Raising awareness and bridging the gaps between farm and table: REAP’s executive director Miriam Grunes
Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
Related recipe: Kale Crisps
Farmers, chefs, grocers, producers of artisan foods, artists, activists and more: on Saturday, Sept. 20, the Food for Thought Festival will unite these diverse groups during its 10th annual celebration of local, sustainable food. Highlights include cooking demonstrations and possibly live competitions, talks including a keynote speech by urban agriculturist Michael Ableman, local bands and children’s activities. The site is, aptly enough, right next to the farmers’ market on the Capitol Square, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
“It’s a really great festival,” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of REAP, the local nonprofit group behind the event. “It’s so fun for me to watch hunger prevention sitting alongside environmental activists sitting alongside foodies who just love culinary delights sitting next to culinary historians. It’s an amazing networking opportunity.”
Since the mid-1990s, REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group; www.reapfoodgroup.org) has fought to bring awareness to the environmental, economic, and social issues surrounding food production and preparation, arguing that local is best on all these fronts. Today, with “green” and “locavore” (a person who eats only locally grown food) emerging as buzzwords of the decade, REAP is riding a rising wave of awareness.
Begun by a handful of volunteers, REAP now employs a staff of four and manages a myriad of projects including publications, educational programs and foodie events. Earlier this year it graduated from its patchwork of home offices to move into a professional space on Wilson Street downtown.
In her early years with REAP, Miriam squeezed in 25 volunteer hours a week alongside her full-time job at the Biodiversity Project (a national nonprofit located in Madison) and her responsibilities as a mother of two small children. “I really had three jobs,” she explains. Landing REAP’s first first paid, full-time position in 2004 allowed her to cut that down to two.
VVK: How did you become so passionate about sustainable food?
MG: I’ve always loved being a gardener. Having my hands in the dirt. I stopped eating meat way back in college, having read Diet for a Small Planet. It seemed, there’s something wrong with the way we raise meat. There’s no reason I need this in my life. The hippie aspect, brown rice and stir fries -- I always just lived my life that way, not thinking that was going to become my life’s work.
That moment came when I had kids. I started thinking about the “corporatization” of food, the fact that kids can recognize over 200 corporate logos but can’t identify vegetables. My interest in food and sustainability and health drew me into volunteering with REAP.
VVK: What’s the climate for the work REAP is doing?
MG: Right now there’s a perfect storm of awareness from the food contamination scares and soaring prices. Food prices are scaring people, and they should. Food’s been too cheap. Farmers haven’t been paid what they should be. All this is forcing people to ask questions about their food. Where does your food come from?
Suddenly we’re not having to explain the whys. Now we answer the hows. How do we pay the farmers a living wage? How do we feed everybody? How do we make sure everyone has access to fresh, local food?
VVK: What’s the greatest challenge to REAP’s goals?
MG: We’ve devolved so far so fast. As recently as 50 years ago there was still infrastructure that supported eating locally. That’s just completely gone.
VVK: REAP’s newest program, Buy Fresh Buy Local Southern Wisconsin, pairs eateries with local food growers. How is going?
MG: It’s showcasing chefs’ and farmers’ relationships in a way that tells the story, helps restaurants do more, feel good about doing more, make a profit. We never have to explain to restaurants about why should they buy local, what the point is. They just want to know, “How do I do it?” We have now have over 23 restaurants involved, and we’re adding more all the time. Some say, “I’m really going to concentrate on increasing my local dairy use, because I already have good relationships with produce farmers.” Others say, “I’m going to start with a side dish vegetable.” It’s a lot of opportunity to make incredible impact.
VVK: Then there’s the Farm Fresh Atlas, a directory of local farmers, dairies, honey producers, orchards and farmers’ markets. It’s so beautifully done and has such a wealth of information.
MG: People really use it. Farmers are grateful for the marketing tool. The transition we’ve seen in the last few years just wonderful. I remember standing at farmers market, just begging people to take it. Now people virtually attack us! We’ve released the seventh annual edition, and we’re having such a blast with it.
VVK: What it’s like working with children through REAP’s farm-to-school program, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch?
MG: They’re a little grossed out by the notion that food doesn’t come packaged. There are kids that don’t know that a carrot is a root. They thought it might grow on a tree. You tell them it grows under the dirt, and they’re a little bit É “Eeew!” But when they can get their hands into the dirt and pull it out, the response is immediate. You have to convince them to wash it first!
You’ve got to get kids back out and experiencing life in all its forms, learning the idea of life in the soil. Through field trips to farms, wildlife restoration. Pulling that all back together is really powerful. Will all these kids grow up to be healthy consumers as adults? We don’t know. But we know that without it, they don’t have a chance.
VVK: How do you share your ideals with your own children?
MG: We have traditions of always going strawberry picking in the spring, always going to an apple orchard in the fall. There’s seasonality. Food isn’t just something that comes packaged from an anonymous source. I just try to keep as much balance as possible and hope something will stick. My daughters are now 15 and 11. I just hope they grow to be passionate and kind and responsible and good adults.
VVK: What kind of food do you cook and eat?
MG: I cook pretty simply. I belong to a CSA [subscription farm]. My box comes on a Thursday and I have to be inspired by it. The produce tells you what needs to be done to it. I have a great big garden in my backyard and four chickens that lay eggs for us. We have an abundance of eggs from the chickens. That’s great for vegetable frittatas.
VVK: You live in the city. How do your neighbors respond to the chickens?
MG: I do have one hen that’s a little squawky. But now the neighbor across the yard has got some chickens, too!
Each month in her column “Around the Table,” freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach profiles women who are influential in Wisconsin foodways: cooks and bakers, farmers, teachers, authors, activists and more. “I believe the social, celebratory, expressive aspect of food is one of the key things that makes humans human,” Vesna says. “The scientists ought to put it right up there with bipedalism and speech. All animals eat, but for us, the eternal quest for flavor and form is woven deep into who and what we are. That’s why I love to write about people who love food.”
Vesna’s work on food and other topics has appeared in publications including Wisconsin Trails, Isthmus, Madison Magazine, Corporate Report Wisconsin, and Dane County Kids. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Erickson Publishing, and was the original editor of Brava Magazine (then known as Anew).