Rebel with a Shovel

Lisa Rose Starner has clean hands when she reaches for her much-loved cup of coffee at MadCap Coffee, downtown Grand Rapids. That doesn't happen so often. The coffee, often. The clean hands, not so often.

"People 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 in June. The book release party will be skillfully catered and steaming with freshly brewed coffee on June 25, 7 - 9 p.m., at MadCap Coffee, 98 Monroe Center SW, where the author will be present to sell and sign copies.

Starner is the owner of Urban Ranch, her 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. I take special orders along with the CSA, [and] offer classes on homesteading, herbs, foraging, and organic living."

Starner 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."

Starner 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."

Unlike 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.

"It's 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."

Starner 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, CA, where she worked with Alice Waters, a chef and food activist, and then to the Leelanau Peninsula, where she worked on an organic farm.

"We were 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, health issues, 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.

"When 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 change."
Starner 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."

"My hope 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."

It is 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 zoning meetings."

When Starner 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.

"Food 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."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, writing and editing services, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.   

Photography by Adam Bird