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Veg Head Battles Junk Food With Customized Snack Packs

By Patty Wetli | September 5, 2013 9:53am

NORTH CENTER — What if the corner convenience store was bulging with apple slices and carrot sticks instead of chips and soda?

That's the premise behind Veg Head, a market so newly opened in North Center that employees were still stocking the shelves during a recent visit.

"I wanted people to change the way they think about produce," owner Lynn Kardasz, 46, said of the concept behind the store, located at 4064 N. Lincoln Ave. in the old UPS Store space.

The idea is to make fruits and vegetables as easy to grab and go and eat on the run as junk food.

Customers in need of a caloric pick-me-up may pop into Veg Head without having to navigate a cavernous supermarket, choose a cucumber or orange, let's say, and the Veg Head staff will even slice it or peel it to create a customized snack pack. They'll wash the fruits and veggies, too, before sending the shopper on her way.

Salads are made to order and come with a hunk of Red Hen bread "to mop up the dressing," Kardasz said.

Though not necessarily organic, the produce is all locally grown, obtained from farms in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.

"We're the alternative to Jewel or Dominick's," said Kardasz, who promised "prices lower than Whole Foods."

A former urban planner whose projects included the Cottage Grove Restoration Initiative, Kardasz grew weary of the work's political nature and opted to conduct her own social experiment at Veg Head.

Employees were all hired through Inspiration Corporation, which serves homeless and low-income individuals. Leftover produce has been earmarked for Lakeview Pantry.

"I get to affect change on a smaller scale, but here it's really positive and happy," said Kardasz.

Homeless herself as a teenager following her parents divorce — "My mom had a hard time, five kids was just too much" — Kardasz recalled coveting fresh produce during her time on the streets.

"I told myself, 'When I make it, I'm going to have grapes in the house,'" she said. Veg Head's produce cases are "like you seeing the inside of my refrigerator."

Healthy food became even more important to Kardasz after she was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1992. At the time, she was working for United Airlines as a member of an engine change crew, having earned her stripes as a jet mechanic for the Navy, which she joined at 18.

She broke 23 bones, crushed her lung and eventually endured 11 surgeries, she said.

"I used food to train for the next surgery," she said.

If the operation involved bones, she loaded up on leafy greens. To cope with the after-effects of anesthesia, which she said "puts the colon to sleep for two weeks," she made sure to have plenty of yogurt on hand.

"Your body's in shock," she said. "It's very important you eat right."

Told that by age 30 she wouldn't be able to walk without assistance, Kardasz credits her eating habits — nothing out of a can or a box — with helping her to defy the odds.

"It's paid off, because I'm not in a wheelchair," she said.

As part of Veg Head's grand opening celebration, Kardasz has teamed with Lincoln Quality Meat Market to offer a 10 percent discount on purchases at either store, with coupon, from Sept. 12 through Sept. 19.

She'll be distributing fliers with the offer, which can also be found on the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce's Facebook page.