What is Food Culture? Two Women’s Nourishing Definition
When you think about nourishment, what comes to mind? For Jocelyn Jackson and Keri Keifer, co-founders of Grace Hearth, an organic catering business in Oakland, California, nourishment is everything from a great food to good music to living abroad. Food, they believe, nourishes our bodies – but it also nourishes our hearts and our spirits. What’s more, food is just one component of true nourishment in the larger sense. In addition to quality food, they believe nourishment entails nurturing our relationships, our creativity, ad our connections with others, as well.
Grace Hearth offers a wide range of dishes prepared from local, organic ingredients. The food is often accompanied by poetry or music and is intended to foster an experience that promotes whole nourishment. I recently caught up with Jocelyn and Keri at the Temescal Farmers’ Market in Oakland to ask them about the inspiration behind their business and their future goals.
Making the Switch
Both Keri and Jocelyn come from worlds that are very different from the one they now inhabit. Jocelyn is a former lawyer and Keri spent several years working in the biotech industry, for Big Pharma. But they both experienced “that moment,” as Jocelyn put it, in which they realized their paths were not entirely fulfilling them.
For Keri, it was volunteering at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market, at the food justice organization Oakland Based Urban Gardens, and at a produce farm in Humboldt County that helped her realize that working with food was her calling.
“I was never really into biotech and I couldn’t take it anymore. The four months I spent volunteering on the farm in Humboldt just spun my life. I knew I could never work inside solely again. I had to be working with food and relating to people,” Keri said.
Keri studied Pastry Arts at Tante Marie, a well-respected culinary school in San Francisco. She launched her own catering business – Oakland Hearth, which continues to operate – and eventually partnered with Jocelyn.
Similarly, Jocelyn’s path has taken many dramatic turns. Jocelyn grew up in Kansas and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. After college, Jocelyn went to law school and became a practicing attorney. After working in law for several years, the company she was working for was sold. She decided to join the Peace Corps, something she had been contemplating for years. Jocelyn spent two years in Mali, learning (among other things) local recipes and cooking techniques. Her time in Mali also contributed greatly to her personal growth, she said.
“The Peace Corps was this moment of waking up. My eyes and heart were open in a way that wouldn’t have been possible any other way. Every day there was so much joy and also so much sorrow and tragedy and being able to hold both of those at the same time was such a gift,” Jocelyn said.
Jocelyn’s time in Mali led her to the conclusion that she needed to construct a career that would allow her to nurture both her creativity – as her art background had done – and her need for critical thought – as her experience with law had done. Something was missing, she said, and she suspected the missing component had to do with a connection to the earth. Jocelyn was drawn to environmental education, so she enrolled in the Audubon Expedition Institute’s graduate program, which entails traveling to four global bioregions and learning through experiencing local ecosystems and cultures. The program’s last location was southern India, and Jocelyn’s experience there was meaningful for her both in terms of learning about local food and coming to an understanding of her authentic life goals. India, she said, was another step in the journey toward learning how she wished to show up in the world.
“It’s the significance of all of these experiences, starting in Kansas, cooking soul food with my family, to all of these international experiences at the hearths of so many different mommies around the world,” Jocelyn said. “In Mali, grinding the millet, grinding the corn, and in India, learning about the spices. Every single place I went was an opportunity to get more about what it was to nurture and nourish through food, and that’s incredible,” Jocelyn said.
So how did Jocelyn and Keri find each other? Perhaps through fate – and also a mutual friend who knew of the pair’s shared love for and attitudes towards all things culinary. The two immediately clicked.
“It feels sort of predestined. It only took us meeting each other to catch the momentum that was intended,” Jocelyn said. They agreed that the prospect of partnership, having someone with whom to share the ups and downs of small business ownership, was the catalyst that led to the creation of Grace Hearth.
While the two still work part-time jobs in addition to their catering, Grace Hearth, they said, continues to grow. They cater events for local food justice non-profits People’s Grocery and Roots of Change, as well as Farm to Table Yoga Dinners and Late Night Art events in San Francisco.
Next: how do Keri and Jocelyn promote nourishment?
In our conversation, the term “nourishment” came up again and again. So how, I wondered, do Keri and Jocelyn promote nourishment at Grace Hearth?
It turns out, nourishment permeates pretty much everything they do. When they cater events, Keri and Jocelyn make a point of informing the guests about how the food is prepared and where the ingredients come from. They source their ingredients from local farmer’ markets, backyard and community gardens, and local grocers and butchers like Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, and The Local Butcher Shop. This connection to their ingredients, they believe, is what makes their food nourishing on a nutritional and an emotional level.
“In baking school, we were exposed to a lot of wonderful, delicious foods and fancy things, but I was inundated with the feeling that there are the consumers and there are the producers and there’s a huge difference. It’s uncomfortable and I have a bit of disdain for a very consumptive society when it comes to food and I want to bridge that gap,” Keri said. “We aren’t really disconnected and we need not be. So bringing farmers in and sharing where food came from and how it was prepared is so crucial and so integral.”
Indeed, Keri and Jocelyn strive to promote a different food culture from the one most Americans are familiar with, in which meals are often eaten in cars or in front of televisions, with little thought given to the food itself or the experience of eating.
“Food is a part of our culture almost by mistake. It’s a necessity, but it’s not forward in our intention every day,” Jocelyn said.
Finally, inviting local artists, writers, and musicians to share their work during catered meals is important to Keri and Jocelyn’s efforts to nurture the heart, as well as the body.
“Each time you transition from one course to another, we want you to experience a poem that we think is really relevant to this transition. We want you to hear a piece of music that we think will support the way that you identify your place in this next dish, Jocelyn said, “That’s what we want to create, the playfulness and the intention around how we really interact and relate to our food and each other. It’s a culture – we’re creating a culture.”
As someone who deeply feels the need to promote ethical, healthy, local food cultures, I am frequently encouraged by the progress being made by the food justice, organic food and local food movements. What was once considered the domain of hippies and pretentious foodies is now becoming more mainstream. But in the Bay Area and around the country, many communities still suffer from a lack of information about and access to quality food. I asked Keri and Jocelyn what they’re doing to address that issue.
One way they’re doing this, they told me, is by partnering with People’s Community Market, a for-profit endeavor sponsored by People’s Grocery. Once completed, the market will serve as grocery store, cultural center and educational resource for the underserved community of West Oakland. The market will offer both conventional and local and organic foods at reasonable prices, as well as on-sight, free nutrition consultants and live music and other cultural events.
“Increasing access to all socioeconomic levels when it comes to experiences, information, and food is important. I’m so gratified that we’re supporting that kind of organization,” Keri said.
In addition, Keri and Jocelyn’s goals and business models are inspired by food and nutrition programs in communities nationwide. In particular, they point to the Southern Food Ways Alliance as an inspiration for their work.
“It’s sort of a celebrity status thing to be involved in this in the Bay Area but it’s happening in a lot of other places. We get a lot of inspiration from programs that are operating in smaller areas. There are so many programs in smaller communities – it’s fantastic and inspirational,” Keri said.
At the end of the interview, I felt genuinely moved by these passionate, entrepreneurial women and their ability to use their talents to nourish their community on many levels.