Members of the group recently attended a fair in Hattiesburg, Miss., where farmers and potential customers were taught how to develop a local business relationship that benefits both.

Tindell said produce that is trucked halfway across the United States is not exactly fresh. “Eighty-three percent of the lettuce and 95 percent of the processed tomatoes we eat are shipped in from California, and 40 percent of our fruit is grown overseas,” he said. Corporate farms focus on the bottom line, he said, using whatever pesticides, herbicides and in-transit preservatives are necessary to yield maximum profit. This produce, he added, is picked before ripeness in order to maintain the shipping viability of the product.

There aren’t many local suppliers, Tindell said, “and the higher prices they get in Dallas and Austin make the trip worth their time and expense.”

World Hunger Relief Inc. sells free-range eggs, grass-fed goat and beef and goat’s milk from its Grade A Certified Goat Dairy.
World Hunger Relief Inc. sells free-range eggs, grass-fed goat and beef and goat’s milk from its Grade A Certified Goat Dairy.

Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

In Waco, quantities of fresh produce are typically low at the seasonal Waco Farmers Market, which opens 8 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the Heart O’ Texas Fairgrounds. Even regular customers often arrive to find items are sold out.

At World Hunger Relief Inc. in Elm Mott, interns working at this Christian organization learn sustainable agricultural and appropriate technologies on a 42-acre farm. The vegetable garden supplies produce in bulk to a maximum of 64 customers for $60 each per month. There is a long waiting list of those who want to join the program, as local demand outdistances supply.

David Cole, farm manager for World Hunger Relief, said consumers’ increasing interest in locally grown products stems in part from wanting to know more about the source and farming practices used on the food they eat.

“There are also issues of what types of varieties small farmers grow to sell versus the produce we typically see at the big-box grocers,” Cole said. “With industrial farming production, varieties of fruits and vegetables are generally selected first for highest crop yield, longest shelf life and uniformity.”

Cole said small-to mid-size farmers tend to choose their crops based on best taste, color, texture and highest nutritional value. He said that “makes perfect sense really, since it’s why their customers keep buying from them.”

World Hunger Relief Inc. also sells free-range eggs, grass-fed goat and beef, and shelled pecans from its orchard in November and December. The farm sells goat’s milk from its Grade A Certified Goat Dairy.

Healthy food on the go

Chefs Robin Jeep (left) and Daniel Pacheco run the kitchen at Forever Yum natural food take-out and bakery inside Friends for Life. Robin holds a stuffed eggplant dinner and Daniel has one of his fres
Chefs Robin Jeep (left) and Daniel Pacheco run the kitchen at Forever Yum natural food take-out and bakery inside Friends for Life. Robin holds a stuffed eggplant dinner and Daniel has one of his fresh whole-grain breads.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson
Robin gathers fresh basil in the small organic garden she keeps outside Friends for Life’s back door.
Robin gathers fresh basil in the small organic garden she keeps outside Friends for Life’s back door.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

For busy people who prefer to stay out of their own kitchens, healthy, nutrient-rich take-out meals are also an option. Chefs Robin Jeep and Daniel Pacheco took charge of the kitchen at Friends for Life, the nonprofit adult daycare center on Lakewood Drive in Waco. The clientele had been accustomed to traditional institutional food — canned, processed and short on flavor.

Robin and Dan switched the diet structure to include whole grains and pastas, fresh produce, free-range poultry and eggs plus lean, grass-fed beef and buffalo. Soon, nurses reported that residents were smiling more, with increased cognition and more energy. The staff started eating in-house, as well. Together, Dan and Robin serve about 500 meals per week at the center.

A nutritional chef and diet consultant, Robin is co-author of “The Super Antioxidant Diet and Nutrition Guide,” written with Dr. Richard Couey. She teaches an antioxidant-diet health course at McLennan Community College and conducts “shop healthy” tours of local grocery stores.

Dan is a master baker who apprenticed with the French chef Bruno Clevaire. He then started the acclaimed Hyde Park Bakery in Austin. Later, he owned and operated the Olde World Bakery & Café, both natural foods restaurants, in upstate New York and Silver City, N.M.

In May, Robin and Dan launched “Forever Yum,” a natural food take-out and bakery. They planted a small organic garden outside their back door. Their Feast to Fitness program features meals tailored to individual needs, nutri-tional instruction and one-on-one consultation.

“We use the freshest, most natural/organic ingredients we can get, and stay away from processed and enriched foods,” Dan said. “The free-range chicken, grass-fed buffalo and beef in our meals are all antibiotic- and hormone-free.”

Robin emphasized the impor-tance of controlling your food intake, rather than letting it control you. “Unhealthy food, usually just empty calories, is an addiction,” she said. “It’s a hard habit to break since those foods don’t satisfy your nutritional needs and leave you still hungry.”

Chef Han Ashley, owner of the Epicurean Chef, displays her Friday vegan buffet at the Jakarta Mud Hut.  She offers an array of fresh dishes each week to take home.
Chef Han Ashley, owner of the Epicurean Chef, displays her Friday vegan buffet at the Jakarta Mud Hut. She offers an array of fresh dishes each week to take home.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson
Han’s vegan chocolate chip muffins and stuffed Mediterranean grape leaves.
Han’s vegan chocolate chip muffins and stuffed Mediterranean grape leaves.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson
Vietnamese Hot & Sour Soup and creamy kale featured at The Epicurean Chef buffet inside the Jakarta Mud Hut.
Vietnamese Hot & Sour Soup and creamy kale featured at The Epicurean Chef buffet inside the Jakarta Mud Hut.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

Another source for delicious, healthy take-out meals is The Epicurean Chef, owned by Han Ashley, who is also the kitchen’s executive chef. It is located in the Jakarta Mud Hut Restaurant at Fourth Street and Webster Avenue in downtown Waco.

Growing up with her family’s restaurant business, Han fully understands the hard work and dedication required. She attended culinary school at the Weimar Institute of Health and Education in Northern California, where she learned food preparation using unrefined, whole foods and cooking without butter, oil, salt or sugar. “My mom thought if I could make that taste good, I could cook anything,” she said.

Working as a personal chef, Han focused on infusing her recipes with rich, intense flavors, again without butter, oil, salt or sugar. For each dish, she balanced the flavors of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy, while adding a crunchy ingredient to satisfy the appetite for different tastes and textures.

Using those same techniques today, Han and her team of chefs create a variety of specialty meals. These include gluten-free, diabetic-friendly, vegetarian, vegan, kid-friendly and multi-ethnic classic green gourmet.

“We prepare healthy versions of ‘comfort food’ from all countries,” she said. “Each dish has five different vegetables and nine amino acids to satisfy the appetite and provide an abundance of nutrients. So many of the health problems in this country are self-induced. Food is meant to nourish and strengthen us — not make us weak and obese.”

Cow and goat milk cheeses crafted by Scott Simon (below) at Texas Cheese House in Lorena are available by the pound or as an ingredient in the shop’s lunch menu items.
Cow and goat milk cheeses crafted by Scott Simon (below) at Texas Cheese House in Lorena are available by the pound or as an ingredient in the shop’s lunch menu items.

Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

A popular source for homemade artisan cheeses, fresh bread and other Texan-crafted foods is the Texas Cheese House on historic Center Street in Lorena. Owned and operated by Scott Simon, the establishment offers a menu of appetizers, sandwiches and soups, plus Scott’s selection of handmade cow and goat cheeses.

His cheese-making venture began as a hobby when he accidentally left a plastic bag of grated cheese from the local grocery store in a hot car all day.

“When I picked up the bag, it was filled with bright orange liquid with a big white solid glob at the bottom. That’s when I decided that whatever was in that bag, it just wasn’t cheese,” he said. What started as a hobby has been Scott’s business for the last five years. His fresh-baked breads are preservative-free and the cheeses are handmade in the shop with no fillers, expanders, emulsifiers or additives.

Link: See a related story about Marc Kuehl of Homestead Heritage’s Brazos Valley Cheese.

At the grocery store

Changing longtime shopping habits at the grocery store isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely essential for selecting the right foods. Here are a few simple steps to help you begin —

“Don’t buy boxed food mixes or processed foods. Buy brown rice, whole grains (often available in bulk) and quinoa. Pick up a box of dates — they can be pureed and added to foods as a natural sweetener.”

— Han Ashley


“Avoid grain-fed beef or bison; opt for grass-fed meat with no additives or hormones. Select wild-harvested fish rather than farm-raised. And read the list of ingredients before you buy. If it contains words and terms that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, don’t buy it.”

— Daniel Pacheco


“Include all the food groups in your shopping list, read labels and avoid foods which contain refined sugars. If you want sugar, buy a box of raw, unrefined turbinado pure cane sugar instead.”

— Ullja Kuntze


“Learn to shop the perimeter of the grocery store first — those are your healthiest and freshest choices. Make changes to your diet in small steps, rather than one giant overhaul. Transition takes time. What’s important is that you keep moving forward with your plan.”

— Robin Jeep

Take notes

— Visit the Internet to ramp up your Food IQ. Learn the food pyramid and its groups; adjust your portion sizes accordingly.

Cage-free eggs from Haney Family Farm.
Cage-free eggs from Haney Family Farm.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

— Learn the specific vitamins and minerals that different fruits and vegetables provide. Remember that human bodies are natural and organic creations; feed it food that matches.

— Check out the preventive and healing properties of foods; read about the powerful antioxidants found within and how they can improve your health.

— Pay particular attention to the foods that support heart health, cognitive function, digestion and strong bones.

— Put a rainbow on your plate. We are genetically programmed to respond to the bright colors of fruits and vegetables — nature’s way of steering us to the foods we need most for optimal health and nutrition.

More food for thought

— Take your loved ones, especially your kids, to the kitchen and cook a meal together from scratch. If you know how, teach them. If not, learn together. Or from them.

Fresh blackberries from Worthington Orchards.
Fresh blackberries from Worthington Orchards.
Photos: Rod Aydelotte, Duane A. Laverty, Jerry Larson

— Choose easy recipes for dishes that include a variety of fresh produce, raw meat and no processed ingredients. Get acquainted with the beauty of whole, fresh foods — the colors and textures that each one adds to the meal.

— Don’t lose your resolve. Pack an insulated cooler with fruit and take it with you when you’re running errands. It will come in handy if hunger strikes while you’re stuck in the car and tempted to hit the fast-food drive-through.

— Take time to celebrate. We live in a busy, stressed-out world overflowing with noisy distractions and interruptions. Meals nourish more than our bodies; they also provide social and emotional interaction. Set a beautiful table. Serve salad first, then your meal. Linger, listen, connect, recharge.

— Promote and participate with others to encourage community-supported agriculture. A few cents more buys a wealth of healthier, tastier choices. When we trade with local farmers, it helps preserve the rural communities and lifestyles that are a rich and integral part of our history.

Author Kat Nelson majored in agricultural journalism at Texas A&M University. She has a longtime interest in natural sciences, particularly how food and the environment affect our bodies.

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One thought on “Waco Trib Article: Natural, Healthy Food.

  1. Organic gardening has become increasingly popular with the movement back to natural foods and unprocessed products. Many people wonder how to start and organic garden.

    It i\’s actually not difficult, expensive, or time consuming. The toughest part is getting started because once you have the base for your garden the rest is just easy maintenance. And you will love the quality of the food you grow and knowing it is healthy for you.

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