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Chicago’s Passion for Healthy Food and Giving

Ameilia Levin explores Chicago's passion for healthy food and giving.

    Chicago people know how to consume, so to speak. With an endless array of top restaurants, bars and places to see and be seen, there’s so much to take in around the Windy City. But, as many Chicagoans demonstrate, it’s also a place of giving. Chicago Life caught up with five local, er, national, figures to ask about how they choose to give back.

Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra
Tallgrass Beef / Kurtis Productions
     You may recognize Bill Kurtis most recently from the ESPN commercials where he declares he “just discovered the internet.” His voice has drawn thousands of viewers to his forays as a globally acclaimed television and documentary journalist, winning accolades for his work on Investigative Reports and Cold Case Files, in addition to his years as an anchor and field reporter for CBS and WBBM here in Chicago.
   But since about three years ago, his latest endeavor outside of running Kurtis Productions, a documentary film production studio based in the city, has been building Tallgrass Beef, a company he founded to raise and sell grass-fed cattle products as a healthier alternative to traditional mass-produced beef. Tallgrass prides itself on raising cattle free-range and grass-fed without hormones or antibiotics and using ultra-sound technology to scan the cattle for the most tender, flavorful beef.
   “Three years ago I founded a team to start exploring the idea of grass-fed beef,” Kurtis says. “I discovered there are many health benefits behind this beef, and I wanted to be involved.”
    Aside from that, Kurtis and partner Donna La Pietra remain heavily involved in philanthropic activities in Chicago. In fact, Pietra alone sits on as many as 20 boards, including Steppenwolf Theatre, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Botanic Garden, Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo and Green City Market. Together, La Pietra and Kurtis have hosted a number of auctions to raise money for these various boards, in addition to galas and dinner parties.
   “Donna produces all of the auctions, and I just emcee the event,” Kurtis says, adding that she really takes the lead on these activities.
   La Pietra has a special involvement with Green City Market, not only sitting on their board, but hosting the annual Harvest Supper at her and Kurtis’ home in Mettawa, Illinois, spanning 65 acres of land, most of which is wild prairie, which Kurtis sought to preserve as a testament to his native Kansas, where the Tallgrass cattle roam.
    “It was a natural fit,” La Pietra says of the market and of her response when Abby Mandel, the market’s founder, who passed away late last summer after a battle with cancer, asked her to join. “Abby was just one of those friends who asked for some help. Like many small organizations with single leader founders, there’s a need to fundraise. We have the same belief system as she did, so it was a great fit for us.”
   Kurtis adds, “They’re dedicated to producing healthy food for the Chicago community. Like many people who have a cause that they support, this is our cause.” This goes in line with Tallgrass Beef.
    While brainstorming ways to give back to the market, La Pietra’s lightbulb went on in thinking about the prairie just outside her house. “We started to evolve the idea of doing something at our home because we have the space and it’s certainly ‘green,’” she says.
    Enter the annual Harvest Supper at the Kurtis/La Pietra home, an outdoor tasting dinner that brings together 12 of the top chefs in the city, including Rick Bayless, Bruce Sherman, Sarah Stegnor and others. This year, like many others, Kurtis took small groups of guests on a tram throughout the grounds, which include the prairie land as well as a fire pit, serving up Tallgrass Beef hotdogs and warm apple cider. Dual violinists dressed in white played along to synthesized music on a platform over a pond. The chefs greeted guests with their various menus, all of which included produce from Green City Market and in some cases Tallgrass Beef.
   After the station-style dinner, guests were seated in an open, almost church-like room where the chefs gather to auction various items, including private tasting dinners at their restaurants. Of course, Kurtis emceed.
   This year, the Harvest Supper raised a whopping $120,000, and last year was about the same. Ticket sales accounted for half of the money raised, and the live auction brought in the other half. “We went from having nothing to having a very successful event,” La Pietra says. “It’s different than a gala because we’ve been better able to get Green City Market’s message out. The Harvest Supper really embodies the message that the market is trying to promote.”
   Tickets are pricey, but this is how they’ve been able to raise so much money. For a more affordable option, La Pietra has also helped out with Green City Market’s annual barbecue, featuring some of these top chefs and many more. This summer, 50 chefs participated.
    The couple has helped make the late Mandel’s dream not just a reality, but an outwardly successful one, which continues to attract more buyers of local, sustainable produce from nearby farmers each year.

Stephanie Izard
Common Threads
    For those of you who watched the fourth season of Top Chef, which aired last summer, you may be familiar with Stephanie Izard, the season’s winner. The Chicago native is former chef/owner of Scylla in Bucktown (now Takashi). Izard got the good reputation of being the friendly, get-along-with-everyone, calm-in-the-kitchen Top Chef contestant. If she seemed like a great person then, she’s an even better one now.
   Izard donated her sleek and shiny GE Monogram kitchen she won on the show to Common Threads, an organization started by Art Smith, chef/owner of Table 52 and personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. Common Threads seeks to educate children about nutrition and physical well-being and to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. Many of the Common Threads programs intersect with the need to feed underprivileged children in the city, who may have little to no access to fresh, healthy foods and at-home cooking.
   “I like to benefit others with the benefits I receive,” Izard says in a phone interview, as if she were shrugging, a testament to her modesty. The act is no small matter, though. In addition to this generous donation, Izard also gives her time teaching classes to children, hosting fundraising dinners and engaging in other outreach programs in order to support the organization.
   Through teaching cooking classes, Izard says, “Rather than go out and just get fast food, they can enjoy cooking fresh food at home. We try to focus on using local, seasonal products.” The other plus about the classes, she says, is they “bring the kids’ different backgrounds together through food. The kids can learn about each other’s ethnicities through varying ethnic dishes.”
   Ground turkey-filled wontons and butternut squash soup were on the menu du jour last time Izard taught. “Wontons don’t involve a lot of knife skills, but they’re still really tasty. And butternut squash soup is something many of the kids involved have not had before.”
   Izard says she discovered Common Threads a few years ago while participating in an “Under 30” chefs competition, which raised money for the charity. She followed that up last spring at Common Thread’s third annual World Festival, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which traditionally draws national bigwigs from the culinary scene and this year raised more than $375,000.  “Padma came out along with Rocco DiSpirito,” Izard says. “It was a huge event.”
   Aside from throwing this charity event again come the spring, Izard says, “The goal for this year is to get a new kitchen.”  The kitchen she donated will help, but the organization has also been scouting out spaces in the South Loop. “Many of the participating kids come from the South Side, so it made sense to have a location closer to the south rather than further north.”
   At the moment, classes are held at Kendall College, which despite being an up-to-date facility, can run short on space during the school’s normal academic sessions, Izard says.
   Izard’s last charity dinner that she threw was late October along with former Top Chef contestants Dale Levitsky, Dale Talde, Lisa Fernandez, Valerie Bolon, Evangelos “Spike” Mendelsohn, Sara Nguyen and Ryan Scott. Each chef hosted a table at A New Leaf, showcasing their prepared dishes. “I want to focus my efforts on just one charity,” Izard says.

Karen Lehman
Fresh Taste Initiative
    Many may not be familiar with the Fresh Taste Initiative, but the program supporting local farms has been running for the last six years, long before the “sustainability boom” or the term “greenwashing” saturated the media.
    The Fresh Taste Initiative is a non-profit organization that fosters collaboration between farmers, for-profit entities and government agencies to bring fresh, sustainable products to consumers’ tables, along the lines of the “farm-to-table” movement that’s been taking off in the last couple years. The program also seeks to adapt policies to support this movement, as well as get local businesses involved.
    “We are dedicated to sourcing food locally,” says Karen Lehman, director of the organization.
   In order to fund the program, the organization has accepted donations from major community trust funds, including Chicago Community Trust, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, the Lumpkin Family Foundation and from municipal agencies such as the City of Chicago Department of Planning, Lehman says.
   “Our goal is to link the non profit-sector with for-profit and government,” Lehman says. “You can’t effect change unless you deal with all three.”  Essentially, the non-profit sources the farmers involved, the for-profit supplies the revenue, and government agencies change policy to support these farms and make purchasing local food more of an everyday option, rather than a luxury enjoyed by the few who can afford it.
    “The demand for local food is so strong that farmers can’t keep up with it,” Lehman says. “If you go into any neighborhood in Chicago, from the upper-income Gold Coast to the South and West Sides, there are people excited about the idea of local food. Englewood leaders are talking about setting up an urban agriculture program there. We just need more people producing the food.”
    A good part of this initiative involves supporting beginning farmers through farm education, as well as financial and land resources. In addition, land preservation is an important goal held by the organization in the policy arena.
   “A lot of our work involves collectively working to provide opportunities to build food coops, food brokers and farmers training programs,” Lehman says. Of course, she adds, this includes the FamilyFarmed Expo, where she spoke on these issues in November.

Jim Slama
FamilyFarmed.org / FamilyFarmed Expo
    The FamilyFarmed Expo is a part-trade, part-consumer show for buyers and sellers of local and responsibly produced food in the Midwest to foster relationships between each other in order to meet the growing demand for such food. Since its inception in 2005, the event has expanded to attract more than 2,000 people.
   “We’re excited this movement’s really taking off,” says Jim Slama, president of the expo and accompanying information resource, FamilyFarmed.org. “Everybody wants local food these days. We’re trying to expand the production process as well as distribution for locally grown, locally processed food.”
   Aside from the environmental benefits behind local, sustainable foods in terms of the reduction of chemicals, continued farm growth and cutback on gas used to truck foods across the country, the movement also leads to job creation, Slama says, something many people may not consider. As demand grows, so does demand for the number of growers.
   But new growers, and even existing ones need to be able to support one another. FamilyFarmed.org developed a training program and field guide for family farmers transitioning from either large-scale conventional commodity production or small-scale direct marketing to selling wholesale organic and/or sustainable produce.
   “The Expo’s aim is to build connections between these local farmers,” Slama says. “It’s also a great way to encourage local food producers and trade buyers to also buy local produce in addition to their traditional purchases.”
   The organization also works with major food companies and grocers in Chicago and the Midwest, including Lettuce Entertain You, Dominick’s, Whole Foods, Levy Restaurants, Sodexho and others.
    Slama says his recent goals have been “addressing food deserts and working with the state to actively build up the local food supply.” By “food deserts,” Slama means areas where consumers have little to no access to locally harvested food, only mass-produced food that’s been trucked in from out of state. FamilyFarmed.org has been working with the University of Illinois Extension program, which includes a number of small farms near Champaign, and a task force is working to lobby legislatures next year, Salis says.
    “We basically want to create a planning process to recognize that Illinois needs to focus on local food production,” says Slama. And why not? With its endless fields outside of the city and suburban limits, our state has enormous potential for local food growth. o

Published: December 08, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide