On a summer time night at San Francisco’s Asian Artwork Museum, Pei-Ru Ko sat onstage with a small group of girls, telling a story about a birthday cake. Rising up in Taiwan, birthday desserts weren’t the customized. However baking this specific cake, Ko stated, made her really feel like she was taking cost of her life.
Ko has an autoimmune illness referred to as Antiphospholipid syndrome, which at the time was so debilitating it frequently despatched her to the hospital with blood clots and joint ache. She was determined to do one thing to enhance her life.
“I couldn’t eat grains or dairy or nightshades,” she informed the viewers. “I was either going to eat kale for my birthday or try and make myself a cake.”
Ko used acorn flour and cacao and sweetened the cake with honey. “It was the most decadent thing I’d eaten in years,” she stated. “It felt powerful to take the agency to feed myself.”
The occasion at the Museum was referred to as Food as Therapeutic—one thing Ko has thought a lot about—and spotlighted Ko and the nonprofit she based in 2015, Actual Food Actual Tales (RFRS), a group gathering Ko designed to attach individuals to the meals system via sharing private tales. Throughout a follow-up dialog, Ko defined extra about the connection between meals and well being, and why she began RFRS.
The group, which has its roots in her personal meals and well being journey, permits “eaters to deeply connect with those actively stewarding our land, sea and overall food system,” Ko stated, explaining that she first discovered to really feel higher whereas learning vitamin and culinary arts at Bauman School in Berkeley in 2011.
“It helped me have an understanding of the role food can play,” she stated. “But so much of it is reclaiming that sense of agency, knowing how to feed yourself specifically when your body is needing support—that felt really powerful versus [leaving] everything in the hands of practitioners.”
To that finish, Ko utterly restructured her eating regimen, attending to know her personal physique and its wants—paying consideration most of all to the place the meals she ate got here from, and never consuming something with hormones. In the present day, Ko’s well being has improved and she or he is capable of eat a broader vary of meals, however she nonetheless pays shut consideration to what she places in her physique.
Seeds for Gatherings and Tales
In the similar approach that Ko took cost of her well being, she additionally had robust concepts about her schooling. At 13 she lobbied her Taiwanese mother and father to ship her to boarding faculty in the U.S., considering she might get a higher schooling. When she arrived, decided to get the most out of it, she didn’t socialize with different Chinese language-speaking college students, preferring as an alternative to immerse herself in the English language and American tradition.
It was at Williams School in Massachusetts that Ko started to see storytelling as a option to construct group, however discovered it arduous to attach extra deeply. She meant to switch, however the vice chairman of campus life challenged her to as an alternative create a approach for individuals to get to know each other. In response, she organized a Sunday afternoon group she referred to as Let Me Inform You a Story. She recruited a group of individuals she felt can be empathetic listeners, inviting others to return inform a story about one thing necessary of their life. Already seeing the significance of meals at gatherings, Ko baked the storyteller’s favourite cookie.
Studying about her friends’ numerous backgrounds reworked her expertise at school, Ko says. “I saw the power of storytelling, of community, and of people from different backgrounds coming together.”
She continued to develop this ardour for storytelling when she moved to San Francisco in 2011. She volunteered with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Challenge and with 18 Causes. Each weekend, she went to a number of farmers’ markets to purchase good meals and meet the individuals rising it.
Assembly the hardworking individuals at the markets and thru her volunteer work, Ko developed the imaginative and prescient for RFRS as a corporation trying to humanize the meals motion. A pal who labored in sustainable seafood inspired her to start out the group, and she or he stated she would—if he can be the first storyteller.
Ko began RFRS with associates in the meals world who volunteered their time. Individuals came upon about their occasions—and nonetheless do—primarily via phrase of mouth. Volunteers proceed to play a huge position, however RFRS now employs one full-time and two part-time staff along with Ko, and is funded by grants and donations.
For its first three years, RFRS occasions convened attendees, who paid a sliding-scale ticket worth of $15-60 to share a meal and listen to a stay, in-person story from a farmer, a restaurant proprietor, a author, or somebody Ko recognized as a changemaker in the sustainable meals motion. Audio system at previous occasions embrace urban-farming educator Kelly D Carlisle; Reem Assil, the chef behind the famend Arab bakery Reem’s in Oakland; and Joann Lo of Food Chain Staff Alliance. (Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, was an early storyteller.)
RFRS attendees come from all walks of life, Ko says. Some work in the meals world, however most simply need to hear the tales behind the individuals who present their meals.
“Some industry people come who say it gives them the juice to do their work, but the majority are what I call ‘curious eaters,’” Ko stated. “It’s a way to connect with the food community. There’s a hunger for sharing and conversation and authenticity.”
The Ongoing Connection Impression
Considered one of the first individuals to participate in RFRS was Michelle Pusateri, the founding father of Nana Joe’s Granola. Ko met Pusateri at the farmers’ market and purchased her handmade, gluten-free, vegan granola on a common foundation. Pusateri had gotten sober and thrown all the things into her granola firm when her father died. When a physician advised Ko she might not eat grains, she went to see Pusateri to let her know she wouldn’t be coming to get her granola anymore.
Pusateri was having none of that.
“She said, ‘Oh no, honey, come to my kitchen in Dogpatch on Wednesday. I’ll make you my trail mix with no oats in it,’” Ko recollects. “I was like, ‘You don’t even know me—why are you doing this for me? And if you’re doing this for me what else are you doing above and beyond for other people?’”
As she received to know individuals who labored in meals, Ko says she realized how dedicated they have been to feeding individuals and to sustainable agriculture. She needed others to know this, too, and to listen to tales like Pusateri’s.
Conscious that the majority shoppers go for mass-produced merchandise just because they value much less, Ko hopes to assist persuade individuals to spend money on small-scale meals made by artisans like Pusateri, who produce high-quality items that additionally carry a larger price ticket. “That’s what the food movement needs to fight for. We need to let everyone know why it’s worth it. And it’s not just a marketing pitch,” says Ko.
Pusateri thinks telling her story—and letting individuals know why she fees $eight.99 for her granola—has made a large distinction, and elevated gross sales. She credit Ko.
“She’s giving us a voice to explain why they’re paying more,” Pusateri says. “She made me more comfortable to tell my story, and having 50 people listen and tell their friends really increased sales.”
Karen Leibowitz runs The Perennial together with her husband Anthony Myint. Leibowitz likes telling tales in entrance of individuals, however Ko helped her change her strategy—she coaches audio system to be as genuine and private as attainable. Since talking at RFRS, Leibowitz says she now speaks extra personally when she tells tales, and she or he finds that individuals are extra responsive.
“Sometimes this feels like a lonely journey,” she says. “I’m surprised people don’t hear [our story] and think, ‘Oh, a solution to climate change, let’s get on it.’ It was good for me to think about my community as not only customers, but people who were also invested in a movement.”
Food author and photographer Nik Sharma was stunned not solely by the viewers response to a story he informed, however by his personal response. Sharma, the writer of the new cookbook Season, went to an occasion the place individuals advised tales about one thing troublesome they’d been via. He selected to speak about the racism he’d skilled when beginning out in the meals world.
“I thought this was all in the past and I was fine,” Sharma says, “but it was an emotional experience. I did not expect to start sobbing onstage but once the waterworks started, I couldn’t stop.”
The expertise was cathartic, Sharma says, including that he was heartened by how deep members of the viewers inspired him to go. The subsequent day he received greater than 100 messages of help on e-mail and social media.
“The work Pei-Ru is doing is great,” he says. “It connects a lot of people. I’ve never seen anything like it, really.”
Help for RFRS is on the rise as properly. At the finish of September, RFRS hosted its second StorySlam, which included sharing dinner and a collection of shorter tales from a number of storytellers. At that occasion, Ko introduced RFRS is planning to make all of its occasions freed from cost, because of grant help.
The first free gathering featured Sharma in October, and the subsequent occasion takes place tonight at Thumbtack in San Francisco, that includes Sadie Scheffer of Bread SRSLY, a gluten-free sourdough bread firm. The group is additionally launching a podcast, The Curious Eater, early subsequent yr.
In the coming years, Ko hopes to increase this mannequin past the Bay Space. “Our eyes are set on honing our model and offering it to organizers around the country,” she stated. “Our vision is an alive, connected food community around the nation.”
Prime photograph: Pei-Ru Ko presents at San Francisco’s Asian Artwork Museum. (Photograph courtesy of RFRS)
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