by Miriam Herst
What do you get when you cross kosher eating with sustainable farming?
The answer is twofold: you can reallocate the hours you usually spend checking your greens for insects while supporting a company that’s earth conscious, intent on giving back to the community, and committed to making kosher greens more easily accessible. Your Local Greens is a
”lettuce manufacturer” in Burlington, North Carolina which uses hydroponic technology to produce plants that are grown in a safe, clean, and
controlled atmosphere. Because the plants are produced in a controlled environment, there is no need for pesticides, resulting in a product quite
literally grown for kosher eaters who are used to spending hours squinting over heads of lettuce checking for insects. This headache is particularly challenging during Pesach, a holiday that requires triple the preparation and a steady stock of lettuce available for every meal and Seder1. It’s also the ideal partnership for America’s leading kashrus organization who is making real headway in their efforts to make kosher greens more accessible.
So, how did a startup hydroponic farm in North Carolina become the pioneer in cleanly grown kosher greens? Like many good stories, it includes a Chabad house, a group of people determined to make change, and a whole lot of hard work. In partnership with “Let My People Eat,” a podcast about kosher nutrition that aims to demystify how to stay healthy while maintaining a kosher lifestyle, we are bringing you the story of Douglas Calaway, the CEO, and co-founder John Battle, of Your Local Greens, and the legacy they are creating that is impacting people from all walks of life.
Calaway is a self-described serial entrepreneur and you only need to talk to him for a minute to hear that his passion for his work is rivaled only by his love for his family and community. After starting several companies over the years, he set his heart on creating Your Local Greens, a
business that would enable his son who was dealing with a bipolar diagnosis to support himself long after Calaway and his wife weren’t around
to care for him.
“We moved to North Carolina about five years ago and I ran into John Battle who is also a serial entrepreneur and has a son with mental health
issues,” Calaway recalls. “As a country, we ignore mental health and we think it’s going to go away and it’s not. So, we said, why don’t we do
something about it.
“All of the original folks [investing in the company] had family members with mental health disabilities in one form or another. John and I put the money together and in January of 2018 raised the initial funds we needed to go into an old warehouse in Burlington, North Carolina. It took us about ten months to build it out. In October of 2018, we started growing.”
Two months later, in December of 2018, Calaway and his staff decided to apply for the Good Agricultural Practices certification from the USDA. A staggering 80% of the farms in the United States can’t pass that test but the USDA gave Your Local Greens a perfect score. Knowing they would be seeing more of these types of indoor facilities, they decided to use Your Local Greens as the benchmark for the rest.
“We have a unique way of growing,” Calaway describes. “We grow in a sanitary environment and as a result, we don’t use pesticides or herbicides so we don’t have to wash our products. The shelf life of our greens is 3-4 weeks.”
Sheldon Hamburger, VP of Business Development and Strategic Advisor of Your Local Greens, belongs to the local Chabad and he asked the rabbi there to come look at the factory to see about certification. “We looked around and realized that OK Kosher was the one to go with,” Calaway notes. “They’re the most recognized by most Jewish folks with respect to kosher certifications, based on the preference that everyone has.
“We had OK Kosher come in and they were awesome to say the least. They’re doing it right. Within two weeks, we had our certification. What they like about us is that we don’t have a business where we change our basic process just to make our product kosher. We do it that way with all of our stuff. We get the things done the way they’re supposed to be – and that’s our business philosophy.”
90% of the company’s investors have a family member who has an intellectual disability and 70% of the company’s workforce are people with intellectual disabilities who are paid a living wage at “Your Local Greens”.
“All of us who have a family member with an intellectual disability worry about what’s going to happen to them when we’re gone because we’re their caregivers in a lot of respects,” Calaway says. “We’re trying to make them independent, so their family members don’t have to worry about them. So, we work this out with the state – the state interviews them and works with them and presents us with a few candidates. It isn’t like anyone does any one thing – everyone works together as a team in various stages of the process. When we’re done here, we’ll probably employ 25-30 of these folks. And we’re going to build quite a few of these so at the end of five or six years we’ll probably have employed over 600 folks who have intellectual disabilities all around the US.
“This is a legacy for me and a lot of the other folks. Two years ago, my son took his life. This means a lot to a lot of us…we’re not alone. I’m asked to talk throughout the state and before I start I ask how many folks in the room have a family member who suffer from mental illness and a third of those present raise their hands. Hopefully, I can prevent at least one other person from taking their life because they found something that was meaningful to them and then their family members don’t have to worry about them.”
Jill Sharfman, the founder and co-host of the “Let My People Eat” podcast and a board certified holistic nutritionist, notes just how important it is for the Jewish community to be including more greens in their diet. A 2016 study supports the theory that caloric intake on Shabbos is a contributing factor to obesity within the American Orthodox Jewish community. Sharfman has some suggestions for how the community can incorporate more greens into their diets.
“Since we can’t eat challah on Pesach, you can use lettuce to make a wrap for your chicken salad instead of matzah,” Sharfman suggests. “You can also add leafy greens to your soups and use spiralized zucchini to make a vegetable spaghetti. Try finishing off the dish with marinara sauce and garlic for some of that classic pasta flavor. You can also try a pesto or spinach artichoke dip instead of one that is mayonnaise-based and serve with a plate of cut up vegetables!”
It’s important to consider a greens-focused diet during Pesach in particular when larger meals are the norm. Adding more greens into your diet can help you feel fuller while allowing you to simultaneously include more nutrients into your meals. Leafy greens, broccoli, and cauliflower are nutrient powerhouses; they are rich in Vitamin C which helps build immunity, high in Magnesium, Calcium, and Vitamin K which help maintain bone health, and help you structure a diet that’s full of fiber. This will lend towards feeling fuller for longer and will help you keep your blood sugar stable. Leafy vegetables are also high in antioxidants which aid in fighting inflammation and disease, in addition to iron to help combat anemia, a common condition among pregnant and lactating women.
Your Local Greens has a current customer demand for about 20x their production capacity. They are in the process of raising the funds to expand their capacity to meet that current and any future demand. Meanwhile, the company is committed to maintaining the highest kashrus standards and creating a product that everyone can benefit from. Their ongoing relationship with OK Kosher is sustained by annual visits by Rabbi Yakov Teichman of the OK, monthly inspections at the facility, as well as the delivery of monthly samples, along with random product checks from produce purchased in stores.
“Rabbi Teichman is a sweetheart,” Calaway says. “He is such an advocate of what we’re doing and vice versa. He realizes that we’re more than just a supplier wanting to get into this industry – we want to help people and he appreciates that.”
“The basic checking procedure that most mainstream organizations are doing is similar, give or take,” Rabbi Teichman explains. “Usually, we take the fruit or vegetable, wash it – typically with some sort of soap – and then we filter the water. We can assume that any insects on the produce will come off in this process and when we filter out that water, we can see whatever dirt or insects are in the product.”
When there’s a kosher certification that says that every product is insect free, the OK needs to continuously monitor the facility to ensure that there are no issues throughout the year. Since the products are grown entirely indoors, there is no “seasonality”; i.e., the conditions are always perfect for growing.
At the same time, there is always potential for unknown variables. Therefore, the OK requires monthly check-ins at the facility and that the facility sends in monthly samples. Additionally, the OK purchases produce from the local market to make sure that everything is as it should be.
“When you deal with a company, it has to be a partnership,” Rabbi Teichman says. “Your Local Greens has been very, very good at working with us and they have worked with us very well in the case of any problems coming up. They are a company that’s very eager to learn. They don’t claim that they know everything and that they know better – that’s been a real pleasure!’”
Jill Sharfman NC, is the co-host of the nutrition podcast “Let My People Eat.” On each episode she helps to demystify confusing talk about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while keeping kosher. She is a board-certified holistic nutritionist living with her family in Los Angeles. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, GooglePlay and at letmypeopleeat.com. Follow her on Instagram @jill_sharfman for more information and on Facebook @ letmypeopleeatpodcast.
1. There is a Halachic debate over whether hydroponic lettuce can be used as chazeres for the Pesach
Seder. See https://www.ok.org/kosherspirit/spring-2010/maror/.