Rebel with a Shovel
(First published in Rapid Growth Media, June 13, 2013)
Starner has clean hands when she reaches for her much-loved
cup of coffee at MadCap Coffee, downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. That doesn't happen so
often. The coffee, often. The clean hands, not so often.
who think they have no power to make a change?"
she asks. With grit: "Just pick up a shovel!"
Starner is the author
of Grand Rapids
Food: A Culinary Revolution, published by History Press and on shelves since
June 2013. She is the owner of Urban
Ranch, place of residence but also her place of business, which she calls Burdock & Rose. She grows
herbs and runs a CSA (community supported agriculture) for medicinal and edible
herbs. "It's an urban, midcentury-modern homestead on nearly one
acre," Starner says. "I grow more than 70 plants that can be used for
food and for remedies, and I take special orders along with the CSA, offer
classes on homesteading, herbs, foraging and organic living."
is serious about instigating a revolution with a
shovel. "Grand Rapids is flush with resources, and we need to learn how to
be better stewards of those resources. Gardening is empowering people. The book
is a call to action to the people of Grand Rapids to do more, to sit down at
the table to talk about the economic impact on our community when we connect to
place, when we grow our own food."
was born in Flint, but grew up just north of Grand
Rapids, in Spring Lake, where, she says, her mother always made sure the family
gathered around the dinner table. "Mom's food was functional, but she also
did a lot of canning and preserving. Now that I have two kids, I realize how
much hard work that is. Today, though, we live in a world of luxury with the
global food system. We can get anything at any time. No need to be seasonal.
But now we need to take a closer look at that system."
most who are deep into the local and organic food
movement, Starner admits that she might occasionally have a bologna sandwich.
And that coffee? Hardly local, although she does look for fair trade coffee
beans, keeping in mind the farmers at the other end who need to make a living.
complicated," she says. "Politically,
I'm a moderate. Our global food system consists of many layers, like an onion.
I've spent time in Latin America, so I've seen the impact of cash crops, and
the inter-dependence and the relationships involved."
has, as she puts it, traveled a nonlinear path to
get to where she is today. She started as a music major at Grand Valley State
University, but discovered she wanted to be outdoors as much as possible. Her
interests moved her to a degree in anthropology and French, and a master's in
public administration and nonprofit management. Studies and travels took her to
Napa Valley and then to Berkeley, California, where she worked with Alice
Waters, a chef and food activist, and then to the Leelanau Peninsula, where she
worked on an organic farm.
talking about GMOs [genetically modified
organisms] before anyone else," she laughs. Starner also works with
children, teaching them to garden and cook in a nonprofit program she started
in Grand Rapids. It's all interconnected, she says, poverty and health issues
and food access and a sense of empowerment. Famine is man-made, Starner
insists, and can also be eliminated by us. Teach kids how to garden and good
things begin to grow—and not just food.
I moved back to Grand Rapids in 2001, people
would say, 'It's so nice that you want to garden with children!'" Starner
guffaws. "But gardening can save our lives. You can put me in the woods
anywhere, and I will be able to survive. Nature is chaotic; it has its own
checks and balances. Put kids in a garden, and they have the tools to deal with
sees gardens, good food, and especially herbs as
medicine. Her new book is a collection of the stories of local people
reconnecting to nature and each other, and the benefits of living a more
organic life. She shares in it the stories of neighborhoods, families and
individuals involved in the local food movement, working for community change,
"one garden, one backyard, one block, one store, one plate of food, cup of
coffee and mug of beer at a time."
is to cultivate a sense of place that is more
than just visiting chain stores. Economic development needs to be based on
something vibrant. It can't be built. It has to be grown. We have the
biodiversity in Grand Rapids to make that happen," Starner says. "We
need to value our differences."
our differences, Starner says, that can enrich our
lives as a community, as neighbors, learning once again how to connect and to
rely on each other for help in a healthy way. "Farming is hard work, and
no one can do it all. I'm a really great herbalist, but I want someone else to
grow my eggs. Someone can garden, someone else can sit through the tedious
started her own garden in her urban front yard,
a neighbor driving by in a white Cadillac rolled her window down and called out
that she had checked city ordinances, and (sigh) gardens in front yards are not
illegal. Starner gives a delicious laugh, telling another story of a tolerant
friendship grown from that exchange.
is the hook," she says. "It's about
good taste, but then it's about the connection, the conversation around the
dinner table. People are starving for that. That's my hope, that the book will
start some of those conversations. And if anyone needs a shovel to get their
garden started, they can call me."