On a summer evening at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Pei-Ru Ko sat onstage with a small group of women, telling a story about a birthday cake. Growing up in Taiwan, birthday cakes were not the custom. But baking this particular cake, Ko said, made her feel like she was taking charge of her life.
Ko has an autoimmune disease called Antiphospholipid syndrome, which at the time was so debilitating it regularly sent her to the hospital with blood clots and joint pain. She was desperate to do something to improve her life.
“I couldn’t eat grains or dairy or nightshades,” she told the audience. “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 said. “It felt powerful to take the agency to feed myself.”
The event at the Museum was called Food as Healing—something Ko has thought a lot about—and spotlighted Ko and the nonprofit she founded in 2015, Real Food Real Stories (RFRS), a community gathering Ko designed to connect people to the food system through sharing personal stories. During a follow-up conversation, Ko explained more about the connection between food and health, and why she started RFRS.
The organization, which has its roots in her own food and health journey, allows “eaters to deeply connect with those actively stewarding our land, sea and overall food system,” Ko said, explaining that she first learned to feel better while studying nutrition and culinary arts at Bauman College in Berkeley in 2011.
“It helped me have an understanding of the role food can play,” she said. “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 end, Ko completely restructured her diet, getting to know her own body and its needs—paying attention most of all to where the food she ate came from, and not eating anything with hormones. Today, Ko’s health has improved and she is able to eat a broader range of foods, but she still pays close attention to what she puts in her body.
Seeds for Gatherings and Stories
In the same way that Ko took charge of her health, she also had strong ideas about her education. At 13 she lobbied her Taiwanese parents to send her to boarding school in the U.S., thinking she could get a better education. When she arrived, determined to get the most out of it, she didn’t socialize with other Chinese-speaking students, preferring instead to immerse herself in the English language and American culture.
It was at Williams College in Massachusetts that Ko began to see storytelling as a way to build community, but found it hard to connect more deeply. She intended to transfer, but the vice president of campus life challenged her to instead create a way for people to get to know one another. In response, she organized a Sunday afternoon group she called Let Me Tell You a Story. She recruited a group of people she felt would be empathetic listeners, inviting others to come tell a story about something important in their life. Already seeing the importance of food at gatherings, Ko baked the storyteller’s favorite cookie.
Learning about her peers’ diverse backgrounds transformed her experience at college, Ko says. “I saw the power of storytelling, of community, and of people from different backgrounds coming together.”
She continued to develop this passion for storytelling when she moved to San Francisco in 2011. She volunteered with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project and with 18 Reasons. Every weekend, she went to several farmers’ markets to buy good food and meet the people growing it.
Meeting the hardworking people at the markets and through her volunteer work, Ko developed the vision for RFRS as an organization attempting to humanize the food movement. A friend who worked in sustainable seafood encouraged her to start the organization, and she said she would—if he would be the first storyteller.
Ko started RFRS with friends in the food world who volunteered their time. People found out about their events—and still do—mainly through word of mouth. Volunteers continue to play a big role, but RFRS now employs one full-time and two part-time employees in addition to Ko, and is funded by grants and donations.
For its first three years, RFRS events convened attendees, who paid a sliding-scale ticket price of $15-60 to share a meal and hear a live, in-person story from a farmer, a restaurant owner, a writer, or someone Ko identified as a changemaker in the sustainable food movement. Speakers at past events include urban-farming educator Kelly D Carlisle; Reem Assil, the chef behind the renowned Arab bakery Reem’s in Oakland; and Joann Lo of Food Chain Workers 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 food world, but most just want to hear the stories behind the people who provide their food.
“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 said. “It’s a way to connect with the food community. There’s a hunger for sharing and conversation and authenticity.”
The Ongoing Connection Impact
One of the first people to take part in RFRS was Michelle Pusateri, the founder of Nana Joe’s Granola. Ko met Pusateri at the farmers’ market and bought her handmade, gluten-free, vegan granola on a regular basis. Pusateri had gotten sober and thrown everything into her granola company when her father died. When a doctor told Ko she could no longer 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 recalls. “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 got to know people who worked in food, Ko says she realized how committed they were to feeding people and to sustainable agriculture. She wanted others to understand this, too, and to hear stories like Pusateri’s.
Aware that most consumers opt for mass-produced products simply because they cost less, Ko hopes to help convince people to invest in small-scale foods made by artisans like Pusateri, who produce high-quality goods that also carry a higher price tag. “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 people know why she charges $8.99 for her granola—has made a huge difference, and increased sales. She credits 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 with her husband Anthony Myint. Leibowitz likes telling stories in front of people, but Ko helped her change her approach—she coaches speakers to be as authentic and personal as possible. Since speaking at RFRS, Leibowitz says she now speaks more personally when she tells stories, and she finds that people are more 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 writer and photographer Nik Sharma was surprised not only by the audience response to a story he told, but by his own response. Sharma, the author of the new cookbook Season, went to an event where participants told stories about something difficult they’d been through. He chose to talk about the racism he’d experienced when starting out in the food 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 experience was cathartic, Sharma says, adding that he was heartened by how deep members of the audience encouraged him to go. The next day he got more than 100 messages of support on email 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.”
Support for RFRS is on the rise as well. At the end of September, RFRS hosted its second StorySlam, which included sharing dinner and a series of shorter stories from multiple storytellers. At that event, Ko announced RFRS is planning to make all of its events free of charge, thanks to grant support.
The first free gathering featured Sharma in October, and the next event takes place tonight at Thumbtack in San Francisco, featuring Sadie Scheffer of Bread SRSLY, a gluten-free sourdough bread company. The organization is also launching a podcast, The Curious Eater, early next year.
In the coming years, Ko hopes to expand this model beyond the Bay Area. “Our eyes are set on honing our model and offering it to organizers around the country,” she said. “Our vision is an alive, connected food community around the nation.”
Top photo: Pei-Ru Ko presents at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of RFRS)