Grilling the Sustainable Way

By Hannah Lee

At the recent Greenfest sustainability fair, next to the Headhouse Square farmers’ market, I learned about a nifty new environmental product, the EcoGrill, made from old trees. It burns down completely to an environmentally safe ash, ready for fertilizing your garden. This product uses an ancient method of recycling dead trees that reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Each EcoGrill looks slightly different, as they’re four-inch-high  rings cut from fallen black alder wood trees grown in the Baltics. (The center diameter is uniform, even if the outer perimeter varies.) The center is filled with alder charcoal–  not coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust, or petroleum products. Their use avoids two potentially carcinogenic compounds: PHAs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines). The alder wood charcoal and casing have been certified by the Rainforest Alliance Smartwood Program as sustainably harvested.

No lighter fluid is needed– you ignite the 100% green resin wick with a match instead– so it’s great for hikers too. Then place a fire-safe grate directly on top of the EcoGrill. The air circulation holes ensure the EcoGrill ignites evenly and burns completely. The 10″ center diameter is large enough for use with a kettle or frying pan. In about 20 minutes, the grill is ready for cooking. It’s capable of sustained cooking for up to 2.5-to-4 hours of grilling, or about four chickens.

The owners, Egils K. Stemme and Yana Budkevics, are both first-generation Americans of Latvian decent. Yana’s husband, Janis Petersons, discovered the EcoGrill while visiting Latvia, where they’re manufactured. The sole U.S. distributor of the EcoGrill, their office is located in Southampton, PA. 215-364-5532.

The company’s reforestation program has planted 75,600 new saplings so far. Enough said, I was convinced and bought two EcoGrills that day, and I look forward to testing them for myself when I have a chance. In the meantime, do tell me how you like this product!

Food Chat: Vgë Café

By Hannah Lee

Vegetarians, vegans, and diners on a budget can cheer for the opening of Vgë (pronounced vee-gee) Café in Bryn Mawr in late April.  People like me who like stories of second-chances can hope for the best for owner Fernando Peralta, a Brazilian who’d spent 17 years in finance when he decided to switch directions.  He went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh and, although he has been a vegetarian for seven years, he studied, prepared, and tasted the meat according to the curriculum.  Later, he did an externship in Akron, OH, at a Mediterranean-Italian vegetarian restaurant owned by Chrissie Hynde from the band The Pretenders.

Why did he choose this location?  Peralta said the college-aged population and health-conscious residents in the area seemed like a great fit for his concept.  He said he’d traveled through most of the Northeast to do research and find a suitable spot for his restaurant.  “This area seemed like a phenomenal location,” Peralta said. “In the beginning, I was envisioning more sophisticated fine dining, but in this economy people can’t afford it.”

Peralta said that he and his friends have been frustrated by the shortage of affordable, fresh, and healthy choices for a casual meal.  Being vegetarians didn’t make it any easier.  “While some chains are making a true effort to bring healthier choices to their menus, the vast majority of quick-service options are based on empty carbohydrates (refined grains), bad fats, canned vegetables, and frozen or fried, highly processed foods,” said Peralta.  “Not to mention the excess sodium and high-fructose corn syrup, found in virtually every processed food in this industry.”

So, the new café offers whole grains instead of refined ones; baked foods instead of deep fried; natural sweeteners like applesauce or agave instead of refined sugars; dark leafy greens (richer in anti-oxidants than pale lettuces such as iceberg), and no canned vegetables.  The menu is animal-free and dairy-free, so the food has zero cholesterol.  They also eschew the use of saturated and hydrogenated fats.  Every item on the menu has less than 500 calories.

Peralta is developing a relationship with the local farmers to reduce his carbon footprint.  Items which are not available locally year-round, sometimes he buys frozen.  He said, “there are many studies indicating that quick-freezing vegetables will retain more nutrients and vitamins than transporting them at room temperature, when vitamins are more susceptible to oxidizing.”  Peralta cooks the food on location, from scratch, from fresh ingredients, so he can control what goes into every item he sells.

Peralta has chosen for his café energy-efficient lighting and appliances, recyclable and compostable cups, packaging, bags and utensils. He is in the process getting the “green” certification from the Green Restaurant Association.

Vgë Café, located at 845 Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, is open Mondays- Thursdays from 11:30 am to 8:30 pm and Fridays-Saturdays from 11:30 am to 9:30 pm.  Catering available.

How Do We Measure Sustainability in our Food?

By Hannah Lee


While attending the Hazon Food Conference at the University of California, Davis campus last month, I had the pleasure of leading a table learning and discussion at the Community-Wide Beit Midrash (house of study) program on Saturday morning. Sitting at separate tables in the large room, I was one of two people who lead sessions on non-Jewish rather than Jewish texts. The noise level was high but the energy level was fierce. My role was as facilitator, not lecturer, and I found it timely to present a topic inspired by a post in, which referenced a TED presentation by Frederick Kaufman called “The Measure of All Things.”

In the third video in the TEDx Manhattan series, Kaufman says that his purpose is to speak about the “retail face of sustainable food, the marketing of sustainability, and the great ‘green wash’ heading our way.” He introduces the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, an initiative based in Arizona and California. This Index focuses not on commodity crops but on lettuce, grapes, almonds, and tomatoes. It’s made up of farmers, food processors, large environmental groups and academics who are attempting to find consensus for a “measurement of a unit of sustainability” for conventional farming. This is self-regulation, aka “market capture” amongst economists. Their goal? A sustainability label.

Kaufman followed the tomato from the field to a jar of Ragu sauce at Walmart. He interviewed a tomato farmer, Frank Mueller, who claimed that the most important metric is how well the farm doing is economically. The Index learned from an earlier project, which was on peas, to use a minimum of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Kaufman realized that they’re not measuring sustainability; they’re measuring money. “Our generation fell in love with the meta, virtual, hyper, the derivative product” instead of the actual food. So, instead of following the tomato, he decided to follow the Index.

Kaufman next headed for the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business, and spoke with Dr. Jon Johnson, the Executive Director, who is following 350 distinct sustainability indices. They cannot agree on which unit of measurement to use as a gold standard! So far, they’ve agreed that the nature of retail interface is a “sustainability speedometer.” (Cue the laugh track.) Kaufman’s conclusion: If we can do so, “this is the most incredible, intellectual, social, environmental and scientific achievement in our generation and the next and we cannot sell it short.”

This was ideal as a topic at the Food Conference Beit Midrash, because we were able to discuss all we wanted and without claiming to know the truth. My study participants argued vehemently about the need (or not) for a government standard for sustainability, a transparency and reversibility of the process, and the spiritual and economic nature of sustainability.

Hannah Lee’s shul is local, sustainable, and kosher (but not organic).





How Green is Your Campus?

I returned home from a sojourn in California, engaged with sustainability issues, to receive the new issue of Sierra, the bimonthly publication of the Sierra Club.  The article that caught my eye was “Dig In,” its annual ranking of the environmental standing of  U.S. universities.  This year, they reached beyond the classrooms to assess “what lessons are learned when the classroom walls fall away.”



The top of the class this year is

  1. The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. Its score on the Sierra survey was 81.2,

Where every building completed since 2006 has earned a Gold accreditation from the  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system.  All of its appliances are Energy-Star rated and the hydro-powered campus runs three farms, an extensive recycling program, and the “conservation-research hotbed Pack Forest.

The other top schools are, in order:

  1. Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (score, 81.1);
  2. University of California, San Diego (score, 80.6);
  3. Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina (score, 76.8);
  4. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (score, 76.6);
  5. University of California, Irvine (score, 74.8);
  6. University of California, Santa Cruz (score, 74.3);
  7. University of California, Davis (score, 73.2);
  8. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (score, 72);
  9. Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont (score, 71.8).

My alma mater, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, came in at number 33 (score, 64.1).
Accompanying articles focused on:

Also described are the non-conformist programs that are “miles from the mainstream” at:

  • Maharishi University of Management (built by the “giggling guru” in Fairfield, Iowa in which the curriculum balances “modern clean technology and 5.000-year-old Vedic philosophy based on Sanskrit texts”);
  • Deep Springs College, close by Yosemite, California (where students have mandatory farm labor requirements and the hydroelectric generator provides 80% of the school’s energy);
  • Gaia University with no real campus (“students earn degrees by documenting a project that involves any envy-inducing combination of world travel and social activism”); and
  • Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado (a curriculum grounded in Buddhism and which promotes compassion, including with the environmental movement).

Parents with younger children may be interested in the article on The Green School in Bali, Indonesia, a K-12 school that incorporates green philosophy from its open-air classrooms (like an inverted sukkah, with roofs but no walls) to its electives that include Global Perspectives, Environmental Management, and 21st Century Science.  I first heard of The Green School when my friend told me her daughter’s family was taking off to Bali for several months this past spring and I avidly followed their adventures on their blog (now taken down, since they’ve returned home).  This is a school where the children (and parents!) enthusiastically welcome the assignments, from a themed unit on water for the fifth-graders (as it relates to math, literature, and science), an aquaculture farm to raise tilapia; and sixth-graders calculate the school’s annual carbon footprint, “then plant enough bamboo to offset it.”  The Green School has yet to graduate its first class (due in 2013), but if one can afford the $10,000 tuition, it’s an adventure worth blogging about.

Finally, the issue included profiles of the staffers deemed most committed to sustainability as a social movement:

  • Howard Davis of the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Megan Zanella-Litke of the University of Richmond (Virginia);
  • Sid England of the University of California, Davis; and
  • Jeremy Friedman of New York University.  As Manager of Sustainability Initiatives for a student body of 40,000 (more than four times the number of people who live in my hometown),

Friedman views his mandate thus:
“The values that underlie my work are the same values that underlie my whole life.  It’s a holistic worldview, and for me the challenge of transforming our world is a very personal and political project.  I see my job as creating the capacity for real change and then allowing countless individuals who care to lend their sweat and knowledge to the enormous task of transforming the world around us.  We need to imbed sustainability across all levels of society more quickly than any social movement in history has ever done before.  It’s a time when some of the most important efforts aren’t the most glamorous ones.”

Among the reasons I went to California was to attend the Hazon Food Conference, held for the first time at the University of California, Davis campus.  What a thrill it was for me to celebrate Shabbat with 300 other people who were passionate about a sustainable future.  The marvel was how many young folks were in attendance and how many had stories of their own works-in-progress.  I feel so positive that my daughters’ generation would — no, will — undertake the task of managing our resources to ensure a renewable future.