This week, I had the opportunity to catch up with local food advocate and educator, Karen Schubert, to discuss some of the politics surrounding our food system. Karen is Co-founder of Lit Youngstown, a non-profit literary arts organization founded in 2015 in Youngstown, Ohio. Lit believes “acts of writing and reading foster creativity, an increased understanding of the self, a strengthening of community, and a broader knowledge of the world.”
Amen to that!
Don’t miss the opportunity to meet Karen and sample her delicious culinary creations this coming Thursday, June 23rd and June 30th during a cooking demo class at 818 Elm Street from 4-6pm in Youngstown’s historic Wick Park neighborhood!
Hi Karen! Thanks for taking time to talk. To me, what and how I consume has become my way to cast a vote for the changes I’d like to see in my immediate community which eventually effect our entire world.
I would love it if you shared a bit of your philosophy about the food system in general and why you feel local food systems are important in relation to the rest of the world.
It’s really complicated, isn’t it. I was in an interesting conversation today with a friend at the cafe at Fellows Riverside Garden, where I work. This friend was noting that we are charging nearly $3.00 for a cup of coffee, and it’s excluding people in the neighborhood who really can’t afford to pay that price. He is distressed about that because he feels the park is deeply integral to that community, and that our policy should be more sensitive and reflective of the micro-realities.
I can really appreciate that. I think so much about the deep poverty in our city, and what I can do to have a positive impact.
But in this case, I have to take the cafe’s view. They work with a buyer who knows the coffee plantations in Colombia, Ethiopia or Sumatra, and is looking to see that the coffee is grown in such a way that is healthful for the land and water of that region, and also for the owners and workers. The coffee might cost more because people are being paid a fair wage. But in my view, if we help them sustain their own economy, they will be able to take care of that ecosystem. They will also be less likely to migrate, by the way. And the coffee is incredible. I would rather have less of a very fine cup of coffee than a daily cup of… the other kind.
On our end, at the cafe, the people who come in may be bringing money from the suburbs or the exurbs back into the city. The people who work there benefit, and the cafe in turn buys apples, greens, goat cheese, chicken from local growers. Those growers/producers may be taking a chance on creating their own work, but they won’t succeed unless we buy what they’re selling. They, in turn, spend their money on land, goods, services, taxes, etc., and that money helps support other businesses and it has the potential to spiral upward.
I am reading a lot about the way we’ve changed what we grow and eat, and I think there’s a lot of awareness that it makes us vulnerable if we are relying on imported food; whether it’s all coming in from California or Florida or Mexico, it still makes us dependent, and the incredible changes we’re seeing in the climate, the massive droughts, floods, fires, should scare us into wanting to source our food as locally as possible.
We still can’t grow coffee or avocados in Ohio (sigh!) but we can grow a lot, and that circles around to the idea that we also need jobs, and we also need investment. Why send our money to California, if we can keep it here, bouncing around our own economy?
As an added bonus, we know that fresh food is more nutritious, and growing locally, especially when we’re good stewards, will spur the protection of pollinators and migrating birds, reduce fertilizers that cause algae blooms, reduce the amounts of pesticides and herbicides growers and consumers are exposed to in food, air and water, reduce the enormous use of energy to ship and store food, and reduce some of the grip the mega-agricultural corporations have over our entire food system.
You hit on so many key points but one I’d like to hone in on specifically is accessibility. As you said, our city is one of extreme economic depression and though this amazing food is available to everyone –especially if it is consumed in moderation– there will always be an issue of cost for some.
Do you feel these systemic problems relate back to the overall lack of emphasis on food literacy education? Is food accessibility dependent on more than just a dollar figure but also a reclaiming of accumulated knowledge about growing and preparing our own nourishing foods?
And lastly, can you talk a bit about how this relates back to your experiences as a food educator in our city?
For more insights on how our country has changed in the last decades, read The Unwinding by George Packer, which features several chapters on Youngstown. One terrific federal government program gives food stamp recipients double value at participating farmers’ markets. When I was an AmeriCorpsVISTA, part of my $900/month stipend included food stamps, and I really appreciated spending my tokens at the farmers’ markets on produce that would have normally been out of reach for someone living at that income. I swiped my card for $10 and got $20 worth of tokens that I could spend on any of the fresh food at the market.
But I’m a foodie and cooking is one of my favorite things. We’ve really gotten away from it in such a
small number of generations. When I was a kid, summers we would visit my grandparents’ farm in Bazetta township and help them prepare vegetables for the freezer. I used to pull weeds in my grandfather’s huge garden, and firmly believed that God rewarded me with a toad (every time!). I don’t grow my own food today, but I know how.
I guess food literacy falls into the same well as other kinds of literacies. In general, we are not an intellectually curious culture. I think it’s a lack of a sense of responsibility to find out how to be healthy, how to be excellent citizens, to learn as much as we can. We would rather entertain ourselves. I’ve had the great fortune to travel in Europe a few times, and I envy their cultural emphasis on education. That’s a generality, of course. But if we get all of our information from commercial television, for example, we will see dozens of ads for McDonald’s and Walmart every day, but none for the farmer’s market. A t.v. station that runs on ads for fast food, pop, cereal, candy, etc. won’t bring on an expert to tell us that the food we’re consuming is making us sick. It’s a point I try to bring home in my cooking classes. I mean, the idea that food is making us sick is a complete outrage. That’s the exact opposite of the purpose of food. And the fact that a handful of giant corporations are making a fortune selling us food that’s making us sick is unbelievable. What a heist. And causing such environmental devastation, to boot, as well as wielding so much political power.
So I read a lot. I pulled the plug on my t.v. years ago, and whenever I am in a waiting room or someplace where the t.v. is on, I feel the bile start to rise. I know too much about fast food, etc., to just sit through a commercial without wanting to throw a chair. Our life expectancy is actually shortening. We should all be really angry about that.
My prediction is that since we are not doing very much to deal with climate change, when we finally do begin to act, it will be such a crisis, we’ll have to change everything. And then, buying a tomato grown in Florida and packaged in styrofoam will no longer be an option. We’ll be encouraged to grow our own food, as we were during the Victory Garden years. If we take care of our fresh water, we will be in a good position here in Ohio. One step forward is that many farms that once only grew corn and soy to ship to feedlots out West are now growing fruits and vegetables to sell to consumers and institutions here, and Lake to River has done a lot to help connect growers with consumers.
So I think we have to keep talking up our local food, helping people access the information they need to regain their health. A book I read recently and loved is Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson, about the original plants our fruits and vegetables came from, and how to select the most nutritious varieties at the store/market. One of the points she makes is that bananas are not particularly nutritious, and certainly not worth the carbon it takes to bring them here. I found a list of foods with potassium on WebMD, and there are so many that have more than bananas!