Oh, Who Are the People in Our {American} Neighborhood?

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood…

The people that you meet each day?

"Who are the People in Your Neighborhood," by Jeff Moss


Yesterday, in a nod to good health / panic over swimsuit season, I tossed together a light, fresh salad for lunch: butter lettuce (lots), tarragon sprigs (lots), an ounce of crumbled goat cheese, a tablespoon of balsamic vinaigrette. Yum. With my laptop open in front of my plate, I munched and researched each ingredient's origination, grateful that in this country--at least for now--we have mandated Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Like a kid on a scavenger hunt, I found most of what I was looking for in my American neighborhood. Each ingredient represents a microcosm of our country at work; each company producing something American consumers need and want; each company thriving in a free enterprise system--even during an economic downturn. Have a look:

Live Gourmet Butter Lettuce: Hydroponically grown by Hollandia Produce in Carpinteria, California. This is my all time favorite brand of lettuce. Since it's actually still "living" (or so called; it still has roots) it keeps for days in the frig--if you can wait that long to eat it. Hollandia was established in 1970 by Art and Magda Overgaag. The company's now run by their son, Pete. From savorcalifornia.com:

Growing things is certainly in Pete Overgaag’s blood. Both sets of grandparents were in the greenhouse business in Holland, as were his father and mother. In 1968, Art and Maga Overgaag sold their business in Holland and moved to Santa Barbara, California, with their four children, ages 2, 4, 6, and 8. Pete was the 4-year-old.

Art Overgaag got a job as a groundskeeper on a Santa Barbara estate and kept his eye out for a property he could buy. He found one with some old greenhouses on it that had been used to grow cut flowers, so he started with carnations and then added chrysanthemums…

Over time, the South American growers began to dominate the flower market, so the family explored growing produce…Pete researched different products and was intrigued by the potential for growing English cucumbers hydroponically. In the early 1990’s the family made the switch from flowers to produce, starting with cucumbers and later adding butter lettuce, tomatoes-on-the-vine and upland cress, all of which are grown hydroponically.

Which phrase from that company profile pops out for you? For me, it's South American growers began to dominate the flower market, so…And no, I'm not hopping on a protectionist bandwagon here. Quite the opposite. Faced with cheap imported flowers wooing customers away, Dutch-immigrant Art Overgaag and his ingenious son dusted off their greenhouse-farmer shoes and changed course. They came up with another way to use their existing infrastructure to grow a different product. They wooed customers back. Not with flowers, but lettuces.

According to Hollandia's website, in addition to soft, luscious butter lettuce, the company also grows bibb lettuce, red oak leaf, lollo bionda, and lollo rossa, Barbarea verna (also known as Upland Cress) and early yellowrocket. Tomatoes and watercress are also grown.

And talk about environmentally friendly. The hydroponic method used by Hollandia recycles water. The company collects rainwater runoff in retention basins to reduce erosion and protect nearby estuaries. Hollandia claims that its hydroponic greenhouse production of lettuce conserves from 65 to 84 percent of the water that would be used if the lettuce were field-grown, depending on field conditions, time of year, and other factors.

Yes, hydroponically grown butter lettuce costs more. But unlike typical butter lettuce, you'll won't need to peel away layers to get to the tender leaves. Every single leaf is tender. No waste. Delicious.

Montchevre Crumbled Goat Cheese made in Belmont, Wisconsin by Betin, Inc. Arnaud and Sophie Solandt, French immigrants, owners. From Montchevre.com:

Established in 1988, Montchevre uses only fresh, 100% natural goat's milk. We use milk from Amish farmers who are local to the Wisconsin and Iowa areas. We at Montchevre feel obligated to make the best product possible for our customers.

I've mentioned this cheese before, but it merits an encore mention. Try it and you'll see why (and no, these companies aren't paying me to say nice things about them).

Newman's Own Light Balsamic based in Westport, Connecticut. From hoovers.com:

Newman's Own started as a joke among friends -- and the fun hasn't ended, spreading to grocery aisles, refrigerators, pantries, and dining tables. The namesake company of the late Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman is best known for making and marketing salad dressing. However, it makes more than 100 different food products, including lemonade, wine, pasta sauce, marinades, microwave popcorn, salsa, and steak sauce. Manufactured using natural ingredients, Newman's Own foods are sold in the US and abroad at major food retailers and specialty grocers. All after-tax profits (more than $300 million since 1982) are donated to charities, including Habitat for Humanity.

I'm still trying to verify that Newman's Own salad dressings are manufactured in the United States. Haven't heard back from the company rep. Updates to come.* Fingers crossed on this one.

Maristone Farms Certified Organic Tarragon, grown in California's Imperial Valley. My Sicilian grandmother, Nana, would always add chopped fresh tarragon (and crumbled bleu cheese) to the salad she'd make for our Sunday dinners. Ciao, Nana. Miss you.

As luck and "Ya gotta go-to-the-top" Dad would have it--Maristone Farms president, Erick Stonebarger, returned my call. He explained that (like Pete Overgaag) farming's in his blood. He grew up on a farm in northern California's Brentwood; earned a degree in agricultural business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; returned to Brentwood and began Maristone Farms. Maristone's annual revenues are approximately $3 million.

As an agricultural expert, Stonebarger sometimes gets frustrated by consumers' lack of understanding about what they're buying and consuming. There's this odd dynamic today, he explained, where people throw around words like "organic," but may not have a clue where anything they eat actually originates. "There are so many stringent requirements here in California," he said, "and a lack of that in Mexico. People need to understand that."

For this reason, Stonebarger said, labeling is crucial for consumers. "That's why we have COOL--the Country of Origin Labeling. Do you know about that?"

Perfect segue, don't you think?

We discussed COOL and what the WTO has been up to. "I hadn't heard about that," he said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Can you send me the info? I need to get a hold of my congressman. It's a necessity for communities to know where their food comes from."

Shortly after our phone conversation, I discovered that Erick Stonebarger is also a duly elected official: member of the Brentwood City Council. Glad to hear that. Hope Councilman Stonebarger can navigate the system and actually do something to protect COOL.


I've been thinking about the lyrics / tune highlighted at the top of this post. My kids used to sing Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood all the time when they were little and watched Sesame Street. The song was created by composer, lyricist, playwright and television writer Jeff Moss. In 2007 Princeton University ranked Mr. Moss one of its 26 most influential alumni, citing the positive influence his songs and characters on the Sesame Street had on its audience. Mr. Moss won 14 Emmys over the course of his career. He passed away in 1998 at age 56. Thanks, Jeff Moss, for all your contributions to our American neighborhood.

Hope we can keep the United States a place where lettuces and herbs and cheeses and countless other businesses are grown, right here at home. And labeled as such for all consumers in the world to see.

*Update on Newman's Own: Company rep confirms that the dressings are made in the United States for sale here. The company also makes salad dressings in other countries (Australia, U.K., and Canada) for sale in those locations.