Helen Cameron, along with her husband Michael, are the owners of Uncommon Ground, the iconic restaurants that from menu to roof embrace a sustainable approach to serving delicious, local food. Their practices have given them the distinction of being certified by the Green Restaurant Association as the Greenest Restaurant in America twice in previous years’ certification cycles, as well as being the first and perhaps only certified organic roof-top organic farm in America. They recently added Greenstar Brewery to the Clark location, and it is the first certified organic brewery in Illinois and only one of about a dozen breweries in the US that brew only certified organic beer.
“I was a fortunate child,” said Helen. “I had European parents who taught me the old-world, traditional ways of growing and preparing healthy meals. My mother was from Germany where she apprenticed in food service and butchering animals. She was a huge influence on me while I was growing up and the reason why I ended up in the hospitality business.” These old-world forces created a childhood culture for Helen around growing food while fostering a joy of the participation, labor and enjoying the harvest.
Helen believes that this lifestyle formed the basis of her good health today. “In my mind, you are what you eat,” Helen adds. “I don’t feel good about eating or serving food with chemicals, it’s not healthful. Also, the joy I feel when I’m connected to the earth, the source of my food, brings me a lot of happiness.”
Helen has supplied her many nieces and nephews a wide assortment of nutritious food over the years. It’s the same way she treats her child dinners– just look at the menu devoted to kids: mini grass fed burgers, griddled organic Amish chicken tenders, farm fresh scrambled eggs and grilled Wisconsin cheddar cheese sandwiches – all entrees are served with seasonal fruit or vegetables. Her commitment to nurturing kids into a healthy life is written all over the menu where one can find delicious items certified by Healthy Fare for Kids.
“Healthy Fare for Kids gives us another way to bring attention to the healthy food we serve,” says Helen. Healthy Fare for Kids works with chefs to create healthy and delicious meals for kids following a set of nutritional guidelines that include sustainability practices like using local and sustainable ingredients and meats and poultry raised without the use of antibiotics.
Some of Helen’s favorite childhood memories are around gardening. “I remember getting up in the middle of a hot night unable to sleep and sneaking out to the garden to pick a tomato. It would taste delicious and be so refreshing that I’d be able to go back to bed and fall asleep.” And so goes her interest in creating a certified organic roof-top farm at the restaurant’s Devon Street location and a sidewalk farm at the Clark location. “I wanted the same experience with the quality of my backyard tomato available to me in our restaurants.”
Helen’s roof-top farm is unlike anything else in the US because it is the only certified organic roof-top farm anywhere. It uses traditional farming methods but in roof top containers and grows over 100 varieties of vegetables, herbs and greens which all go to the restaurant.
The roof-top farm is another way to get urban kids introduced to farming and produce. “We get a lot of school groups and children touring the farm and the kids love it!” says Helen. “Having kids plant seeds, pull carrots out of the ground, and snap green beans shows them that it’s fun to grow food and that with proper sun and water, it can be raised almost anywhere. Kids love to get their hands in the earth and they will eat more of the produce if they grow it!”
But the farm is just one piece of the whole sustainability pie at Uncommon Ground. “Sustainability is about the entire spectrum of how I run my business, from the roof top farm to paper goods, our waste & water management, to how we brew our beer,” describes Helen. “People think that being green is expensive. It’s really a matter of being efficient.” At Uncommon Ground, solar thermal panels heat the water and provide 10% of the overall energy needs of the restaurants, the LED bulbs last 10 times longer than the old halogen bulbs using much less energy, and the electric hand dryers saved over $1000 each month in paper towels. Other parts of their sustainability practices are low-flow aerators that use half of the water than before, energy star rated equipment, reclaimed wood used in furniture in the restaurant, and many more.
“If you choose to switch to sustainable systems, the return on investment can be substantial and make you feel great.” Uncommonly good advice from the masters of bringing delicious food from roof-top farm to table.
For more information, visit Uncommon Ground’s profile on HealthyFareForKids.com