January 25, 2012
Can we afford kosher lettuce?
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Brenda Walt, owner of Catering by Brenda, started her business in 1987 under another kosher supervision agency and became RCC-certified in the 1990s.
Like many of those who agreed to be interviewed for this article, Walt, who lives a Modern Orthodox lifestyle and is Shabbat-observant, said she follows the policies of the RCC, even if she doesn’t always understand them.
“I’m pretty much one of those who do as I’m told — at least here in my business,” the South Africa native said. She said it’s been about six years since she last bought an ordinary head of romaine lettuce, and over that time, she has been following the RCC’s increasingly stringent guidelines.
Walt said she knew of another RCC-certified caterer who was so dissatisfied at being restricted to buying from the RCC-certified farm that he undertook his own lettuce comparison.
“He went up and bought Ready Pac, which he washed like one would wash,” Walt said, “and then he bought some [RCC-certified] kosher romaine lettuce, and then he sent it to an authorized laboratory.
“It turned out,” she said, “that the RCC lettuce had far more bugs than the one that he’d washed.”
The farms’ products might be “ridiculously expensive,” Walt said, but she felt the quality has improved. What bothered Walt most, however, wasn’t the added cost; it was what she saw as unnecessary waste.
During weeks when the RCC supervisors declare the harvest from the farm too bug-infested to sell, Walt said, she has to scramble to buy bags of Ready Pac lettuce.
“Even though we buy the triple-washed lettuce,” Walt said, “we have to rewash it with soap.
“These are RCC rules, and I follow them to the last letter,” Walt said. “But I can’t tell you that it’s easy, and that I don’t hate the fact that when I have a busy weekend coming up, on Friday the water just pours out of the faucet for four hours without stop, because that’s what it takes to wash lettuce.”
In fact, it’s not just the water from Walt’s sinks that gets dumped during the weeks when the farm’s lettuce can’t be sold as kosher. According to Asyag, any harvested lettuce that isn’t up to the RCC’s standards ends up going straight into the trash.
“We throw away a lot,” Asyag said, estimating that about 20 percent of the previous year’s yield was discarded due to infestation.
Walt, who washes her own parsley to avoid having to buy the kosher farm’s more expensive parsley, does like one of the RCC-certified products, though: the dill, because cleaning the ordinary stuff is a difficult chore.
“It’s very hard to remove the microscopic bugs sticking to the leaves,” she said.
Daniel Javanfard of Sinai Glatt Kosher Catering said he doesn’t buy the farm’s produce because his clients are, for the most part, not observant, and so don’t want to pay the higher costs associated with the strictly supervised produce.
“I cannot tell my clients that this produce is coming from a Gush Katif-type farm,” he said, “because the clients we have in Los Angeles, they don’t care that much, and the economy — everything is up and down, up and down.”
Instead, Javanfard, who specializes in kosher Persian cuisine, uses pre-certified Ready Pac iceberg lettuce mix for his salads. And when he makes Israeli salad, rather than pay the premium, he’s been leaving out the parsley for the last three or four years.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” said Alex Felkai, the owner of Kosher on Location, who uses the farm’s produce when he caters a wedding, but not in the salads he serves daily to the students at New Community Jewish High School. Those are made with kosher-certified iceberg lettuce mix.
However, he said he understands why the farm’s prices are high.
“They are more expensive, but that’s part of providing kosher food,” he said. “We certainly do use it when we can.”
More difficult, Felkai said, is the unpredictability of the farm’s supply.
“Lately they haven’t been producing all the different crops that have been approved by the rabbis,” Felkai added. “I would have to call up on Monday this week, and hear, ‘We have this and this and this.’ It’s just hard to run a catering business like that.”
Kosher Broccoli: $5.50 per head, wholesale
Last October, when I reached Ilan Bender by phone at Bender Farms, his 100-acre ranch in Santa Paula, it was clear he was in no mood to talk about his short-lived stint as a kosher lettuce farmer.
“If you want to talk about kosher lettuce, I can only tell you bad stuff,” he said.
Bender, 75, was now working 12-hour days overseeing the construction of a $1.5 million factory on his ranch that will produce PVC-coated electrical conduit, the kind of wiring used in highly corrosive environments, like sewage treatment plants and offshore drilling rigs.
This project is, for Bender, a return to his roots. Born in Israel, Bender came to the United States in 1959. He studied engineering at what is now California State University, Los Angeles, and came up with the idea of coating electrical conduit while working in his garage.
His venture into kosher agriculture was different. Bender bought the Santa Paula ranch 12 years ago, and sometime around 2007 — he was hazy about exact dates — he said Vann and Asyag approached him and suggested they grow kosher vegetables at Bender Farms.
The kosher business eventually took up about 10 acres of his ranch, but starting out, Bender had some concerns, chief among them the possibility of another grower competing with him on price.