People as Medicine : Gathering as Activism

People often ask me what my vision was when I started Real Food Real Stories (RFRS). I’ve never had a good answer to that question. Because, to be honest, I did not have a vision. I was too sick and too tired; I was just frantically pedaling to keep my head above water. At my lowest moments, all decision-making resorted to basic needs: food and human warmth. I needed good, clean food, and I needed human connection and supportive relationships to battle what was happening in my body. When a meal sourced locally and prepared thoughtfully in an Ayurvedic tradition eased my pain, and when a friend who slept in the hospital cot to keep me company lessened my fatigue, I realized that good food heals and people nourish. Real Food Real Stories was founded on those principles.

photo Blair Randall By taking the time to convene, listen to each other, and build relationships, we can bring trust and authenticity back into our relationships and our food systems.

photo Blair Randall

By taking the time to convene, listen to each other, and build relationships, we can bring trust and authenticity back into our relationships and our food systems.

In 2011, I uprooted myself from Taiwan and moved to the California Bay Area, driven by an inkling that maybe, just maybe, I could learn to use food to help myself heal from a severe autoimmune condition. I didn’t know if there were scientific studies supporting my hunch, but Western medicine had been more harmful than beneficial, and I was open to trying alternatives. When I moved to San Francisco, I would tell people that I was on a sabbatical to go to a fascinating culinary and nutrition consulting program to learn about the therapeutic application of food. Camouflaging my desperate and lonely struggle, I convinced myself that even if this experiment didn’t work, I would have at least learned something new. Little did I know that the health challenge would be the forest fire that cleared space for beautiful, new growth.

During my healing process, I discovered I was severely sensitive to gluten. I sought out gluten-free grains and locally made gluten-free products, and soon discovered Nana Joes Granola, a farm-sourced, vegan, and gluten-free company in San Francisco. I would visit their farmers’ market stall at the Ferry Building regularly, and got to know the owner Michelle Pusateri and the company’s mission and model.

Michelle sources her ingredients directly from local, organic farmers, paying a healthy rate to support their practices. She makes the granolas weekly in order to provide wholesome, fresh products instead of relying on extra sugar or preservatives for longer shelf life. She works hard to provide a living wage to her employees. I was fascinated by the fact that Michelle, the owner herself, would table at the farmers’ market. What is it about the local food economy here that supports such a culture? It wasn’t just Michelle; there was Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm, Kenneth Baker of Lonely Mountain Farm… the list goes on and on.

One day I found out that gluten intolerance wasn’t my only problem – my ability to process grains in general was compromised. Not only did I feel lost at this further limitation on my diet, I was also devastated to lose my weekly excuse to visit Michelle for a dose of human warmth in a city where I knew no one. When I dragged my feet to her market stall the next time and told her the news, to my surprise she responded without a blink of the eye: “I am so sorry to hear that! Come to my kitchen on Wednesday, and I’ll make you my trail mix without any oats in it.”

If I were in a movie, at this point it would have shown my heart burst into flames. That’s how touched I was by this simple yet generous gesture of a stranger. This is the reason why people like Michelle, Nigel, and Kenneth come to the market every week; they are in this business for the people, and their customers are the reason they work.

Two years later, in the summer of 2014, inspired by the local food producers – who had not only healed me but who were also healing the local community and our land, soil, and waters – I started Real Food Real Stories (RFRS) with a group of friends to support local food activists (yes, I’d made friends by now!). I told this story of Michelle’s generosity at the first ever RFRS storytelling supper club at a San Francisco home, crediting the incident as the source of my awakening to the fact that there is a growing host of kind and mission-driven folks out there who “feed” our bodies and our souls.

photo Pei-Ru Ko RFRS curates many forms of gatherings, including supper clubs, large picnics, and “Digestifs.”

photo Pei-Ru Ko

RFRS curates many forms of gatherings, including supper clubs, large picnics, and “Digestifs.”

That evening – which also included a sustainable seafood distributor sharing his personal journey to the work he does, volunteer hosts helping guests connect with each other and build community, and locally sourced stews and homemade cookies – encapsulated many key ingredients of what would become the RFRS identity. The shared meal and conversation made clear how powerful building connection is in activating a sustainable food movement.

Since then, Real Food Real Stories has been working to amplify the stories of individuals in our local foodshed who work tirelessly to grow, distribute, produce, make, and advocate for healthy food for all. People like Jered Lawson of Pie Ranch, Dede Boies of the Root Down Farm, and Naomi Starkman whose news site, Civil Eats, promotes critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems. These people are not just medicine to our souls, they are also healers of our land, soil, and waters.

In a society reliant on the Internet and cellphones, we are more disconnected than ever. Information is exchanged, but relationships aren’t built. But when we come together in person, we have the opportunity to actually get to know each other, share meals, and build memories. That’s the foundation for collaboration to happen, for serendipity to occur, and for change that sticks.

At Real Food Real Stories, we believe that slow is fast, that gathering is activism, that stories tear down walls and build bridges. By taking the time to convene, to listen to each other, and to build connections, we can bring trust and authenticity back into our relationships and our food systems.

Our mission is to cultivate an empathetic food culture that inspires action and collaboration by gathering industry professionals and engaged eaters around live storytelling and shared meals. With this goal in mind, we curate many forms of gatherings, including supper clubs that focus on intimate gatherings of food-industry professionals, large picnics with live storytelling by changemakers in the food world, and “Digestifs” – follow-up gatherings after each supper club and picnic – which offer opportunities to deepen relationships and learning.

Looking ahead, we envision guiding local organizers to start RFRS satellites all across the United States and beyond, and helping build local communities centered on trust, transparency and mutual aspiration toward a healthy, regenerative food system.

—PEI-RU KO