Courtney’s Cookies creates vegan, gluten-free treats – with a story

By Michelle Dixon

Courtney Kohout, owner of Courtney’s Cookies, has a voice that stands with pride and confidence of who she is and what she has to offer. She knows not every customer who tastes her gluten-free organic cookies will love them, but she believes most people will.

The many days spent learning how to bake from her grandmother are evident in the soft, fluffy texture of her cookies.

But her ability to educate her customers on healthy eating comes from a different experience.

Learning from recovery

Kohout was once a teenager who ate ice cream sandwiches and cheesecakes. Out of guilt, she stuck her finger in her throat to force herself to throw up the cheesecake she ate.

“That’s twisted to say,” Kohout said. “But it tasted good after I threw it up. It was sweet and creamy.”

Kohout struggled with an eating disorder from middle school to college. But after overcoming the disorder, Kohout used her knowledge of healthy eating and baking to create Courtney’s Cookies, a business that uses organic ingredients to create vegan gluten-free cookies.

At 8 years old, Kohout was diagnosed with precocious puberty, a condition that caused her bones to overdevelop. Once a month, her dad’s mother, who was a nurse, injected her with hormones to counteract the growth of her bones.

Over time, she gained weight from the symptoms of the injections, but, at that age, she wasn’t bothered by her weight. When her attention directed to boys in middle school, her size mattered.

Like many other girls, she spent her time drawing hearts around the names of cute boys in her diary. But she believed her weight prevented any boy from noticing her.

So, she would eat one ice cream sandwich for the whole day and tell her mother she ate dinner at school. Desserts and treats replaced her meals, while her size remained the same. Kohout said she weighed 140 pounds and was overweight. Her thick curly hair was the only part of her that was thinning.

She found a new diet in high school that required her to eat 40 percent protein, 30 percent carbs and 30 percent fat. Her size went down, and boys, who once saw her as invisible, started to notice her.

But her health was still unstable. Kohout was now obsessed with memorizing nutritional facts and counting the amount of calories in her food.

“Do you know how many calories are in a cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory?” Kohout said. With her eyes widened, she said over 800 calories and 100 grams of carbs.

“Knowing what I knew about nutrition, I was just like ‘I can’t keep that inside my body,’” Kohout said.

Kohout would throw it up any junk food she ate. At one point, she didn’t need to use her fingers to vomit. “I could just make it happen,” she said.

Returning home

When Kohout attended college in Miami, her emotional health declined even more. After graduation, she returned home to Ohio and searched for a holistic way to achieve a healthy lifestyle. For an entire summer, she learned about different diets and decided her version of a healthy lifestyle would be eating what she wanted in moderation.

“I spent all of those years being restrictive, and I just couldn’t live like that anymore,” Kohout said. “I couldn’t be afraid of food anymore.”

When she moved back to Miami, she worked as a health coach for Liana Werner-Gray, author of “The Earth Diet.” Kohout said Werner-Gray asked her to promote a Spanish flour called tigernut.

Kohout used the baking skills she learned as a child to experiment with this new flour. Kohout’s mother, Susie Kohout, said Courtney spent hours cooking with her grandmother. Kohout said her grandmother lives in the house behind her parents’ home, so she would invite Kohout to make cookies with her. She said her grandmother was like Mother Teresa in the kitchen, always patient with her as a beginner.

Her grandmother passed on the knowledge of cooking to Kohout’s mom and her aunts. “I think my grandma has this idea of ‘You’re part of this family, so you’re going to cook,’” Kohout said.

A healthy twist on an old recipe

Under her grandmother’s guidance, Kohout learned how to bake chocolate chip cookies with basic ingredients: white flour, white sugar, eggs and butter. But Kohout wanted Courtney’s Cookies to be different from traditional chocolate chip cookies and the flavorless taste of gluten-free cookies. So, she used the tigernut flour as a substitute for white flour and mixed together oat flour, vanilla, chocolate chips and other ingredients to create a smooth, thick dough.

Regular dough is thinner and has no substance because of refined ingredients, but her dough retains its wholesome consistency, she said. The finished product is a nutrient-packed cookie that leaves behind sweet subtle traces of vanilla and chocolate on the tongue.

Marley Palmer, Kohout’s former roommate, said she needed only one cookie to experience full satisfaction. Palmer said the rich smell of Kohout’s cookies would infiltrate every corner of their apartment. She said her friends, who lived next door, could smell the cookies from their apartment and would ask Palmer to bring some over.

Most people who tasted her cookies urged Kohout to start a cookie business, but the intense labor of starting a business discouraged her from trying. Meanwhile, her fiance, Frank Leon, was also considering the risks of helping her develop the business, but he trusted in Kohout’s cookies and decided to go all in.

A business is born

Leon quit his job at Carnival and began filling out paperwork to start the business in May 2016.  Five months later, Courtney’s Cookies was established.

When the business started, it took up to 14 hours to produce 400 cookies in Kohout’s oven. Fights and emotional breakdowns erupted between Kohout and Leon during bake days, she said.

Then, a customer recommended a commercial kitchen for them to use, and they were finally able to have order during their bake days.

When Kohout arrives, Leon has an 80-quart bowl ready for her to mix ingredients. “He prepares the numbers, and I just bake,” Kohout said.  “I just honestly throw everything in the bowl and bam, they’re just good.”

Kohout said their cookies are now in five local stores in Miami, and she hopes to expand. They sell six different flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate raspberry, chocolate mint, chocolate coconut, peanut butter chocolate and sunflower seed raisin.

When she sells her cookies at events, some of her regular customers are already familiar with their favorite flavors, some ask for direction on what to choose, some ask for health advice and others seek conversation. But each customer is welcomed with a self-assured smile and a simple question by Kohout: “Would you like to try a free sample of gluten-free cookies?”

Some of her favorite customers are the ones who dislike the taste of vegan products. After they try it, she said they can’t believe her cookies are vegan and gluten-free.

“That’s like my mission with Courtney’s Cookies,” Kohout said. “To get rid of that stigma that healthy food can’t be delicious.”

Edited by Mimi Tomei

The uncertain future of kratom: herbal remedy or addictive opioid?

By Mitra Norowzi

By the time Friday rolls around, Candice Varnadore is tired and sore. She steps into Oasis Coffee & Tea House at Carr Mill in Carrboro for a pick-me-up. The coffee shop offers a wide assortment of coffee beverages, teas and smoothies. But those are not what she came for.

Although her steps are slow and calculated, weary after a hard week’s work of cleaning houses, she strides purposefully towards the counter. She greets the shop’s owner, Robert Roskind, with a grin, revealing a few missing teeth. Wasting no time, she tells him she’d like four bags, please. Roskind quickly fills her order, telling her her total will be $86, and that he’s thrown in a fifth bag for free. She thanks him profusely.

The 20-ounce bags she bought contain a little-known substance called kratom. Scientifically known as mitragyna speciosa, kratom comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree that is part of the coffee family. It is native to Southeast Asia and has been used as a natural remedy in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for thousands of years to treat pain and various mood disorders, as well as to increase energy.

It is believed that immigrants from these countries brought the practice of using kratom with them to the U.S. Here, people most often ingest crushed kratom leaves mixed into beverages. The plant is not smoked, nor is it taken intravenously. Older generations tend to use the plant to relieve pain, while the younger generation tends to most often use it for mood enhancement as an alternative to prescription antidepressants, marijuana or alcohol.

Varnadore is one of those users seeking pain relief, which started when she was about 60, she says.

“I would wake up and my hips and my knees would be killing me and I couldn’t get any relief from any doctor,” Varnadore says. “I ate so much Aleve, my stomach was upset. It wasn’t helping me.”

The pain was adversely affecting the 63-year-old’s ability to do the laborious work necessary to make her living cleaning houses until a friend asked her if she’d ever tried kratom. When Varnadore said she hadn’t, her friend brought her to Oasis and bought her a cup, which is typically served there mixed in chocolate almond milk or orange juice.

“It tastes awful,” Varnadore says. “But I’ll be darned if it didn’t take the pain away.”

But Varnadore and the other five million Americans who use kratom may have to seek relief elsewhere.

Legal limbo

In November, Scott Gottlieb, commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, announced that that the agency is concerned about kratom’s opioid-like properties in the face of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

This statement came after a 2016 statement by the Drug Enforcement Administration said it intends to schedule kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine and meth. The DEA halted the criminalization process after an outcry from kratom advocates, agreeing to postpone the ban until further research by the FDA could be conducted.

On Feb. 6, Gottlieb released another statement further detailing the FDA’s worries about kratom, announcing that the agency was now confident in labeling the substances in kratom as opioids. This statement was based on computational modeling the agency conducted, and in consideration of reports of 36 deaths associated with kratom use.

But defenders of kratom are not satisfied with Gottlieb and the FDA’s evidence, and are especially displeased that their research is based off a computational model rather than practical trials.

Roskind criticized the FDA and DEA statements regarding kratom, pointing out that Gottlieb, who was appointed to the FDA by President Donald Trump, is a pharmacy industry insider. Indeed, Gottlieb has worked with drug companies in the past, making millions, an issue raised during his nomination.

Among the 36 deaths associated with kratom, just one individual had only kratom in his system—the rest either had other drugs in their systems in addition to kratom at the times of their deaths, or prior health conditions, according to FDA reports.

Kratom’s pharmacology isn’t well understood and few studies have been conducted on it. More comprehensive analyses, like those from researchers at Columbia University and the University of Oklahoma have found that kratom does contain alkaloids that bind to opioid receptors in the brain similar to the way morphine does.

However, the study conducted by Columbia University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that kratom only partially stimulates opioid receptors, more closely resembling the effects of drugs used to treat opioid addiction than that of opioids most responsible for overdose, such as heroin and fentanyl.

The problem is, none of these studies have been conducted on humans, so the tangible human effects of kratom are supported only by anecdotal evidence. This anecdotal evidence is abundant, especially at Oasis.

Different purposes for different people

Of the five people lingering in the shop at the time of Varnadore’s visit, four are drinking kratom, Roskind points out. One is a graduate student using kratom to increase his productivity while he studies. He wears headphones and has textbooks strewn about on his table as he bends over his laptop. Another two are a middle-aged couple visiting from Sunset Beach, decked out in Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys, in town for a hockey game. They noticed a sign outside Oasis about kratom, and decided to try it for the first time, hoping it might be something they can recommend to their daughter to help her depression. The last is a young woman in business attire who says she takes kratom for her anxiety.

Tina Rizzo, 55, one half the of the Penguins-loving duo, thoughtfully evaluates her first drink of kratom.

“I’ve noticed it a little bit since we sat down,” she says. “It’s definitely relaxing — it’s nice.”

Her companion, Jeff Hillwig, 55, doesn’t feel as much of an effect, but speculates that his significant daily coffee intake might have increased his tolerance to stimulant-like substances.

“I couldn’t see this affecting anything to do with driving or cognitive skills,” he says. “I could see it being a beverage of choice in the evening over alcohol.”

An herbal alternative

Roskind has been selling kratom for two years now at Oasis, alongside his standard offering of teas, coffee and smoothies, and says it is his top-selling product. He has customers of all walks of life taking it for pain, depression and even to aid addiction.

“I got people kicking heroin, alcohol, opiates,” Roskind says. “And they’re using it and all are having success.”

For opioid addiction, the FDA urges the public to seek help from a medical provider.

Roskind, who is known as a proponent of whole-body healing in the Carrboro community, is confident that kratom is overall a helpful substance, though he is not oblivious to its potential for abuse. For most people, he says, kratom may be habit-forming, much like coffee or sugar, but it is addictive for only a small fraction of users.

The potential for kratom dependence, and risk of an uncomfortable withdrawal, is higher for those users who take it in the form of extracts, rather than in plant form.

“Some of the ones that have addictive personalities like they’re using heroin or alcohol real bad, I would say they kind of abuse it,” Roskind says.

While the average person takes around 6 grams a day, these people might go through as much as 25-30 grams. “But they’re trading a rather benign habit for a life-destroying addiction,” Roskind says.

Roskind says there’s probably little to nothing that can be done at this point to stop a ban on kratom in the near future, but predicts that the FDA and DEA will wait a few months at least to implement a ban to allow users like Varnadore to find alternatives to kratom treatment.

“If they cut it off, they’re taking stuff away from people who are just trying to make a living and do their best,” she said. “When you get older, you need a little help.”

Edited by Mimi Tomei

UNC-Chapel Hill alumni face real-world tests in Teach for America classrooms

By Rachel Jones

LaDarian Smith was fed up.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in May of 2014, he was in his first few months of teaching 10th grade English at W.W. Samuell High School. At the Dallas Independent School District campus, 98.5 percent of the students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Reading proficiency hovered at 50 percent – 23 percent less than the state average.

And he had a student who would not, for the life of him, turn in his work.

“It was really easy for me to say, ‘oh, he doesn’t care,’ or ‘oh, he doesn’t want to be here,’ or things like that,” Smith said.

But the student did care. A conversation between the two would radically change the direction of Smith’s classroom.

“He was like ‘you keep saying I don’t want to be here, but don’t I come to class every day? If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here,’” Smith said. “And as simple as that statement is, I think that put it in perspective for me, because truancy was also a very real thing.”

A new mindset

After that, Smith started earnestly listening to his students — not just for test answers or roll calls, but for ideas on how he could help them. They reformatted his classroom participation grading system. Instead of deducting points for inattentiveness, they would all start at zero and earn participation points throughout the year. They helped pick quiz questions.

And almost immediately, they respected Smith a lot more.

“(Students) don’t care what you know until they know you care,” Smith said. “So I spent my first year in the classroom, after those three months of hell and high water, resetting.”

He reset with his 10th graders that year, and he carried that mentality into his 12th grade classroom the next year.

And then, as his students graduated, he left teaching permanently.

Smith was a part of the Teach for America, a program that recruits college students to teach in low-income communities across the country, placing them in these communities for a five-week boot camp that ends in getting a teacher’s license and a school assignment for two years.

He feels that he met the goals of the program — but that often means different things to the communities that TFA serves than it does to the students who participate in it.

A Carolina connection

There’s an Easter egg in the Teach for America website for UNC-CH students. In a subsection of a subsection of the JOIN TFA heading on the site’s homepage, there is an example resume for a college senior applying to the program. And there, under “Extracurricular Experience” and “Work Experience,” things begin to get familiar.

“Dance-a-thon, 24-hour dance marathon,” said Jacquelyn Gist, reading the resume off of her computer screen. She’s worked at UNC-CH’s University Career Services center for 26 years, and has been helping people apply to Teach for America for the better part of two decades. “I mean, what do you think that is? University newspaper, uh-huh. And then career center.”

It makes sense that a UNC-CH experience is used as the corps-provided template for TFA applicants. The founder of the corps spoke at UNC-CH’s spring commencement in 2006. The University first appeared on TFA’s list of schools with the largest incoming corps classes in 2008, and has consistently stayed there since – the program has partnered with N.C. schools since 1990, when it established a presence in the Eastern region of the state. But despite 28 years of partnership in the state, there are still some misunderstandings between program and community, and questions about who, exactly, TFA is teaching for.

UNC and back again

The resume on TFA’s website isn’t LaDarian Smith’s, but they’re both clearly products of UNC-CH.

Where the sample says Dance-a-thon, newspaper and fraternity, Smith’s says Black Student Movement, Carolina Union Activities Board and UNC Red Cross; where it says University Career Center and Communications Office, Smith’s says Orientation Leader and Office Assistant at Morrison Residence Hall. But while the sample stops in 2016 — “they’re still using that one?” Smith said when told about the sample UNC-CH resume — Smith’s has extended past the University and back again.

Smith, an English major, started a relationship with TFA during in 2013, the first year that TFA piloted an early-admittance program that allowed juniors to apply. Smith, then a junior, was encouraged by the job security TFA offered and by honest discussions of the workload with corps members he trusted: a former UNC Black Student Movement president and a resident advisor in his dorm. But, he initially didn’t believe in the program’s promises.

“I just didn’t buy the entirety of bringing in college students and them teaching right after they graduated if they hadn’t majored in education,” he said. “It just was not computing for me that this program could be as impactful and as successful as it has. But I mean, it’s been 28 years and the organization is still around, so obviously something is going right.”

Nevertheless, he applied to the corps. He also applied to a job as a campus campaign coordinator — “which is a pretty watered-down version of what I do now as a recruiter” — and found out that he had been accepted for both within the span of a week.

Beyond the classroom

After the end of his two-year commitment in Dallas, he applied to be a recruiter at UNC-CH, and has been in the role for a year and a half.

One of the students that Smith recruited is Katie Arney, a senior public policy and sociology major who’ll be teaching middle schoolers in Houston after graduation. Arney wants to eventually go into education policy and research, and believes that classroom experience is essential to this career path.

“A lot of different programs are focused on keeping people in the classroom, and while I’m not opposed to that — it could be that I do my time in the corps and absolutely love the classroom — I wanted something that was going to encourage me to take my knowledge and experience and apply it in a way that can make change be out of the classroom,” she said.

Despite loving his job, Smith harbors some reservations about the program.

“I’m still not drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said. “Teaching is something that you have to grow into. It’s something that you don’t get the hang of the first two, three, four years, really.”

The drawback to this is that TFA is a two-year program. According to a 2014 study by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, approximately 10 percent of teachers who were trained through TFA return for their fifth year of teaching, compared to 76 percent of teachers who were trained through a UNC system undergraduate program.

But on average, TFA teachers outperform their UNC-system education major peers, and have “significantly greater odds” of being scored proficient on N.C.’s five professional teaching standards.

Smith sees this as a result of the program’s mission, but he thinks that that mission isn’t what the public perceives it as.

“I think there’s some brand misalignment, not necessarily on our end, but with people who come to the table,” he said. “But I do take it seriously, my job to find people that I think would thrive at this, and then task them with taking what they’ve learned and becoming lifelong advocates. And if that’s staying in the classroom, great. I’m not going to come and kick you out. But if you do decide that your impact is better suited elsewhere, then go for it.”

Edited by Mimi Tomei