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Julia Hawes/MEDILL

Maddy's Organic Meals, unlike some baby foods, are 100 percent organic and stored in the freezer. Owner and head chef Dori Boneck experiments with both basic and less traditional ingredients, such as apple and coriander. 


Move over Gerber: Chicago mom whips up organic food for babies

by Julia Hawes
Jan 15, 2009


ORGANIC_maddy

Courtesy of Dori Boneck

The Chicago-based Maddy's Organic Meals is named for Maddy, Dori Boneck's 3-year-old daughter. Boneck started making organic baby food when she was pregnant with Maddy.

When Dori Boneck was 20 weeks pregnant with her daughter, Madeleine, she learned her daughter had a kidney disorder. Boneck immediately started wondering how she could improve her daughter’s health.

For Boneck, her pregnancy led to two births: that of her daughter and of her start-up, Maddy’s Organic Meals, an all-organic baby food company run by Boneck and her husband, Carson.

“Having a kid brings things into focus—things that weren’t that important when it was just you,” Boneck, 34, said.

Maddy’s Organic Meals joined the growing organic baby food industry, from the national staple Gerber Organic to Earth’s Best. Boneck’s company is of the personal, local variety, as the owner also devises new recipes and oversees the cooking process.

The company and Maddy are now two and three years old, respectively—and thriving. Maddy’s Organic Meals was the first U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved organic baby food company in the Midwest, and the only at the time of its inception. Maddy’s is also certified by the Midwest Organic Services Association, which regularly inspects the company’s kitchen, run by Boneck and her three-person staff.

“A lot of the foods that babies consume are the highest in pesticide content, like apples and peaches,” said Boneck, who was an elementary school teacher in Chicago Public Schools before starting her company. “They grow so rapidly and eat a large amount of food in relation to their size, that those pesticides can stay in their system and have been linked to behavioral problems, affecting development of internal organs.”

In her quest to create the perfect baby food, Boneck visited local farmers markets and started whipping up concoctions for her friends. After trying out the basics—peas, apples, peaches—Boneck began experimenting with less traditional kid fare by using ingredients such as coriander and turmeric. Maddy is always the first taste-tester, and Boneck personally visits her partner farms in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan to pick out ingredients for Scrumptious Succotash, Captivating Carrots and Perfect Pears, among a dozen flavors.

Boneck’s approach sets her apart from more traditional brands. Some types of baby food found have been vacuum-sealed to preserve freshness, while others are shelf stable, meaning that an otherwise refrigerated item has been altered so it can be stored at room temperature.

“It scared me that shelf stable food can be good for three years,” Boneck said. “How can that be?”

Boneck’s meals are sold in the frozen food sections of small, independent grocery stores. According to Boneck, the cooking and packaging process is simple—peel, cook, process, freeze. One finds familiar, pronounceable ingredients on the labels: organic olive oil, organic vegetable broth and purified water.

“I think I was more frivolous [with food] before,” Boneck said. “Kids see what you’re eating. You need to walk the talk.”

The baby food itself is not Boneck's only concern. The danger of Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is a “hot topic” for Boneck. The compound can be found in certain types of food containers, from soup cans to jars of baby formula. In unsafe quantities, BPA can lead to obesity and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Boneck prides herself on storing her meals in 4-ounce, BPA-free, recyclable containers.

The increased popularity in organic baby food may rely mostly on ideological and environmental benefits, by supporting local farmers or paying close attention to organic and natural ingredients, as Boneck does.

Yet, according to researchers at Children’s Memorial Hospital Research Center in Chicago, the central issues for baby food are pesticide reduction and land use, versus actual nutritional content, which can vary from brand to brand. Basic preliminary studies have found that pesticide residue is higher in non-organic vegetables and fruit, but not always in amounts that will significantly impact ones health.

Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, a member of the Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, said that he is often asked about the nutritional benefits of organic food, particularly among children. However, science behind the movement has not yet necessitated an official study.

“I always have the same answer,” said Bhatia, who also serves as a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga. “Do the organic thing if you think it’s good for you and you can afford it.”

Bhatia recognized that many parents believe in the organic food movement and feel better about their family’s health if they are eating locally. Knowing that your food and ingredients are grown organically can often have a placebo effect on one’s health, according to Bhatia.

“There’s no harm in that,” he said. “It’s not healthier necessarily, but the public wants it.”

Buying organic is not only a lifestyle choice, but an economic one as well, particularly during a recession. According to the market research firm NPD Group, organic food sales fell four percent in 2008.

A container of Maddy’s Organic Meals costs $2.50, while some generic brands of baby food, organic or not, cost under a dollar. Boneck makes daily cold calls to grocery stores throughout the U.S.—the company also ships in and outside of Illinois—and has noticed that with the economy, certain stores have not been able to take on a new product.

Still, there may be something to knowing who is cleaning, cooking and preparing what you eat. Anyone can prepare their own baby food at home, but few have the time or wherewithal to seek out local, organic foods. Boneck said that feedback for the company for the most part been very positive.

“Our food plays into the environment and supporting farmers who perform organic farming methods,” Boneck said. “It’s the water you play in, the air you breathe in. You can vote with your money.”