Above: Bitteto (left) and Gaebel representing Natural Contents at a holiday bazaar at Villa Roma. Photo from Natural Contents' Facebook page.
When Danielle Gaebel and Jennifer Bitetto first took the leap into eating healthy in the wake of a painful gall bladder scare, they made forays to Whole Foods in Paramus – a four hour expedition from their Sullivan County home – and set out to scale a steep learning curve. The couple who used to “stop at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell” all in one day were determined to make their changes stick, but there had to be a better (and closer-to-home) way.
With the founding of their online pantry, Natural Contents.com, they began to see what that better way was. And with the opening of the region’s first Community Supported Kitchen, they’ve positioned themselves at the cutting edge of farm to table.
The Watershed Post spoke to Gaebel about their culinary voyage of discovery and the business that’s growing around it.
Watershed Post: So are you cooking today? Is it just a constant nose-to-the-grindstone thing?
DG: Actually we cook on Monday. Pick up is Tuesday. We plan to expand all this in the near future – add more pick-up locations and days, add a shift that will serve the weekenders better.
We launched the website with the pantry concept and it was a good thing, but people started asking “Can’t you just cook for us?” We’d originally intended to just run an online business, but the kitchen concept is really working well – we’re into week nine of the winter test kitchen and so far, so good. People are drawn to the whole natural eating idea, but they’re also busy with work and families.
The community supported kitchen – basically the same idea as community supported agriculture, only you’re buying a share of fully cooked meals instead of ingredients – is still a fairly new model. There’s a pretty big one in California.
WP: Your pantry offerings seem pretty eclectic – you carry everything from New Life Foods bread to Bad Ass Organics juices.
DG: Yeah, a little bit of everything to stock your pantry. Everything we sell is stuff that we use ourselves, and we’ve put a lot of thought into tracking what people want. And our customers have led us to some new discoveries.
Our most important guiding principle is to work with ethical companies who are doing the right things, and to try to make it easy for people to eat right – we try to keep the prices, especially of staples, a little below what you might pay retail.
That said, yes, it’s still a bit more expensive to eat healthy – or it looks that way if you compare item-for-item. But a lot of it is more about re-allocating your food dollars. We used to drop $30 on fast food lunch for the four of us, after all.
We strive to offer accessible, affordable choices. The fact that good food is costlier than junk is part of a systemic problem.
WP: I never knew people ate Chia seeds. I thought those were just for growing Chia pets.
DG; I know, right? Chia seed was an ancient Aztec staple. Besides the health benefits, it fills you up pretty good. I had some in my morning granola today, with almond milk.
WP: You sound, both online and on the phone, like you’re having a lot of fun with this.
DG: It’s been a journey, that’s for sure! We feel so much better. I can’t remember the last time I had to shop at a grocery store.
The power of food is truly amazing, and people are waking up – so many preventable disorders have spiked, and the pharmaceutical industry offers nothing but a BandAid. There are a lot of factors, like what’s in the air, that we can’t control – but we can each control the food we put into our bodies. Nobody really wants to be unhealthy and overweight. People are realizing that where you spend your food dollar is essentially voting for how healthy you want to be and what kind of world you want to live in, and that’s why CSAs and greenmarkets thrive.
We keep busy, that’s for sure, but we do love it – we get to cook for people, learn, educate, talk to all kinds of people. The kitchen concept is working well because it’s very scalable. We want to build a successful business we can pass on to our kids. They’re nine and eleven and they’re on board with the whole thing- they love hummus wraps and healthy soups, they eat what we eat, and I think they make good choices even when we’re not right there.
In terms of human history, supermarkets are a very recent development, and the more people get their minds around that – the local farmer’s market is a great place to start. Even fresh local food that isn’t 100% organic is better for you than processed and packaged. It’s an uphill climb, since the big corporations do so much more marketing than your local farmer could ever dream of.
WP: Do you think people still get put off because they think you have to be puritanical to eat healthy? I get the feeling that you guys aren’t…
DG: No we’re not. We both love to eat well, we came from Italian backgrounds where food was central in family life, and we were typical fast food junkies. Then I had a severe health crisis and we were just absolutely determined to change everything we consume – it was quite the process, learning and changing and adapting.
At a certain point, your eyes are opened to the reality of the food system and what you’re doing to your body and there’s no going back. The website started as an attempt at just sharing that journey. So many health problems have just cleared up, we’ve both lost a bunch of weight – life’s just better.
We don’t deprive ourselves. People think it’s about eating tofu all the time – no. We do tend toward plant based meals, but then when we have a hamburger it’s grass-fed from a really good farm. And your taste buds actually change. I’ve actually found myself longing for kale and collards; such words were not even in my vocabulary prior to this. And if we could do this, anyone can!