Taking on the City, the Media and Winter

August 28, 2011

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
Logan Square Kitchen is officially FED UP, takes on Chicago Department of Public Health

I spent part of Thursday afternoon in court. It wasn’t about me, though. I was supporting Zina Murray, who has been a guest on my radio program and who runs the Logan Square Kitchen. It is self-described as a ” private event space that supports a commercial kitchen available to small food businesses. Known as a ‘shared kitchen,’ LSK gives food entrepreneurs access to a commercial kitchen on an hourly basis–long before they could afford [to create a space of their own].  As a greenhouse for little businesses, we give culinary talent a place to develop.”

When they’re not being harassed by the Chicago Department of Public Health, that is.

That might sound like an over-the-top statement. Until you understand that LSK has been inspected 19 times in 2 yearsThe law requires two per year. The latest inspection resulted in a violation notice and a $500 fine. Murray, in the documentation she brought to court, calls the violation “groundless,” and “retaliation for questionting a decision made by Chicago Health Department Supervisor Arleen Lopez.”

If you want to see how your hard-earned tax dollars are spent by Chicago’s Department of Public Health, Murray details the events of the August 2 inspection and subsequent fine–with photos–here. Read it and judge for yourself. She notes that with 30-something health inspectors and some 20,000 restaurants in Chicago, taxpayers are not getting much bang for our buck when the same spotlessly-clean shared kitchen space is inspected 11 times in 9 months.

So I found myself in court because I wanted to see for myself how justice works in the Windy City. Here’s part of the post that Zina wrote following her appearance:

LSK appearance in Administrative Hearings yesterday resulted in a finding of ‘not liable’–  so no fine.  Note the court does not find you ‘innocent’.  There is no right or wrong in administrative hearings, only liable or not liable.  It acts like a court, but when I requested the Judge order CDPH to issue a new, clean inspection report, her response was, “I can’t do that.” Whaaaa?  A court with no remedy?

So the ‘court’ in Administrative Hearings can fine me, find me at fault, or dismiss charges or find me not liable.  But NO remedies are available to me in the Dept. of Administrative Hearings.  I still have an inspection report posted with three groundless violations on it, and every client in a farmer’s market or outdoor festival must submit.  So there’s a meeting/phone call/email every time to explain that, ‘yes I have violations, but they have been corrected.  Yes, I am still open.’  Yada, yada. CPDH, the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s insane, really. LSK hosted the Chicago Recycling Coalition‘s fundraiser last week, and because I’m CRC President, I got to see the LSK space up close and personal. Let me put it this way. I don’t know how many people would literally be willing to eat off the floor there. But I would. It’s that clean. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Zina Murray donated use of the space to CRC because she thought it was a good cause?

So why the fuss over an obviously well-loved and well-managed small business in Logan Square? To get a sense of that, you might want to take a look at an article in the Chicago Reader last October called Bread & Circuses: Will the city’s licensing laws catch up with new food business models in time to save Zina Murray’s Logan Square Kitchen? The advantages of LSK and other shared-use kitchens is also their chief problem. They allow small-food entrepreneurs to take advantage of the fully equipped and licensed spaces on an hourly basis. This is a benefit to caterers, bakers, confectioners, and others who either can’t afford their own kitchen or simply don’t need a full-time workspace.

The City of Chicago had a hard time wrapping its head around the licensing protocol. The small businesses needed licenses to operate, but when they applied for their papers, they were told that there was already a license for that space–namely Logan Square Kitchen. As for LSK, it got inspected every time a new client came into the building. It’s possible that this issue will be resolved when the new Shared Kitchens Ordinance goes into effect next month. Or maybe CDPH will find other, more creative ways to make Murray’s life miserable.

Meanwhile, in its own words, Logan Square Kitchen is FED UP. Murray started a petition to change the culture at the Department of Public Health. She offers five ways to make CDPH more efficient and accountable:

1. Our Local Food Community should be represented on the Chicago Board of Health—currently consisting of doctors and lawyers. Public health will benefit greatly from the perspective of those working to heal our local food system.

2. Food Safety Division of Chicago Dept. of Public Health needs fresh, qualified leadership—a person with a strong moral compass and food business background to serve a changing and vital sector of our economy. Get suggestions from successful food businesses and restaurants.

3. Provide an independent ombudsman to hear complaints and order corrective action.

4. Fire non-performing employees, no matter who they know or how long their tenure. Empower the right people in the right jobs to make changes as they see fit.

5. Engage us, the citizens of Chicago; we’re ready to participate in our government and work with City workers to make our City the envy of major cities worldwide. Let’s go!

Her goal is to get 23,000 signatures–one for each food business in Chicago. I’ve already signed. You go, girl!

Hurricane Irene: Meteorologist Rick DiMaio is on the job

As my radio show begins this morning, Hurrican Irene is pummeling New York City and much of the northeast coast. Such is the lot of meteorologists that the most important work they do is to help mitigate the misery of people in the path of destructive acts of nature.

I’m giving Rick as much time as I can to discuss the damage already wrought by this once-in-a-century event, and to inform us of what’s to come. If you are fascinated by weather as he an I are, you can follow the path of Irene at this website: http://www.stormpulse.com/atlantic.

Is it Fall already? I must have missed the memo

It must be–or at least pretty darned close–because I just received this years final Plant Health Care Report from the Morton Arboretum. This report, along with the Home, Yard & Garden Newsletter from University of Illinois Extension, are two of my favorite ways to keep abreast of what is going on in the plant world during the growing season.

I want to call your attention in particular to the article “An Ounce of Prevention in the Autumn” by Stephanie Adams. She gives some excellent advice about how some minor cleanup of your garden in the coming couple of months can save you needless heartache next spring and summer. You can find the story by clicking here and scrolling down the report.