Food’s Foundation

Out of the cold rain, customers unbundle inside the St. James Tavern.

Julie Clark watches from a table in the back as she breaks open an empanada—a handmade pastry filled with savory meats and vegetables.

“I’m Italian,” she laughed. “If I was going to start any social enterprise, it’s going to be centered on food.”

Clark is executive director of Doma, a central Ohio-based organization that works to help vulnerable women and children.

She’s here tonight on behalf of who she refers to as “the ladies”—local women who hope to build a new life after surviving human trafficking, often forced onto street corners by gangs or abusive relatives.

“It’s a complex problem. It’s the world’s oldest oppression,” Clark said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.”

Traditional fundraising channels were not always reliable enough to maintain Doma’s programs, said project manager Ian Bonfante. The organization could have more control, it hoped, through a free-market business.

In what it has dubbed “cause cuisine,” Doma launched Freedom a la Cart—a food cart and catering service that not only works to generate income but also serves as a workforce development program.

“We’re not looking for any type of sympathy purchase here at all,” Bonfante said—the food stands on its own.

But for Clark, food is not simply a convenient platform on which to raise money. It represents something more.

“Freedom is hummus,” she recently wrote, describing her experience serving an unfamiliar snack to a group of women who previously had few choices in their lives. “Perhaps not to you. But to me hummus is what freedom tastes like.”

She explained, “When you empower someone with choosing the food they can put in their own bodies—healthful choices—you empower them to make other choices as well.”

She then described how food accentuates the connections within the community: it is sourced from local farms and community gardens, it is prepared as a collaborative endeavor and it is served at social gatherings.

As Clark believes, “Where you start to build community is around the table.”

And while she acknowledged the emotional toll that the job can bring, she offered a fitting metaphor.

“The harvest is worth it,” she said.

In Athens County, the image of a 5-year-old devouring five bowls of cereal during a school breakfast illustrates what drives Karin Bright.

She volunteers in a program called “Snacks in My Backpack,” which provides food during the weekend to children who normally rely on school meals.

“The teachers found that it was hard on Monday and Tuesday to get the kids to even focus,” Bright said of children who came to school hungry. “Food is a big foundation for kids learning.”

Her primary hope is to alleviate hunger, but even here, a meal means something more.

“I always try to look at the bigger picture—the idea of people caring about people and working to bring them together. There are some people in this area that think they’ve been forgotten,” she said. “It does give that sense of community when they see that people care.”

One Ohio hog farmer took that concept ever further when he recently blogged that the availability of food always precedes peace and prosperity in society, and “with all the concern and clamoring in the world over agriculture, food and the business of food, let us not forget that at the end of the day food is about doing good for one’s self, one’s neighbor, one’s nation and one’s world.”

Even the leader of a national organization known for its criticism of the food system recently found himself wondering if philosophical divisions would lead to “abandoning our commitment to the simple pleasure of a shared meal.”

That passions tend to divide is all too familiar to Americans, especially during this political campaign season. And while there’s no apparent path to resolve many differences, some are turning toward the common experience of eating as a starting point for understanding.

“The talking heads have come up with another cute device to split voters—the ‘Cracker Barrel/Whole Foods’ divide,” American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman recently noted, describing an attempt to reduce Americans’ identities based on their food preferences.

“I would suggest that the common factor in this very artificial device is food,” said the Texas rice and cattle farmer. “Folks, maybe, just maybe, we, as the producers of food in this country, can play a role to help unite instead of divide.”

But this concept is not just limited to romantic notions or acts of charity. Food production is expected to continue to play a major role in the quality of life of Ohioans, from economic development to health and nutrition.

A 2011 analysis of Ohio’s food system found that expanding community capacity to share ideas would be a key component of leveraging the state’s more than $90 billion food and agriculture industry.

“The ability of community members to trust each other enough that they can work together to respond effectively to unforeseen change will prove to be the most critical element in Ohio’s future success,” the report stated.

Many farmers see building relationships as the first step in making the most of these opportunities. An example can be seen in Warren County, where farmers had traditionally held a “farmers’ share” breakfast. The community event with decades-old roots was originally developed to bring awareness to the disparity between the cost of food and the share that farmers received. But this year, farmers decided it was time for a new message: “farmers care.”

“We’re really trying to show that we’re an active part of the community that we care about the community as a whole,” said Steve Berk, Warren County Farm Bureau’s organization director.

He said the group invited other local organizations to participate and “do better together than we can separately.”

But perhaps more importantly, it’s over a meal that community members begin to learn about one another.

“Food really helps to make that connection,” Berk said.