A few weeks ago, LB Fresh co-director Tony Damico got to sit down with Kyle Johnson of Market LOVr at Fox Coffeehouse, a local vegan cafe in Long Beach’s Wrigley neighborhood, to chat about good food. Check out the conversation, in its entirety, below!
Tony – “It was really exciting to hear about your project a while back when you were doing Ask a Chef and kicking off MarketLovr, and just interacting with people at the farmers market. And I know that was your introduction into the local food community. But what got you interested in bringing the plant based lifestyle and healthy food to people, at first?”
Kyle – “Overall, just realizing people need the information, a palatable form of information, meaning somebody who’s relatable to be giving them the information, not scare campaigns or shock news as far as food giving you cancer, this and that. I just knew people needed news that wasn’t fear based, and I knew I could do that, because I didn’t go into it from a fear perspective and I wanted to share my experience because my experience was pretty easy. Easy because it wasn’t an abrupt change all of a sudden. So I knew how I did that, and I knew that because I was equipped with a lot of information just from life that was helping me make decisions. So I kind of wanted to give people resources to plant seeds so they can make their own decisions informed with some knowledge.
Tony – “Definitely. One of the things we hear a lot is that your health is all about your own choices, but it also has a lot to do with the systems we live in, and how those determine our choices. So I’m just kind of curious to pick your brain and see how you feel about personal choice and what sort of things do you see motivating people the most to make that change. And also, how do you think we can change the systems we are in so we have more choices?”
Kyle – “So, the question on motivation, I think motivation in a lot of areas, whether it’s a lot of access to poor nutrients, or it’s money and feeling like you don’t have to spring for some organic produce. Which may look like it costs more all the time, but it doesn’t always, but when you already have a full list of bills, and now you want to add health on top of that buy adding organic produce, you don’t really filter all those options. A lot of these bodegas have organic produce, you can ask them where they got it from, sometimes its from places before it gets old, but they still gets stuff. There is stuff here, but there’s not as much, and people don’t find it so there’s less demand to bring it in because it’s not cheap and it doesn’t compare with the new Carl’s Jr. meals with 6 items for 4 dollars. I think that’s what appeals to people a lot, because they have a lot of other things to worry about. That’s the main factor for me, it’s money.
What was the other part of the question?”
Tony – “Well, I think you already sort of addressed it in terms of how can we change that kind of availability of things, is actually by potentially shift our actual purchasing, which is kind of in a way, a conundrum, a kind of chicken or the egg scenario, where it’s like ok if we start investing in this as communities it’ll be more available but if we can’t afford to invest in it what do we do?
Kyle – “yeah exactly.”
Tony – “I think there are some cool programs that try to address affordability – like market match, that just opened up to small business. But the applications are a bit too complex and cumbersome for the average shop owner. So it’s kind of interesting that a lot of the programs are well intentioned but they are a little too bureaucratic and complicated to be accessible.
Tony – “If you were to bring one concept, or to see something in the community that would change the game in the way we have access to healthy food. What would it be?”
Kyle – “Well really just starting in school honestly, if we could just teach gardening. If kids could see vegetables grow they wouldn’t be as scared of them. A tomato isn’t just a creepy slimy thing. It’s grown with seeds it a wonderful fruit that you’re now going to eat, that mommy and daddy helped you pick. Starting with gardening early, because its’ so hard to help them break habits already, that’s what I learned. A lot of people say “get out there and educate” and that’s but of what I do, but that’s only 2%, the rest goes towards early education. If people just knew this information at an earlier age, they would make those informed decisions on their own a lot sooner. That’s more than half the battle, because you want people to make their own decisions, rather than always trying to coax them into believing a certain philosophy because a lot of philosophies have holes in them. So it’s always hard to get people to resonate with one thing, only to find a contradictory article on how that’s not true, and then they’re thrown in this huge loophole. So just start early and keep giving them the power to make informed decisions.
Tony – “Yeah I like that, a lot of people focus on early childhood education, elementary school etc. And a lot of people focus on persuading adults to change their habits. I think that, for adults the conversation needs to shift to “lets talk about, what is real food?” We should be eating real food right; no one is going to disagree with that. So that’s a good way to break the mold, and of course getting people when they are younger and still developing their taste and such. But that middle phase, in terms of community programs, funding, where we are really putting our efforts and a lot of people count out high school kids, like high school kids are a lost cause, but actually I feel like that’s our last chance to catch them and get them to see that this matters and effects my health, and schools have a lot of athletes so they already get it. This is a good segway into picking your brain about the educational programing you’ve done in Long Beach Poly High. I’m curious about how that came about what the takeaways were.
Kyle – “Well it first came about, because I know it’s affecting my community so I had to start with my best options, and adults are hard to change, so I knew youth was the next step to affect my community. Not like I wanted to save the world with any of these, but I’m good with change, I like to teach cooking and kids need this nutritional information. Every time I talk to people, I try to figure out what kind if information can I get from this person to get humanity a little bit close to eating healthier whole food, so when I talk to kids I’m taking in all the information their giving me, so working with kids leading up to teaching them, I was finding that a lot of kids identify culturally with what they ate, it was a huge part of their identity, so I figured out how to get in their and just plant a seed of how to teach a little something. I don’t overwhelm kids with trying to teach them how to eat the best super food or get all your vegetables in one day I just show them a really good meal based off plants that they can go home and try and show their family. It was fun for me, it wasn’t some altruistic endeavor, like I liked it. It was good for them. It teaches basic life skills which are super important.
Tony – “Life skills are huge right. In some of efforts around food education, that like the biggest hang up that people have. They’re afraid to cut stuff.”
Kyle – “Exactly. Confidence in the kitchen is the biggest thing I see that is holding most people back from feeding themselves in the kitchen. Because they’re afraid they’re not going to be this famous chef they see on T.V.”
Tony – “Right, it’s just for them. Like who are you trying to impress”
Kyle – “ Just go make something to eat, doesn’t matter if you’re not the best at it, or if you burn it ten times, you probably wont burn it that 11th time.
Tony – “yeah and then you learn like, a lot of times when I go out to eat, the flavor is just a little off, I cant flavor it to taste the way I can when I’m home.”
Kyle – “Exactly when you cook at home, you’re the creator of everything, so it may not be plated as pretty, but it will have all the taste that you want.”
Tony – “Yeah”.
Kyle – “So that kind of like, of course I’m passionate about cooking cuz I love it so its artistry for me, but I just wanted to take that passion spark it in the kids minds, that you know, you can cook. L see that its actually an enjoyable. Especially being a black male, cuz sometimes you get people that think only men cook or only a certain demographic cooks, so just using my overall aesthetics of being a male, being somebody who didn’t grow up learning to cook, if someone would have showed me the fun of just cooking earlier, I probably would have had a career earlier. So I just wanted to show you didn’t have to be perfect to cook, just have fun with it.”
Tony- “Definitely, one thing we notice for school food, well first of all most kids don’t eat it, they go to the snack shops and stuff. But in terms of the philosophy of the nutrition services department, they are trying to make food that kids identify with and already supposedly like. So we are talking burritos, we’re taking pizza, maybe a little bit of sandwiches and stuff – is that your same experience where it has to be some recognizable form? Because I think I’ve seen some school districts do a thing where they have a plate that has different items on it – it has some veggie it has a grain, it has some legumes, and a small piece of meat. Which kind of make sense to me like the bento box style of eating. Does it have to be put into some super recognizable form? What kind of dishes do you have the kids doing?”
Kyle – “Well I try to stick to items that aren’t too intricate and are familiar as far as the name of it. So like nachos, burritos, wraps. So even if I’m using jackfruit, or I’m using cauliflower, or walnut taco meat instead of regular taco meat, they’re still familiar with the burrito bowl. So I’m not coming through, like “today we’re going to make a gazpacho” not a bunch of stuff that tastes great but sounds scary, so people already have familiarity with these traditional foods like pizza or nachos, so I try to keep it in that realm but its plant based so were not using any crappy products so they will get that benefit from being healthier, so even though nachos aren’t raw vegan nutrient dense food, its still plant based and a healthier alternative. I just go with food that they know. A lot of things are exotic to them, as far as we’re integrating these plant based food into the meal, like cashews as a cheese sauce, all of them sound scary to them, but they’re all pretty open to it. If it passes the eyeball test they’ll try it. They’re all skeptical at the beginning, like cashews in the cheese?? 10% wont try it but 90% will.”
Tony – “yeah its hard, if you have chunky cashew sauce, forget about it. I don’t know what the key is to that…Do you have to soak them for a certain amount of time?
Kyle – “The better the blender the creamier the sauce will be. You can soak them or hard boil them, but if you want to stay under raw vegan, you soak them overnight, because anything over a certain temp is no longer raw vegan. But we don’t get into all that with the kids. But if you’re in a crunch for time, boil them for 10 minutes, let them sit in the water for another five, throw them in the blender without the water. Add ice lemon juice and that will make sour cream, it a base for alfredo, creamy pasta sauces or creamy salad dressings. Cashew as cheese, or anything creamy are amazing.”
Tony – “I kind of struggle with cashews, cuz sometimes they just taste off. Where do you get your cashews?
Kyle – “Well you get raw cashews that aren’t roasted yet, the closest to raw you can get. Anywhere that sells them in bulk, as long as they’re whole raw. The roasted ones are already cooked. The taste is weird until you get rid of the taste. When you have cashew cheese sauce, you don’t taste the cashews.”
Tony – “Cool, probably a good segway into another game change which is the vegan survival guide, I got my copy – how can people get ahold of that?
Kyle – I watched “What the Health” – after that documentary came out it had an impact on my peer group, a lot. I don’t know if it had the same impact everywhere else, my specific peer group just in my community just started flooding me on instagram, facebook, anywhere they could contact me, they were contacting me like what can I do, I want to change my diet. Or I already changed what the next step. And I don’t know. I can’t answer all these questions for everybody, so that’s always been my problem is how can I help all these people with the little bit that I know? Cuz that’s what I want to do and that’s the position I put myself in. So it started as a good way to get a few recipes out there and then it evolved because I saw more and more people wanted it, so I just realized there was a huge need for people to learn how to get over that hump. So the sauces you could create, ways to shop for your produce, benefits of shopping local. Just a lot of think pieces around the plant based lifestyles that help people get over all those myths. And it has frequently asked questions, like myths about plant based diets or veganism. So as the concept evolved in my mind and more people asked me about, I just evolved it into this guide. When you open up it up you have everything you need. Now, I know how to store my veggies, what’s in season and when, and where to buy it from, how to store things to maximize the meals I can make, how to make a lot of meals out of one item. Just like the bible for the beginning phase of veganism. I realized a lot of people needed it because a lot of people wanted my time. People were asking me how can I start going vegan, and that would take half my day and you want it for free? I can’t do that.”
Tony – “How can people support your project and how is the guide available?”
Kyle – “For the free pdf, you just sign up for the free newsletter at MarketLovr.org. The overall project keeps getting pushed back because I keep adding more elements to it. So just stay tuned on social media and I’ll keep releasing information. I did promise a release date on November the 11th, I do have more people contributing; Supermarket contributed a section to it. Someone who does juices contributed. So, since it’s expanding into this more intricate project ill probably push the release date out to early 2018. It’s not too far, not too close. I feel like I need about 3 months to finish it up so lets just say the project will probably come out next year the first quarter of next year.”
Tony – “So just a fun closing question, do you have any guilty pleasure that you want to share regarding food.”
Kyle – “It’s hard for me to discriminate against sweets for sure. My mom makes a really good peach cobbler. She’s vegan now, she just went vegan, I haven’t had her vegan version yet. It just has traditional dairy butter in it that makes it not vegan. Um, Lets just say I don’t care if the vegan community is mad at me for this, I still eat a piece of cheese pizza sometimes.”
Tony – “Do you have a favorite joint for that?”
Kyle – “This may be trashy but I like stuffed crust pizza at pizza hut, more for nostalgia reasons. I loved it as a kid, and I’m not gonna die if I eat some cheesy stuffed crust pizza. I do it sometimes, I actually just had it last night it’s a fun little snack.”
Tony: – “Yeah that’s cool, I think some people get so ideologically committed to their food perspective and I think that can turn people off and people think they cant do it at that level. But it’s just about balance.”
Kyle – “Exactly, moderation and balance. If you set a bar too high for yourself you wont see yourself succeed it’s this constant negative reinforcement, that this goal is too far for me. So set moderate, reasonable goals for diet”
Tony: -“Well thanks for your time and for this awesome insight. “
Kyle – “Thank you this was cool”