Jewish holidays are full of symbolic foodstuffs: We are people of the mouth and stomach at least as much as the people of the book. Passover provides perhaps the best example of this — not only does almost everything on the table have a story, the ritual of the holiday involves telling those stories at length. Everything from the parsley we dip to the wine drink has a narrative attached to it.
This spring there will be more stories than ever on the Passover table: For the first time, a group of Los Angeles families will include on their seder plate shank bones sourced from a sustainable, local farmer, attained through a new kosher meat-buying club recently established by Evelyn Baran, of Got Kosher?, working with Devora Kimelman-Block, of KOL Foods (www.kolfoods.com).
KOL Foods, based in Baltimore, sources meat from Maryland-area farms which it ships all over the country; the new club aims to offer California beef, raised to KOL Foods’ exacting standards, to Los Angeles consumers. Buying in bulk ensures that the meat costs substantially less than it would at a retail markup; buying local means avoiding prohibitive shipping fees and cutting the fossil-fuel emissions associated with cross-country transportation.
Until as recently as 2007, there were almost no such options for kosher sustainable meat available to consumers in the United States, and even today the pickings remain surprisingly slim. Although farmers across the country are embracing eco-conscious practices and raising sustainable, humane meat, there are few kosher slaughterhouses available for processing that meat, with more closing every year as increased regulation and market consolidation make smaller outposts financially untenable. Small businesses such as KOL Foods and this new collective are helping to revitalize the field, creating small but crucial markets for what are still considered to be specialty products.
In 2007, Kimelman-Block was frustrated by the lack of options for an observant Jew concerned about the environmental impact of the meat she eats, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I wanted to have farmers’ market-type meat where I knew where it was coming from,” she says of KOL Foods’ early days, “except I wanted it kosher!” The company now sells cuts of beef, lamb, salmon and assorted poultry to Jews all over the country; every one comes backed by the assurance that animal lived in environmentally sustainable, humane conditions and was slaughtered in accordance with the strictest laws of kashrut.
They also come with a story; consumers can learn about what Kimelman-Block looks for in a farm on the KOL Foods Web site. The company is invested in transparency, in educating consumers about what goes on behind the scenes and then helping them make purchases they can feel good about on a religious as well as environmental level. For Kimelman-Block, this was an obvious choice: Her region along the Chesapeake Bay feels the effects of overcrowded cattle farms directly when runoff from manure lagoons pollutes local waterways, fouling up scenic beauty and threatening tourism.
Buying meat from a grocery story is a particularly anonymous experience: You pick up a boneless, skinless cut wrapped in plastic and placed on Styrofoam; it looks nothing like the animal it once was and offers no connection to where or how that animal was raised, nor what kind of impact its life had on the land where it lived. Kimelman-Block wanted to erase that distance and bring buyers back in touch with the whole story of what was sitting on their dinner plates every night.
Kimelman-Block quickly had customers from all over the country. “The minute I put up a Web site, I got people from here, from there, all over,” she said. Though she’d initially hoped to keep it local, she says she immediately “felt that pressure, you know, I wanted there to be access. … If people don’t have that, they’ll stop keeping kosher or they’ll eat meat that’s bad for their health and bad for the environment — and I don’t like those options.” Still, shipping fees, especially for larger cuts, can be prohibitive to the individual consumer, especially those living far away from her Maryland warehouses.
Enter Baran, who initially got involved with Kimelman-Block and KOL Foods in 2012, hoping to source local, sustainable meat for Got Kosher, the cafe and catering service she co-owns with her partner, Alain Cohen. In January 2013, the two women began their bulk beef-buying club, offering sustainably, humanely raised and kosher-slaughtered cuts of beef to Los Angeles area buyers. Kimelman-Block said she particularly appreciated having another woman on her team, someone with experience in the traditionally testosterone-heavy field of cattle, slaughterhouses and big cuts of meat.
Kimelman-Block found the farmer she uses by approaching slaughterhouses; there is only one kosher slaughterhouse in California, and since it happens to be in Pico-Rivera, she started by talking with the man in charge of kosher production to ask if he knew any farmers who might fit her criteria. Finding farmers who are raising meat ethically and sustainably is getting easier with more demand from customers, Kimelman-Block acknowledged, but tracking down a nearby, certified kosher slaughterhouse for her customers can be tricky. Her farmer also sells non-kosher beef to restaurants around the city, and has won awards for his meat; both Kimelman-Block and Baran stress that their standards for taste are just as high as for every other aspect of the process.
The club’s first delivery was in late January of this year, and a Passover order will be in refrigerators across the city in mid-March. Unfortunately, the deadline for that delivery has passed, but KOL Foods offers special packages for various holidays — its Seder kit includes soup stock, kishkas, shank bones and readings about the relationship between environmental sustainability and Jewish tradition. Subscribers pick up their cuts at Temple Beth Am, which Baran says has been a vocal supporter and advocate for the buying club since its inception.
The traditional laws of kashrut ask us to consider the circumstances of slaughter of the animals we eat, but many kashrut-observant Jews are starting to wonder if that’s enough. Eco-kashrut asks that we look to the conditions of life, ensuring that what we eat sustains not only ourselves but also the planet we live on, and that our ethical acts add up to something more than merely symbolic.
For more information on joining the coop, e-mail Evelyn Baran at firstname.lastname@example.org.