The Food Ed Coalition Spotlight Series highlights people and organizations doing amazing work in food education and access in NYC. Find more from the series on the Food Ed Hub.
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Interview with Philip Lee, co-founder of Readers to Eaters with his wife June Jo Lee, a food ethnographer.
Tell us about yourself: what are your interests and passions and how did they lead you to founding Readers to Eaters?
A few things happened very quickly to inspire Readers to Eaters (R2E) in 2009. That year Michelle Obama planted her White House garden in March. The same month we attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Portland, OR. We saw all this interest and energy and enthusiasm for food activism. These events directly impacted and inspired R2E.
I come from a children’s book publishing background, or the educational side of things, and thought, how can we reach out to kids in school to have that conversation [on the broken food system and fighting obesity]? We didn’t have a clear business plan but we knew we wanted to be in that space.
R2E came from my background, as a reader in book publishing and my wife’s background, as an eater since she’s a food anthropologist. Honestly, she’s probably a much better reader than I am, but I don’t know if I’m a better eater. I certainly eat more than she does!
Tell us more about what R2E does as an organization and its impact.
Ultimately, we’re book publishers and we publish books about food with a focus on respecting diverse cultures.
To us, food is the springboard to every subject. Yes, food is about health and nutrition but through food, we’re telling stories about people and everything from diversity and inclusion, to climate change, to social justice, to immigration - it’s everything.
Stories about food describes our editorial focus, but also it describes our partnership programs. We’ve been publishing books for over a decade, and our traditional customers have been schools and libraries. Yes, they’re in charge of books, but we like to go to them and remind them that they are also part of the food system. Libraries don’t just provide books about food and food literacy - they are also hosting community gardens, food programming, hosting seed exchanges, and more importantly, they’re feeding thousands of kids in summer meal programs. We go to libraries and remind them of their impact in the food system and tell them that they can be more active in partnering with food organizations, such as farmers markets.
On the other hand, farmers markets provide food, but we remind them that they are also an education center. They might offer food, but their mission is bigger than that - they’re helping farmers, building a better ecology, and improving the entire system. They receive funding from WIC and SNAP-Ed to provide activities like cooking demos and nutrition education. But, we said to them - what if you use SNAP-Ed funds to buy books about food to reach new communities? A few years ago we partnered with Washington State FarmersMarket Association to put EBT discount tickets inside a free book and it turned out to be incredibly successful in bringing new families to shop at the farmers market.
It’s not that SNAP families don’t read. It’s just that if it’s a choice between buying food and buying books, it’s no contest. Our partnerships promote nutrition education and reading at the same time. It’s a win-win. It’s really not a hard sell, but it’s just that they [organizations] haven’t thought about it before.
Another example was at the New York City School Librarians’ Association, where we brought together Food Corps NY, Edible Schoolyard NYC, and classroom librarians on partnering to promote food education. Many librarians have never heard of USDA’s Harvest of the Month program and they can highlight books on the foods that are featured.A lot of our work is to make these connections and help organizations think broader about their mission.
As the publisher, we become conduits to conversations. We’re not always asking people to buy our books, we just want people to pay attention to how food is a connector.
What has been your greatest challenge during COVID-19?
We’ve seen a lot of traditional structures break down because of COVID-19. Whether it's a school garden, community garden, or library - all these walls are breaking down because we can no longer go to these places. So everyone is looking for a new way to reach their audience.
Everyone’s doing the big pivot. It certainly hasn’t been easy because our biggest customers are schools and libraries and we practically hit a wall there with schools closed. There was a tremendous slow down in book sales in the traditional market or “reader” side of things, but the “eater” side picked up dramatically. We got some USDA funding for nutrition education, from SNAP-Ed, WIC and Ag in the Classroom program.
In fact, we’re really happy to say our book, Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, will be NY Agriculture in the Classroom Agriculture Literacy book of 2022. The book features an African American farmer and discussion on urban agriculture, the first such discussion for NY AITC. Their program services something like 80,000 students in over 3000 schools, so we’re really excited about that.
But again, the exciting thing is that it allows all our different partners to rethink who they serve and how they service people. Hopefully, these traditional silos have really broken down. While we’re all Zoomed-out, Zoom has also allowed authors to access the whole country instead of schools and libraries. They’ve especially been able to reach rural communities that haven’t been accessible before.
Can you describe changes you’ve seen with the pandemic and any thoughts for how things will move forward?
The school food program, I dare say, has been successful at feeding a lot of people in a short amount of time. So I think now there’s a big push for free meals for all, always. That’s a great success story. Hopefully under Biden, they’ll give more funding to support that.
Again, I think we’ve seen a lot of silos come down this past year and new partnerships being formed. There’s been more opportunities for us to say, we don’t have to do it all ourselves. We can do it with all these other people. I hope that continues, but we’ll have to see. It’s all uncharted.
Another thing I've seen is diversity, inclusion, and equity becoming front and center. I feel that there’s more being done about it from the top down. They’re listening to the community more with [food] being more culturally sensitive. There’s more effort and it's getting on people’s radar. It’s hard to measure success there, whether it's kids eating more or the menu changing, but I think the menu is changing.
10 years ago, the focus was on obesity and while it hasn’t gone away, I think there’s a change in the target goal. I go back to this cultural conversation because we don’t even use the word “healthy” in our correspondence because it can be seen as judgemental and biased.
If we say that the USDA plate is the standard for defining healthy, we’re excluding entire culture’s foods. Part of our work in education and food publishing is to offer kids more vocabulary to talk about their food. We’re using flavors and getting away from right and wrong or good and bad. When you gain vocabulary about food, you’re also gaining cultural sensitivity.
How can people support your work right now?
Our ambition is bigger than selling books - we want to promote literacy and our partners can help support that. Getting the books is the first step, but the second step is helping kids to read and start the conversation around food literacy. A lot of folks think our books are for a very young audience, but the same book can be used to start conversations with older kids as well.
For example, we might ask younger kids who read our books, “How does that make you feel?” whereas with older kids, we might ask, “How does that impact your community? What does food mean to your community?” and for high school students, we might ask, “Who doesn’t get this food? Why is this a social justice issue?” We want our partners to think beyond the traditional way to address the subject and have inclusive conversations about food.
We want people to understand that our books apply broadly - and to connect them with people and culture. Another book of ours is The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter. On the surface, it’s a book about pollinators, but it is also about Black Fathers and highlighting the need for inclusion in environmental education & climate action.
We want the message to be empowering kids to be change makers - starting with food. For example, with a book about gardening, our end goal isn’t for kids to be gardening 10 years from now. We want them to be activists, and say that by growing food, by being mindful of the food system, they’re changing their community and changing the world.
On a lighter note - our last question is to ask what is your favorite fruit or vegetable?
Well we’re eating seasonally, so right now I’m really excited about asparagus. But, I figure, I’ll tell a story that I share all the time about a favorite food. My favorite food is called char siu bao, which is a steamed Chinese pork bun. I love it because it used to be my reward when I was a kid for, like, getting good grades. It was also what we ate on Sundays when I got together with all my cousins. I think that a lot of people’s favorite foods are a cultural food, not because it's good for you or even that it tastes good but because it means something.
Learn more about Reader to Eaters: