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Vegetarian Food Producer Raises the Bar for its Employees

By Lorrie Baumann

The new minimum wage at Atlantic Natural Foods and its parent company AFT Holdings is now $10 an hour, after Owner and Principal Doug Hines got tired of waiting for improvements in government support for small businesses and decided he was just going to take things into his own hands to improve working conditions for his 100 or so employees. “The only way to take the future into our hands for ourselves and our employees was to act ourselves,” he said.

The company’s plant is located in Nashville, North Carolina, and it also operates a distribution facility in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The state’s minimum wage is $7.25, and the local economy is in transition away from its historic base of tobacco agriculture. Small businesses have been leaving the county, taking local jobs with them. The region’s unemployment rate and its rate of food insecurity rose and haven’t come back down as the nation’s overall economy has improved after the Great Recession, Hines said. “You go down the road now, and nobody’s left,” he said. “These are blue collar people who need places to work.”

Hines, who acquired Atlantic Natural Foods from the Kellogg Company in 2014 and who just made the final payment to purchase the 101-year-old plant-based protein brand, including the Loma Linda® and Worthington Foods labels, had been talking to his Congressional representatives about how the federal government could help his small business, so that he could afford to offer more to his employees. He got some vague promises, but nothing ever really happened. “Government hasn’t been able to deliver economic progress for an agriculture community that needs better jobs,” he said. “We’re one of the larger employers in the town of Nashville.”

Finally, he decided that if he was going to move his company forward to produce the new expanded range of products he had in mind for the company, he was going to need to keep his work force on the job, which meant that he was going to have to make sure they were making a living wage. “I’m a capitalist, but you have to have social responsibility if you’re going to be a company that’s going to grow in the future,” he said. “You have to produce safe, high-quality products, and to do that, you have to have the people.”

He called his staff together on September 17 to make the announcement that the company’s minimum wage would henceforth be $10 an hour. Workers who’d gotten promotions over the years that took their paychecks above the previous minimum wage also got raises to keep them ahead of this new wage. In addition, Atlantic Natural Foods will retain a complete benefit program, including comprehensive health insurance, paid vacation and holidays and a 401k retirement plan that’s available to all employees. In all, about 75 percent of his work force ended up getting raises, and Hines is hoping that will keep them on the job as he moves the company towards developing new product lines within the company’s range of shelf-stable plant protein-based meal solutions. “It’s a value alternative. It’s shelf-stable,” he said. “We’re looking to create products that are microwaveable and don’t have to be sold from the freezer case.”

The new line, to be announced in 2017 will offer vegetarian meal options for consumers who want healthy products without genetically modified ingredients that deliver flavors similar to beef, pork, chicken or tuna that will help them live long and healthy lives. “We felt that it’s critical that we have an associate base that will be able to participate in developing these products,” Hines said. “We’re going to be able to put this protein into a heat-and-eat meal that you’ll be able to take to work with you.”

“Small business doesn’t get a lot of attention out here, but we want to deliver the message that it’s good for all of us,” he added.
Since 2014, AFT Holdings subsidiary Atlantic Natural Foods has successfully managed the Loma Linda and Worthington shelf stable business along with Kaffree Roma™, a coffee alternative, and neat®, a gluten and soy-free nut-based protein meat alternative and the neat line of vegan egg substitutes, integrating the business into a diverse portfolio that includes a tuna fleet in the western Pacific, a tuna vessel support service group, a specialty food processor in Maine and other businesses across the globe.

Maple Hill Creamery Debuts New Grass-fed Dairy Products

A stampede of new flavors is coming out of Maple Hill Creamery’s award-winning 100 percent grass-fed organic dairy milk shed. The new products unveiled at Natural Products Expo East included Maple Whole Milk Kefir, Strawberry Banana and Apple Cinnamon Cream on Top Yogurt and Coffee, Strawberry and Mango Peach Whole Milk Drinkable Yogurt as well as the new Fiore Di Latte Whole Milk Fresh Mozzarella crafted by the artisans at Antonio Mozzarella with Maple Hill Creamery’s 100 percent grass-fed milk. This whole milk fresh mozzarella tastes more complex than most brands, solely due to the unique flavor characteristics of the grass-fed milk.

“Our product development process is a little different than most companies, because we use only the highest-quality organic fruit and real flavor extracts, and don’t add any coloring, artificial flavors, gums, or thickeners. We rely on real ingredients to flavor our products, not ‘natural’ flavors, which we think taste quite artificial, and mask the unique flavor of our 100 percent whole grass-fed milk,” said Pete Meck, Maple Hill Creamery’s Founding Partner and Vice President of Operations and Product Innovation. “Using real food ingredients to subtly flavor our yogurt and kefir products also means that we have more added fruit than most brands do. And, like always, our amount of added cane sure is about half of that for identical flavors of other organic brands.”

The Maple Whole Milk Kefir is packed with belly friendly probiotics, is super creamy, mildly tart and refreshing. This variety is sweetened and flavored using only organic maple syrup and a touch of organic vanilla extract. Maple Hill Creamery also offers Whole Milk Kefir in Plain, Vanilla and Strawberry varieties.

Maple Hill Creamery is expecting its new Strawberry Banana and Apple Cinnamon Cream on Top Yogurt to inspire consumers who haven’t yet tried this artisanal-style yogurt, also available in Plain, Vanilla, Maple, Orange Crème, Wild Blueberry and Lemon, to give the line a try. The Coffee, Strawberry and Mango Peach Whole Milk Drinkable Yogurt offers a 12-ounce meal in a bottle and joins a line that also offers Plain, Vanilla, Maple, Orange Crème, Wild Blueberry and Lemon varieties.

All the new flavors are available nationally beginning in November, 2016. The Maple Hill Creamery milkshed now numbers over 85 small farms, and is looking to transition at least several dozen more farms to certified 100 percent grass-fed in 2016. Maple Hill Creamery products are available nationwide in more than 6,000 retailers, including many specialty and independent retailers.

2016 Organic Leadership Award Honors Organic Mentor

Nebraska farmer David Vetter of Grain Place Foods is often described by his friends as quiet and humble—a typical low key and unassuming Midwesterner. But as a mentor to others in the organic industry, he has been an inspiring and tireless giant.

Selected to receive the Organic Trade Association’s 2016 Organic Leadership Award for Growing the Organic Industry, Vetter has unselfishly mentored and shared information about organic to countless numbers of farmers transitioning to organic production, from Canada to Central America, from Europe to Australia.

“It is our honor to recognize David for his significant contributions to growing the organic industry through his collaborative leadership and action,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). “We have been recognizing organic leaders who inspire and innovate for 20 years, and David definitely deserves to take his seat among these inspirational honorees.”

Vetter grew up working on his family’s farm in central Nebraska. In the 1950s, his father began questioning the ethics and science behind emerging agricultural practices that were part of the Green Revolution, and the family farm began to adopt organic farming methods. Vetter left the farm and went to college to earn a bachelors degree in agronomy and soil science and a masters degree in divinity. He returned to the farm in 1975 and helped achieve organic certification.

“Taking care of the environment and our natural resources is one of my core values, and something I have always strived to do,” says Vetter. “Organic agriculture is an integral part of that mission, and it’s been especially fulfilling to help other farmers adopt organic and see organic agricultural practices become more common.”

Over the years, the farm has grown into Grain Place Foods, employing three generations of Vetters, and helping steward other farms into making the transition to organic. It has been certified organic since 1978. In 1987, the family operation took the next step of processing its own grains into value-added products onsite. Today, it employs almost 25 people, several of whom have worked there for more than 15 years. The farm produces organic heirloom barley, soybeans, popcorn, corn and grass-finished beef in a nine-year rotation.

Today, Grain Place Foods also sources organic grain to supplement what is grown on the Vetter farm because the family business has expanded so much. The company purchases organic grains from 128 organic farm families, including 46 neighboring farms.

Vetter also shares the family’s strong land stewardship ethic through working to develop sound and sustainable farm policy. Grain Place Foods emphasizes fair trade practices in addition to requiring organic when sourcing ingredients that it cannot grow on its farm.

“One of Dave’s greatest strengths is developing and maintaining long-term relationships. He is known for his honesty, information sharing, and the way he honors his commitments. He is a man of deep ethics and faith,” says Kelly Shea of WhiteWave Foods and a member of the Organic Trade Association’s board of directors. “I believe it was the influence of a few men such as Dave Vetter and his father that led to what is now USDA certified organic.”

Vetter was honored at OTA’s 2016 Organic Leadership Awards dinner, along with the farmers of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative who received the Organic Leadership Farmer of the Year Award, and organic hemp entrepreneur Mike Fata of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods who received the Organic Rising Star Award.

Study Finds Family Meals Forgotten

A recent consumer survey of American grocery shoppers, conducted by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Rodale Inc., underscores the infrequency of family meals in the U.S. and the critical need for more. The findings revealed that only 57 percent of parents eat dinner with their children every night.

“We already know the many benefits of family meals,” said Sue Borra, RD, Executive Director of the FMI Foundation. “Just as notebooks and art supplies prepare our children for school, so does the family meal. Academic research shows that kids and teens who eat meals with their family four or more times a week earn better test scores and perform better in school.”

However, 71 percent of parents in the survey say in their “ideal” world they would want to eat with their children every night. Borra added, “With such busy lives, it’s easy to understand how American households struggle to make family meals a reality.”
The good news is that the survey also identified solutions. For parents who did not eat dinner with their children nightly, the top-two recommendations were not surprising: 1) Serve more meals their kids enjoy (47 percent); 2) Ensure that everyone is home at dinner time (42 percent).

Parents also are looking to their grocery stores to provide solutions. The top three requests were: 1) Provide more kid-friendly recipes in store; 2) Display foods together than can be combined for an easy meal; 3) Provide more ready-to-eat foods that kids like.

Food retailers are responding – not only with individual offerings at a local level, but as an industry too. To help American families achieve the goal of one more meal at home each week, the food retailer industry has developed a website, www.NationalFamilyMealsMonth.org. It is filled with tools, tips, and meal-planning ideas to make it easier for families to have one more meal together per week. The website also includes links to numerous partners – primarily food retailers and manufacturers – also committed to helping consumers achieve their increased family meals goal.

Absolutely Gluten-Free Introduces Organic Superseed Crunch

After two years in the making, Absolutely Gluten-Free is introducing Organic Superseed Crunch, a light, sweet and crispy snack packed with a powerhouse of important nutrients.

According to Charles Herzog, Vice President, Absolutely Gluten-Free, “We have developed an innovative and proprietary new manufacturing process to create a uniquely healthy, gourmet snack that tastes so delicious, it’s addictive. More importantly, it provides a powerful nutrition boost from organic, whole superseeds including flax, chia and sesame.

“These nutrition dense superfoods provide a whopping 2000 mg of Omega 3 ALA per serving, gut friendly prebiotic fiber, and powerful antioxidants and lignans from the seeds in a convenient snack. And, these nutrients flex some muscle – they are associated with everything from healthy brain, gut and heart, to supple skin. There’s really nothing else quite like it on the market today.”

Absolutely Gluten-Free Organic Superseed Crunch is available in three varieties: Original, Toasted Coconut, and Cinnamon. Each variety is made with organic seeds: whole sesame, whole golden flax, and whole chia, and provides an excellent source of essential fatty acids and important minerals such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese. It is the sixth new product among the company’s unique Absolutely Gluten-Free line.

“Absolutely Superseed Crunch is perfect for kids and adults as a snack or in recipes, on top of salads, yogurt and ice cream. Kids won’t know they are getting important nutrients, and moms need not worry if they eat the entire bag,” adds Herzog.

Absolutely Gluten-Free Organic Superseed Crunch is packaged in convenient 4.5-ounce re-sealable bags (six to a case) and will retail for $4.99 – $5.99 per bag. It is all-natural, certified gluten-free, OU kosher, non-GMO, vegan, dairy and soy-free, low in sodium and USDA Organic.

The Absolutely Gluten-Free brand product line currently includes: flatbreads, crackers, blondie and brownie crunch, cauliflower crust pizza and crepes, available in stores nationwide. All products in the Absolutely Gluten-Free line are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union (OU).

Whole Grains Are Among Friends in These Baking Mixes

By Lorrie Baumann

The founders of Among Friends are unabashedly advocates for whole grains, as is today’s CEO Darcy Zbinovec, who joined the company in 2014. Among Friends, founded by Suzie Miller and Lizann Anderson, makes a whole line of gluten-free baking mixes based on whole grains. The company started several years ago as a local enterprise, but began expanding nationally in 2013 after the products had built a fan base.

The baking mixes are based on whole grains, but also include low added sugar and no added fillers or high-glycemic starches for a clean-label appeal that draws consumers who are seeking to eat foods made only with ingredients their grandmothers would have recognized. “We continue to see gluten free growing, and as it grows, we see consumers looking for better quality – not just that it’s gluten-free anymore, but that it’s got some positive aspects,” Zbinovec said. “Even people who aren’t looking for gluten free are looking for clean labels, and we’ve got really clean labels.”

High-glycemic starches like tapioca and potato starch as well as fillers like xanthan gum are often added to other gluten-free products to hold them together in place of gluten, which creates the structure in conventional baked goods, said Zbinovec. The result is an end product that doesn’t have the traditional texture associated with traditional home-baked goods. “The typical products that use these ingredients have a very fine crumb with a very smooth texture caused by the starches and the gum,” she said.

Among Friends, by contrast, has found ways to use whole grains and other clean ingredients to produce mixes that turn into baked goods whose texture more closely resembles that of the cookies and muffins that grandma might have turned out. “We’re using whole-grains oats, brown rice, sorghum. These whole ingredients rather than a processed starch give a more natural-tasting texture – more like the kind of texture that homemade products that are not gluten free have,” Zbinovec said. “We get a lot of consumers who write to us and tell us that they passed it off as their own. We love reading this because that’s kind of our intent.”

The Among Friends baking mixes are all certified gluten free, non GMO, and each package is labeled on the front of the package to let consumers know how much whole grain they’re getting per serving. “It’s really about nutrition,” Zbinovec said. “Whole grains contain both probiotics and prebiotics. They’re just better for the body.”

The baking mixes are designed to allow consumers either to bake them exactly according to the package directions or to customize them with add-ins that turn the end product into something that is customized to their taste. Among Friends helps with recipes and ideas on the company’s web site. A box of Shane’s Sweet n Spicy Molasses Ginger Cookie Mix, for instance, can turn into Bananas About Pie, a banana cream pie with a sassy ginger-molasses crust. Cora’s Honey Cornbread Mix might get a pop of heat with the addition of some jalapenos or show up for brunch with some blueberries stirred in. Blueberry Lemon Muffins might start with a box of Francie’s Make it Your Own Cinnamon Sugar Muffin Mix. “There’s a lot of different things you can do with the product. We just had a contest and someone made a bundt cake with the muffin mix, and it was delicious,” Zbinovec said. “People do like to try new things. It depends on how venturesome they are,” she added. “A lot of times what we’ll see is people tweaking the recipe a little bit – adding nuts, maybe a glaze. It gives the consumer a chance to play with it a little bit and make it the flavors that their family likes, whatever it might be.”

Among Friends baking mixes are distributed nationwide. They retail for $4.99 to $5.99.

Sartori Wins Best USA Cheese, Gold Medals at the Global Cheese Awards

Sartori® stood out in an international crowd at the Global Cheese Awards, receiving 11 accolades at the highly regarded annual contest. SarVecchio® Parmesan, Sartori’s most decorated cheese, was crowned Best USA Cheese and Best Non-European Cheese. BellaVitano® Gold and Classic Parmesan were also honored, receiving gold medals in their respective categories. Sartori’s newest release, the south-of-the-border inspired Chipotle BellaVitano, continued its 2016 winning streak with a silver medal.
Each of the award-winning wheels sent to the Global Cheese Awards began with Sartori family farms and the finest Wisconsin milk, which was then handcrafted into first-class cheese by master cheesemakers.
“Since 1939, we’ve relied on talented people and hard work to achieve success,” said Jim Sartori, CEO and Owner of Sartori. “There are no shortcuts when you’re crafting a premium, artisan product and we’re humbled to see the work of our team members and family farms pay off.”
A time-honored tradition since 1861, The Global Cheese Awards are an opportunity for the world’s best cheesemakers to showcase their talents. The 2016 contest included more than 1,000 entries spanning from countries across the globe.

Prize-Winning Pacific Pickle Works Expands Production

By Lorrie Baumann

pacific-pickle-works-brad-in-the-kitchenAway out West where the sun sets over the ocean, Bradley Bennett is a pickle-packing pro. He’s the founder of Pacific Pickle Works, which is making a name for itself as a maker of some of the zippiest garnishes you can plunk into a cocktail.
Last year Pacific Pickle Works’ Jalabeaos won a Good Food Award, and this year, Brussizzle Sprouts won the Specialty Food Association’s sofi Award for the best appetizer and Asparagusto! won a Best of Show award from the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition. “That run of victories was kind of fun!” commented Bennett, Pacific Pickle Works’ Principal Pickle. Those are on top of awards for the company’s Bloody Mary Elixir from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Los Angeles International Spirits Competition and the SIP Awards, an international spirits competition in which consumers are enlisted to judge.

pacific-pickle-worksBennett defines the Pacific Pickle Works product line as a West Coast take on pickles. “So much of the pickle tradition in the U.S. is an old East Coast, New York kind of a thing that came mostly from European immigrants who brought their tradition over,” he said. “We saw that as an opportunity to do something a little different.” The West Coast influence gave the Pacific Pickle Works products their Latin flavors inspired by the cuisine to be found in the local taquerias and Asian-inspired flavor fusions like Fenn Shui, for instance, which is a fennel root pickled in a rice vinegar blend spiced with citrus zest, ginger and Thai chili. The Asian-influenced ingredients make a nice complement to the fennel root, which doesn’t work with a traditional savory treatment, Bennett said. “We’re just sort of paying homage to those kinds of things – using chiles, keeping everything very fresh and crisp,” he added.

Pacific Pickle Works also relies heavily on southern California’s bounty of produce. Bennett buys much of his produce from local organic farmers the day after it’s picked, and then it’s in the jar soon afterwards. The speed of that transition from field to pickle jar produces a product with both extra crispness and fresh taste, he said.

Bennett’s been playing with combinations of local produce and spices for about a decade, making batches of pickles and handing them out as gifts to friends and family before he started selling them to a few local Santa Barbara retailers in 2011. The pickle packing continued to be a small side project for the next few years, but then more retailers started spotting his pickles on their competitors’ shelves and began coming to him. By late 2012, Bennett realized he had a full-time business on his hands and started looking for ways to increase his production with the construction of a new facility to take the place of the shared space in which he’d been working, trading his pickles for the use of a kitchen. He found an old warehouse and built a kitchen into it, leaving the rest of the space as storage for his pallets of jars and the product that’s waiting to be shipped. The new facility opened in September, 2015, and the increased capacity has meant that Bennett was able to team up with a distributor and expand the distribution of his products outside southern California. “We make everything here, by hand. No outsourcing, no copacking of anything,” Bennett said. “It has really changed things for us – allowing us to scale our business to these new demands.”

Retail prices for Pacific Pickle Works products range from $8.99 to $10.99 depending on variety. For more information, visit www.pacificpickleworks.com.

CHEVOO: Convenience and Flavor in a Cube

By Lorrie Baumann

Cheese has always been a very convenient, very versatile food, but CHEVOO is upping the convenience factor with a product that offers both trendy flavors and enough versatility to make it an attractive option through the entire day.

chevoo-sea-salt-rosemary-ingredientsCHEVOO is cubed fresh goat cheese marinated in an infused olive oil and packed in a 7.1-ounce glass jar. Service as a snack can be as easy as dipping into the jar and spearing out a cube of the cheese, but CHEVOO is also useful as a convenient ingredient to toss over a salad or into an omelet pan. “When I was importing and distributing artisan cheese in Australia, 50 percent of our customers were chefs. They’d buy a lot of different cheeses for their menus, but they would typically not use any one cheese on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. Marinated cheeses, because they’re flavorful, crumble, spread and melt well, could be stirred through a dish or crumbled on top of a dish, so chefs were using them throughout the day on all three menus. Foodies saw that trend and followed suit,” said Gerard Tuck, who founded CHEVOO together with his wife Susan.

The Tucks were living in Australia, with Gerard working with an importer and distributor of artisan cheese, when they decided that they’d like to strike out for themselves in the United States. “We just decided to pack our bags and move to California and start the process of seeing whether it was something we could do,” Gerard said. “Having worked for the largest importer and distributor of artisan cheese in Australia, with marinated cheeses being our biggest category, it was a telling sign that this category had potential in the U.S.”

Gerard spent the first year in the U.S. attending Stanford’s graduate business school, living on campus with his wife and three children. “As an international person wanting to move to the U.S. and start a business, it’s a bit tricky to get a visa,” Gerard said. “Going to school was a shortcut to getting the visa; you get a 12-month honeymoon after graduating to get established.”

After 15 months developing the recipes for CHEVOO, which is now offered in three varieties: Aleppo-Urfa Chili & Lemon, California Dill Pollen & Garlic and Smoked Sea Salt & Rosemary, the product was launched onto grocery store shelves in September 2015.

CHEVOO is made from goat curd sourced from local goat dairies in northern California. Then, a flavoring is blended through the goat curd. Olive oil is infused with a botanical that’s crushed and steeped into the olive oil over four to eight weeks. “It’s a very slow and natural process to get the flavor into the olive oil,” Gerard said. “Our most popular blend has smoked sea salt and cracked pepper blended through the goat curd. We then pair that with a rosemary-infused olive oil. It works nicely in that you get one flavor that pops out from the goat curd and one that pops out from the oil.”

The product, selling for $9.99 for the 7.1-ounce jar, has been in stores up and down the West Coast for about 12 months now, and it’s been enough of a hit that the Tucks are moving their operation out of a shared space in southern Oregon and into a new facility in Healdsburg, California, that’s currently under construction. “We’re absolutely planning to stay in the U.S. We love it here. It has a mix of cultural elements that are very familiar to us, and some that are quite different, quite exciting,” Gerard said. “The depth to which the U.S. culture embraces entrepreneurship and innovation is unique and really attractive.”

For more information, visit www.chevoo.com.

BJ’s Wholesale Club Surpasses 50 Million Pounds of Food Donated in Local Communities

BJ’s Wholesale Club has donated more than 50 million pounds of food through its BJ’s Feeding Communities Program®. BJ’s has contributed items to 45 food banks, including fresh produce, frozen meats and fish, baked goods and dairy items.

In partnership with Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, BJ’s clubs have donated unsold fresh foods to network member food banks since 2011.

To celebrate the 50 million pound milestone, BJ’s is donating $50,000 to local food banks, with 10 donations of $5,000 each made to local Feeding America member food banks. These funds will be used to support the food bank’s holiday meal programs.

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