By Leah Koenig • The ForwardWhen Naftali Hanau graduated from New York University with an economics degree, he left prepared for a career in banking or investing. But the Rochester, N.Y., native chose a different path: one that likely includes more feathers and trucks than those of his fellow alumni.
This July, Hanau’s company, Grow and Behold Foods, will launch a line of kosher, pasture-raised chicken to be sold in New York and New Jersey; beef is slated to be available shortly thereafter. Customers can purchase fresh whole chickens and parts through the company’s website, and either pick them up at pre-determined buying club locations or schedule a home delivery in select areas.
The chickens, which are produced for the company under Orthodox Union certification, are raised on family farms and eat a diet of grasses, bugs and small amounts of genetically modified organism-free feed. As a result, their meat is juicy and flavorful. “When my savta [grandmother] Sara tried pastured chicken, she said: ‘It tastes like spring chicken. I haven’t had this since I was a child in Poland,’” Hanau said. Fittingly, the company’s chicken line is named Sara’s Spring Chicken.
Grow and Behold is an outgrowth of the movement of American Jews who view Jewish tradition as a wellspring of food-related values. Led by such organizations as Hazon and the Jewish Farm School, and initiatives like the Magen Tzedek ethical certification, the movement has motivated a committed core of people who seek food that is both traditionally kosher and sustainingly produced.
In 2008, the widely publicized immigration raid of the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant (whose executive, Sholom Rubashkin, was recently sentenced to 27 years in federal prison) launched the conversation around Jewish food ethics into the mainstream. The incident also brought Agriprocessors’ production to a halt, leaving an unexpected gap in the market. “Agriprocessors had been supplying a significant percentage [an estimated 50% to 70%] of kosher meat in America,” Hanau said. “Their absence allowed for a proliferation of smaller brands.”
Among these brands is a handful of companies and buying clubs — like KOL Foods in Washington, D.C.; New York’s Mitzvah Meat and Red Heifer Farm; LoKo Meat in Boston (which enlists Hanau as the shochet, or ritual slaughterer), and now Grow and Behold — offering a sustainable alternative to industrial kosher meat. Together they represent only a fraction of the overall industry, but they point to a shifting consumer landscape.
“Just a few years ago, people thought this type of venture was insane,” LoKo co-founder Marion Menzin said. “Now they are tuning in.”
The shift is equally apparent on the national scale. “There has been particular growth within the industry for niche markets like organic and natural beef,” said Rabbi Seth Mandel, a rabbinic coordinator at the OU and an adviser to Hanau. “Many consumers will still buy meat based on price alone, but around the country you can see a change.” As he was growing up in an Orthodox household with the “butcher just around the corner,” eating kosher meat was a given for Hanau. It was not until he learned about factory farms, feedlots, antibiotic use and other practices common to the conventional meat industry that he began to re-examine his eating habits.
“At first I was outraged, and thought, ‘How could this be kosher?” he said. “Then I realized it was because kashrut dictates how an animal is killed and processed, not how it is raised. But I still did not want to eat it.” An alumnus of the Adamah Jewish farming fellowship and a graduate of professional horticulture school, Hanau had spent several years working on farms. He and his wife, Anna (a fellow alumna and former Adamah staff member), talked about starting an organic farm, but realized they could potentially make a bigger impact with meat. “Farmers’ markets and CSAs [community supported agriculture] are growing steadily, but if you keep kosher and want to eat good meat, there is a real lack of options,” Anna Hanau said.
Two years ago, Naftali Hanau began training as a shochet under the guidance of Rabbi Yehuda Benchemhoun of Brooklyn. Although he is now certified, he will not personally [shecht for Grow and Behold. Still, his knowledge of shechita – ritual slaughter] can only strengthen communications with his staff. Similarly, Hanau’s experience raising animals on small farms informs his business practices. “[Shechita impacts] only the last few minutes of an animal’s life,” he said. So while ensuring a humane slaughter is important, Hanau believes that the rest of the process — how the animal is raised, fed and transported — may have a greater proportional impact on its quality of life.
Like all new business ventures, especially ones that exist at the intersection of two niche markets, the future of ethical kosher meat is uncertain. But the efforts that Hanau has taken to personally master every part of the production process is what arguably sets apart Grow and Behold from similar initiatives. “I love to feed people, and see potential good to do in what I feel is a broken system,” he said. “Compared to the big companies I’m still a novice, but I am learning this business from the ground up.”
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for The Forward on food and culinary trends.