Bedford Avenue Meat Shop is Lynchburg, Virginia’s first green butcher shop, and in fact the only shop of its kind in our area. This recent and welcome addition to the community was opened by Stella Freeo and Breeland Sandoff with a mission of “providing food the way nature intended.”
The quaint shop, with a convenient central location just one block off Rivermont Avenue near downtown Lynchburg, is providing quality all natural, certified humanely raised, and wherever possible, organic and locally grown meats, produce, cheeses, and other specialty cooking items, as well as prepared foods by their own gourmet chef, Justin Mays. Freeo’s promise is to bring food which is “clean and safe” to her customer’s table.
Freeo grew up going to her family’s butcher shop, Klemm’s in Indianapolis, every Saturday where she always looked forward to the fresh homemade hotdog Mr. Klemm would offer her. She later left Indianapolis to live and travel all over the world before returning to Evington, Virginia to fulfill a dream of running her own organic farm. For ten years, she struggled to produce organic vegetables and free-range meat products, trying to keep Hammerstone Mill Farm in enough local customers to survive. She says, “it was hard work, but I loved every minute of it.
Unfortunately, the farm may have been ahead of its time. After returning to school to continue and complete her education, she is now striving to educate others and herself about supermarket foods, the issues surrounding the food industry, and the problems with the recent standardization of “organics.” Stella feels people in Lynchburg are now ready to really know their food. She feels our community is ready for a “monumental change” in the way they shop, particularly with regards to the purchase of meats.
Initially, Freeo and Sandhoff hoped to provide all certified organic meats to their customers. But, Freeo found researching organic distributors and meat producers an eye opening experience, offering many new insights into a vast array of problems surrounding our food industry. In particular, with the rise in popularity of all things stamped organic, Freeo found companies like Sysco, the global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products, claiming numerous “USDA certified organic” meat farmers among their food providers.
But, Freeo knows first hand the high cost and difficulty of raising and producing truly organic products, particularly meats, where not only must the animals be free of chemicals, but some 75% of their feed must also be organic. In addition, Freeo knows many slaughter houses are reluctant to process organic products because they are required to shut down the plant and clean it entirely before the organic animals can be slaughtered. All of this elevated the cost to the producers, which in turn makes it extremely tempting for those who grow and process these products to cut corners in an effort to save.
For evidence that cutting corners is indeed prevalent, one only need look to recent recalls in the peanut industry. Gross oversights in inspections by USDA on peanut processing plants make a compelling argument against trusting the current USDA inspection processes. The numerous food recalls even prompted President Obama to speak publicly about new initiatives for more employees and better inspection services. It’s not surprising that Freeo decided to take a closer look into the USDA organic certification process. What she found is really quite disturbing.
In order to be a “USDA certified organic” farmer in today’s industry, Freeo says basically one need only sign an affidavit verifying that one is following the organic guidelines set forth by the USDA. After this, Freeo says farmers are basically being taken at their word. “That’s the problem with these organic certification programs. There’s little to no tracking and not enough people to follow through, not to mention the overall cost is huge, easily doubling the cost of the product” which may or may not be what it claims when it hits your table.
With not enough inspectors to go around and an obvious lack of man power to cover all of the farming, processing, packaging, and distribution plants in this county, it is unlikely that all of the providers of said “organic foods” are really producing what they claim, namely a chemical free all natural product. In short, much of what is being called organic may very well be just another marketing scheme to sell the next popularly packaged product to an unsuspecting consumer.
For this and other reasons, Freeo and Sandoff have chosen to go with companies like Meyer Natural Angus and “all natural” Premium Compart Duroc pork products. These companies and others chosen by Bedford Avenue Meat Shop are part of the National Humane Farm Animal Care’s non- profit program which has put together a “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” labeling program.
National Humane Farm Animal Care believes “the quality of meat, poultry, egg and dairy products you eat depend…on the quality of care farm animals receive.” For this reason, they are striving to bring foods to the public which are raised humanely, meaning they are allowed to engage in natural behaviors, given sufficient space, shelter, and humane treatment at all times, kept healthy and disease free on natural, healthy diets and offered access at all times to fresh water.
Most importantly, those farmers certified under the humane label are prohibited from the use of growth hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics. All those certified are also subject to regular and rigorous annual on-site inspections, and even those previously certified will lose the label if they do not meet the annual objectives set forth by the organization and its team of veterinarians and animal scientists.
To further insure the fairness of the process, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service verifies this separate inspection and certification process. In addition, the program is sponsored by well-known organizations like the American Society for the Prevention or Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the National Humane Society (HSUS). Freeo says by choosing the Certified Humane label, “we know exactly what our food is, where it comes from, and though some of it may not be organic, we know at least its clean and safe and free from hormones and antibiotics.” This allows her to feel confident she is offering a better, healthier product to her customers.
But don’t count organics out entirely. Where ever possible and where they are confident they are getting what is promised, Freeo and Sandoff offer organic items and in particular, locally grown items. For instance, they offer locally grown organic whole chickens, as well as Bell and Evens free range whole Concord Chicken Breasts, an industry standard product of Whole Foods. The shop sells organic hydroponic lettuce from a farm in Gretna, a variety of orgainic vegetables from farmers co-ops, sausages made by several farms in Virginia, and a number of specialty items like sauces, olives, and hummus made by The Farm at Red Hill in North Garden, near Charlottesville, Virginia. She also carries goat cheese made on several locally owned Virginia farms.
Speaking of cheese, Bedford Avenue Meat Shop offers quite a variety of fresh cheese from around the world. They claim fifty different cheeses in stock and are adding new flavors all the time. If you don’t see what you like, just ask, and the shop will look into ordering it for you. In addition, they sell a number of gourmet cooking supplies including salts from around the world. Freeo says “there’s a salt for every food” according to Salt Works. She also sells a number of flavored vinegars, locally made honeys, and several dipping quality olive oils from Italy and Spain. Being green minded, there is an olive oil refill program where customers can save $2.00 per bottle by reusing and refilling their previously purchased bottles.
Freeo continues to strive to educate others about the foods they eat and the need for consumers to better know and understand our food industry. She is quick to offer sound advice on finding, buying, cooking, and preparing safe foods, and also offers food information manuals by professionals like Michael Pollen.
As for the cost of shopping at this small local market, Freeo is striving to find products she can offer at an affordable price. Plus, by supporting locally owned farms and businesses, she helps keep the money in our local economy rather than allowing it to go to another Walton for the purchase another valuable art treasure for some private collection half way across the country. In fact, the need to keep prices reasonable was indeed part of what informed the shop’s decision to steer clear of some of the “certified organic” meats where the cost of raising, processing, and packaging them made the product prices so high only the Waltons of the world can really afford them.
Instead, Freeo offers very reasonable prices, and speaking first hand, she offers some of the areas highest quality, tastiest meats. Having now tried the in-house ground beef by Meyers for a cookout, I can say this is some of the best beef I recall eating. Using Freeo’s suggestion, I grilled it without any additional flavoring just to try the natural flavor and I was amazed at the taste. I have also purchased several varieties of the sausages and some of the hummus and cheese spreads and all have been delicious. Freeo reminds customers frequently her meats are free from additives and preservatives, and are therefore best bought fresh and prepared quickly from the shop, rather than being stored for long periods of time.
In addition, the shop’s chef Justin Mays smokes a variety of meats daily. Ribs are the shops new claim to fame. Several friends, not knowing I was researching and writing this article, have mentioned purchasing ribs there and all have said something similar to Terri Miller who claims, “They were some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted.”
So, if you don’t feel like cooking for dinner, stop on by the Bedford Avenue Meat Shop for some smoked ribs, some fresh bread and olive oil, perhaps some cheese and a nice fresh salad, and in five minutes you’ll be dining like royalty on some of the freshest, healthiest, locally grown products around. For more information visit The Bedford Avenue Meat Shop online or call 434-845-MEAT. As always, be present, be local and whenever possible, buy to support your locally owned businesses.
The Bedford Avenue Meat Shop is located at 2302 Bedford Avenue in Lynchburg, Virginia just around the corner from the Macon Book Shop. All pictures were provided by Amanda C. Sandos