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The Rawesome controversy and the raw food rabbit hole

Rawesome food collective was raided by authorities and shut down earlier this month.
Rawesome food collective was raided by authorities and shut down earlier this month.
Courtesy of Jennifer Sharpe

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Last week, authorities raided a Venice food co-op called Rawesome and arrested its owner for selling raw, unpasteurized milk without a license. The arrest drew protest from across the political spectrum. A Huffington Post writer called it "a war on food freedom" and a Washington Times columnist deemed it "a sad day for America." Rawesome had been raided last summer as well, but continued to operate afterward. It's now closed, and Jennifer Sharpe is among those missing it. She discovered the food club a few years ago while trying to deal with a nagging health problem.

The first time I went there, I realized I'd passed Rawesome a thousand times and never even noticed it. Venturing inside on a day pass, I felt like I'd entered into the L.A. supermarket's alter-ego. An open-air courtyard lined with mason jars and homemade products you'd never find in the average health food store.

And the people in there, carting around big coolers, were a breed unto themselves. They'd opted out of the government's food safety regulations, and instead put their faith in Rawesome's owner, James Stewart, a health food veteran since the early 70s. That's when he discovered his calling on an errand to pick up some carrots for an organic produce company he'd been working for.

"Long story short, I found out that they were commercial carrots packed in organic bags. I realized the deception, dishonesty, unethical behavior that was going on in my early 20s and I just didn't like it at all, so anytime I had the opportunity to bring honesty, truth, visibility, information – so people knew exactly what it was people were putting into their bodies, that was something I always felt was important," he said.

Now in his early 60s, he said he was still on that mission. For his club, he sought out the most nutrient dense, enzyme rich, unprocessed foods he could possibly find. They sometimes came from sources well off the beaten path.

Fonta Basnett, a Rawesome member, makes a regular pilgrimage from Los Feliz for the Amish milk shipped in every week from Pennsylvania.

"The truth is that raw milk from cows that are pasture raised, munching on grass all year round, is a whole food you can practically live off of. It is easily digested, and it is packed full of enzymes, probiotics and vitamins and nutrients," she said.

And the bacteria so many are afraid of?

"I want bacteria. I love bacteria. And I think that, I don't know, I think we're like 80 percent bacteria, aren't we? So I want to feed my bacteria. My bacteria is hungry. And if I don't feed the bacteria, then my general health is suppressed," she said.

This ran counter to anything I'd ever believed, but I was fascinated by this community's devotion to their health. And being new to my own health food odyssey, I thought maybe I had something to learn from these people. So I decided to join. Gulping as I took my health into my own hands, I signed a membership agreement stating that my food preferably contained microbes "including but not limited to salmonella, E.coli, listeria, gangrene and parasites."

But if all these microbes were in the food there, they didn't appear to be killing anyone. And in some cases, people told me they'd even staved off death sentences with their microbially fortified systems. Like Barbara Ellingsworth. She'd been diagnosed with advanced spinal cancer four years earlier.

"[I had] tumors everywhere in the spine, in the bone marrow. The MRI looked like the aliens had landed. It was a picture that one can never forget. They wanted to do chemo and radiation, but I said, 'What is your success rate?' and my oncologist said, essentially none, maybe 2 percent. So I wished him a fond farewell, and I've been eating these raw foods. I should have been a corpse years ago," she said.

It was one thing to be drinking raw milk. But it turned out that many of these people, including Ellingsworth, were actually eating raw meat. They were followers of James' then-partner, Aajonus Vonderplanitz, the inventor of the primal diet.

The primal diet is a diet heavy on raw fats and meats. Proponents believe eggs or beef eaten raw provide more nutrients. And for the real multivitamin effect is raw organ meats. Volunteer Leslie Bauer showed me where they're kept in the club's walk in freezer.

"Ahh, bison organs," she said. "That would be the very first thing that any traditional culture would go for. It would be the most coveted of any part of the animal, would be all the organs. That's where vitamins A, D and E is stored. In the liver particularly. All traditional cultures knew this."

And if I was thinking of trying it out, another volunteer, Sean Wofford had a recipe to make raw bison liver a little more palatable. In the form of a bison liver smoothie.

"So I take 8 ounces of liver and I blend in 4 ounces of milk and I add about two heaping tablespoons of honey," he said. "It's delicious!"

This was way over my head, but after going there for little a while, the culture of the place started to rub off on me. And one day, when I was buying my usual coconut kefir, someone offered me a sample of raw milk. Something I'd always been terrified of. But when I drank it down, I was astonished. It seemed to activate some sort of cellular milk memory. Like my body had been craving it for years. I started bringing it home by the gallon and just guzzling it.

The more my health improved, the further I fell down the Rawesome rabbit hole. And it was around the time I started experimenting with steak tartar — early last summer — that the club got raided for the first time. A multi-agency SWAT team, including the FDA, L.A. County district attorney's office, and local police ordered the place closed. Had someone gotten sick? After assuring members no one had, Stewart showed them surveillance tape of authorities storming in with guns.

Stewart defiantly kept the club open, as the Rawesome community galvanized around him. A manifesto-like statement appeared on the membership table written by primal diet master Vonderplanitz. Something about the sentence, "All club members completely and heartily reject governmental standards and authority in their membership agreements" gave me pause. Wait a minute. What had I signed myself up for? Was I being brainwashed by some food gurus? Or was it that I'd been brainwashed by the FDA?

Now I was starting to wonder why they hadn't just gotten permits to run the place like a regular grocery store. It turns out that Vonderplanitz had set it up as a private club, so he'd be the one to ask. When I tracked him down, he was in the Thai jungle, hoping to build a health clinic against the wishes of the government.

"If we get the permits, we're accepting the domain of government over our affairs. So they control the permit, they control what you can have, health department-wise. And if you don't agree with that, they'll shut you down for that purpose. So creating this club was a way of keeping the government out of our business," Vonderplanitz said.

In language just short of legalese, he explained it was set up so the members collectively held lease agreements on the animals that produced the products on the shelves. In this paradigm, the members weren't buying the food like you would in a store, because they already owned it. Permits for selling food didn't apply.

"When the health department says, oh we're looking your health in our best interest and they let 60,000 chemicals into the food, they're not looking out for me, they're looking out for Monsanto and Dow," Vonderplanitz said.

Though I was a little intimidated by his intensity, I hoped his strategy for protecting Rawesome would really work. Because as the summer wore on and the media exploded with stories about E. coli and salmonella outbreaks coming from under-regulated factory farms, I became increasingly grateful for my Rawesome safe haven of conscientiously harvested foods.

A year later, my health is better then it's been in a long time. And even though I'm not a current Rawesome member, I do, in the spirit of the place, make a daily smoothie with raw unrefrigerated eggs. From the farmer's market, of course. I call it my morning "rawtte."

Despite the Rawesome raid last week, and the criminal charges leveled against Stewart for "selling" raw milk without a license, if given the choice between a bite of uncooked bison liver from Rawesome and a turkey burger from Cargill I'd choose ... well, maybe a sip of that bison liver smoothie Wofford was talking about.