Meat-ing the challenge Bay Area buyers club focuses on kosher and conscientious

About a month from now, a truck will swing by Katya Gerwein’s home in West Berkeley and drop off boxes upon boxes of frozen meat, totaling hundreds of pounds.

But not just any meat. It will be certified organic, glatt kosher beef, lamb and poultry trucked in from the East Coast. It will have come from cattle and sheep that spent their lives in green pastures, eating grass. And from hens and turkeys that ranged free, pecking at the bugs and grains they were born to eat.

No antibiotics, no feedlots, minimal carbon footprint. All animals roamed free throughout their lives, then were slaughtered by certified shochets (ritual kosher slaughterers).

Welcome to the 2-year-old Bay Area Kosher Meat Club, which insists on the strictest standards of kashrut, the lowest environmental impact and the most humane treatment of animals — even if all of that costs more than more widely used methods.

Katya Gerwein

Gerwein, 40, is a Berkeley pediatrician and more than just a devoted member of the club: Her home serves as the East Bay drop-off point. There also drop-off points in San Francisco and the South Bay for club members in those areas.

Gerwein said she is willing to pay more “to shape the world in my own little way, to be more the way I wanted it to be.” And pay more she does. Kosher chicken leg quarters from KOL run about $40 for a four-pound case. At Safeway, four pounds of chicken leg quarters would cost about $8, or even half that when they are on sale.

Club members, some 100 in all throughout the Bay Area, place collective orders several times a year (especially before food-laden Jewish holidays) with KOL Foods, a Maryland company that specializes in eco-kosher meats. The company produces 100 percent grass-fed beef and free-range poultry raised on small family farms.

KOL serves similar buying clubs in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. For the Bay Area, club orders are trucked across the country to three local pick-up locations: Gerwein’s home on a quiet residential street in Berkeley, the JCC of San Francisco and a private residence in Saratoga.

There’s no minimum order required, but there’s an incentive to order big (the shipping rate is $40 regardless of the size of the order). A typical order for the Gerwein household consists of 10 to 15 pounds of hamburger, 10 pounds ground lamb and lamp chops, and maybe 50 chicken thighs. Earlier this year she intended to order five lamb shanks for Passover, but accidentally ordered five cases.

Not to worry.

 

George Lake, one of the farmers who supplies grass-fed cattle for KOL Foods. photo/kol foods

“We posted on the Congregation Beth Israel [email] list,” she recalled, referring to the Berkeley Orthodox congregation. “Within two to three hours people had come and bought them.”

 

Josh Kirsch of Emeryville launched the club two years ago because he couldn’t find a local source of kosher, organic grass-fed beef. Utilizing local email listserves to find other interested consumers, he drew interest from all denominations, from Orthodox and Conservative to Jewish Renewal. They all kept kosher, of course, but had expanded their definition of kashrut to include considerations such as the welfare of the animals.

Locavores (people who strive to eat only locally grown and processed foods) might balk at the notion of trucking meat across the country. Kirsch said he had qualms about that, too, but added, “I see [the club] as an incremental step toward doing this locally. If we can demonstrate a market, that’s only going to help.”

“A few of my friends decided to stop keeping kosher and buy from Niman Ranch,” Gerwein said, referring to the Northern California processor and distributor of organic beef and poultry. “It was more important to them to have meat raised in a way that was humane and healthier than to keep kosher. I wanted both.”

That was also true for Roger Studley and his wife, Rabbi Chai Levy, the spiritual leader at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. Studley went so far as to start a smaller scale, West Coast version of KOL Foods a few years ago, but the venture didn’t succeed.

So he joined the club.

“If you’re a conscientious consumer, you say, ‘I don’t want to make my meat cheaper by making animals suffer,’ ” Studley said. “If animals are raised in inhumane conditions, notably in feedlots and not fed their natural food, that’s a reason why [farmers] use a lot of antibiotics. You can get organic but the meat is still generally industrially produced, meaning confinement and grain-fed.”

Like others who buy through the club, Studley orders in bulk, keeping most of the meat in a second freezer. Last fall, he spent $245 on ground beef, brisket, stew meat and chicken (no turkey, since his family celebrated Thanksgiving with friends who served a KOL Foods bird).

Gerwein spent more than $800 on her last order. But for meat club members, money seems to be no object.

“[Other] people pay much less for food,” Gerwein said, “but they are also getting much lower quality. It’s worth it.”

 

For more information about the Bay Area Kosher Meat Club and its East Bay, San Francisco and South Bay pickup spots, visit www.kolfoods.com and look for “active
buying clubs” or call (510) 710-0960. Sept. 13 is the deadline to order for Rosh Hashanah.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.