Hearth Matters
Hearth Matters Podcast
E05 | Householder Fems Riff on Sustainable Food Systems and the Village Economy

E05 | Householder Fems Riff on Sustainable Food Systems and the Village Economy

Kathryn discusses the challenges of integrating sustainable food systems with modern market economies, focusing on the difficulties faced by homemakers and local food producers in maintaining economic viability. She highlights the high costs and regulatory hurdles that inflate prices and limit access to locally produced, nourishing foods. Erin touches on the potential of technology to connect communities and enable more efficient, localized food distribution models.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

I'm super focused on increasing the economic viability of full-time homemaking, but also I'm selfish.

I want these products.

I want to be able to go on an app and be able to get beautiful fresh bread, sauerkraut, homemade kefir.


So we talked about tech and kids.

Let's talk about sustainable food systems, because I know that's something you've been thinking a ton about lately.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

I was writing my book agent this morning, and pretty soon I realized that I was fleshing out the introduction part of our book that we're working on.

Because I was diving a little deeper into the low status that I witnessed women

In Peru especially, that's where I really noticed it, because you can see their traditional cultures still intact there.

And when you see them move into the market economy, often as maids or in service, they lose all their wisdom and knowledge of the hearth.

around healing and food and all of that.

That sort of gets pushed to the back seat.

And now they're very low status citizens.

So they've gone from it's very painful to watch these high status women in their villages, move from their village economy into a market economy, and then you see the status of all just disappear.

And I was thinking about my exit from my company and that my agent knows a bit about and because it happened while I was writing the Farmhouse Culture Guide to Fermentation.

And I was thinking about the status that I was acutely aware of my own low status.

in the market economy.

It valued MBAs and scaling and, you know, scaling was a way to get our prices more affordable, scaling and efficiencies, so that more people could afford it.

Because if you tried to stay within the village economy,

Because you were inundated with so many market economy regulations and costs still, you ended up having price points that only the wealthy people in your community could afford.

And so that really has been, for those of us who want to create nourishing, wise foods for our communities, those have been our two paths.

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Again, it could be better now.

But, and then if you're in the, if you try to play within the village model, you know, our, so for instance, our sauerkraut was $6 for a pound of sauerkraut.

And we had, there was a couple of small companies around before we, you know, came onto the scene and created, you know, the first national brand for, for these types of products.

$12, $13 for a pound of sauerkraut.

I mean, it is about if you do organic cabbage, it's about a dollar worth of ingredients.

And if you add a bunch of fancy things in there, let's call it $1.50.

So in a perfect world, that maker should have been making

You know, she should have been able to, he or she should have been able to charge $4 and made a profit, maybe $5 max, and had enough to pay herself for packaging and for, you know, GNA, right?

General and administrative stuff.

But instead, all these distribution costs, especially if you're trying to move things across the country, all these heavy-duty packaging costs and the costs associated environmentally with some of these plastic packages, and glass is also a huge problem environmentally because it's too bloody heavy to be shipping around, and plus you buy all your glass in China.

And there's a whole host of problems with that.

There are no local glass makers anymore.

So all these issues, and next thing you know, you're having to, oh, and then selling it to stores, right?

And then maybe you've got a broker who's also, you need to pay them.

They pick it up, and then maybe on top of the broker, they're paying a distributor, and the distributor gets a cut, and then you get it to the store, and they're marking it up by 40 or 50%.

And so all these middlemen between you and your neighbor.

And ironically, I would go into my neighbor's houses, literally in my neighbor's houses, and I'd see the product I made in the refrigerator.

And it used to sort of make me think, like, isn't this crazy?

This couch came from China.

The valve came from Canada.

You know, the printing was done in China at that point.

And, you know, but it had been all made just a few miles away and it had gone to a big distribution center.

It had been trucked, you know, back from that distribution center to the store where they picked it up and they had to go pick it up.

They had to bring it back.

What would have it looked like if I could have avoided all that and just sold them the product?

And, you know,

We haven't really, I think a lot of us in the food business, especially in the natural food business, have been asking that question for a long time.

And, and there are, there's just so many, you know, if you want to make a living selling kraut from home,

You have to have a pretty solid membership of people.

You're going to have to have like 150 people who buy it regularly in order to actually make a living.

I know so many well-intentioned homemakers who want to supplement their income

but because they don't know really how to do an assembly line sort of production of product like you just make product one day a week and then you pack it the second day and then you store it the rest of the time and you take orders and you have to have everybody come to one place to pick it up you can't you'll kill yourself trying to deliver it to people right and you can't have people come into your house every single day and so none of these things just they didn't work and so I know people they

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Especially as we start to write the book, you know, I'm, as you know, I'm, I'm super focused on the economic, increasing the economic viability of full-time homemaking.

But also I want, I'm selfish.

I want these products.

I want to be able to go on an app and be able to get beautiful fresh bread, sauerkraut, homemade kefir.

And by the way, a lot of these foods are illegal to make at home.

You can't make sauerkraut or kefir at home.

You can make, you know, sugary things because they don't trust us to be able to manage this on our own.

But I want that app.

Everybody I talk to is like, yes, I would love to have access to a lot of gorgeous food that I picked up once a week.

I'd love to have access to home-based restaurants and I can go pick up a great curry for dinner tonight.


um so uh i just it's just a matter of it really is like the regulation state right it's less like because ironically now that we have social media you you should be able to say hey i live in you know so such and such zip code i'm setting up a subscription services but what you're saying is that that's illegal that it is really the membership model that's a requirement and that's what

Homemakers are really missing.

Is that kind of an accurate summary?

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

That's right.

And that's what this technology that we've been talking about that is so problematic

The other side of that technology is that it connects us.

We can actually do this on our phones.

We can do it in closed intranets.

We can, if we are paying our taxes, if we're purchasing this stuff from each other, and we have a membership agreement, and there's an application process, then we protect ourselves from some of the regulations that prevent us from making a wider variety of foods, and then they regulate the heck out of you.

You have to, you know, you're not allowed to make a certain amount of money.

You've got to prove that your kitchen is clean.

And this is all reasonable, right?

You should, you should be able to, you need to know how, you know, food safety is the number one thing that we'll teach in our classes.

and other people are teaching already.

But you can't make a lot of these foods legally because they think that we can't regulate the food safety and that sort of thing.

But the real problem is if we don't have a real membership model, then it's hard to piecemeal it together with just a handful of neighbors.

So you've got to have somebody who's taking ownership of the, say we call it a hearth hub,

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The business end of that, and they, all they have to do is drop their food off.

They have to know how to produce food safely.

They have to not interrupt their neighborhood.

You can't have, you know, delivery trucks coming at 2 a.m.

in the morning, and you can't have delivery trucks come, you can't, you can't have a run a million dollar business out of your garage, right?

And you, and you certainly, if you're going to have a home restaurant, you can't have constant noise.

So that's why they want to regulate that.

These are regulations, right, that are that are realistic.

But do we need to pay somebody to tell us this?

I mean, if we're going to start a business in our homes, wouldn't that be one of our biggest priorities to make sure that our neighbors are happy?

You know,

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It was such that groceries, the ingredients you needed to buy the food felt really, really close to the price of just buying that salad, or that pizza or whatever it was from the restaurant.

But I think what I've noticed, at least I don't have data behind it, but anecdotally, is that now, within the last quarter, restaurants have really spiked their prices, service providers has spiked their prices, which is not to say that they didn't need to do that.


You know, when you're talking about some of these figures on the income that you can make, you know, you're not, you're not asking that producer to charge 25 bucks a meal, you're still talking about, you know, a 12 $13 homemade dinner, at least some of the data that you showed me so far, you know, it's affordable for the members, and the membership

Yes, yeah.

And the

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

Did I send you the TikTok with the sandwich shop numbers, how much it cost him to run his sandwich shop?

No, where was it?

I don't think I did.

I'll send it to you.

I don't know.

I think it was a big city and somebody was saying, you know, why am I having to pay $20 for a sandwich?

And then he does the math and he has $28,000 a month in labor.

Um, you know, rent was like something like $20,000 or $15,000.

And then his food cost is, you know, 50%.

And, and on and on and on.

And it was something like he needed to make $80,000 in sales before he earned a profit.



SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

And it's like, that's because your margins are in the four to six percent on that.

So even when he's charging $18 to $20 for a sandwich, because he's got, because the model is broken, you know, it's really hard to get employees who actually are interested in working for the wages that worked for that model.

Young people can make money doing all kinds of things that don't involve dealing with annoying customers.

And, you know, when you are doing the same business from home, your customers aren't annoying because you're going to have an occasional annoying customer, but they're your neighbors.

They're going to treat you nicely, right?

Because you guys all live in the same neighborhood and you do business together.

And so it's not an anonymous transaction.

And so, I mean, you know how I preach on this.

There are a million reasons why this type of model makes sense.

We just have to get the first prototypes up and running.

And you know what I've been thinking a lot about over the holidays, I took mostly a mental break

But I was thinking a lot about farmers who already have CSAs being maybe the first prototypers of this model.

So maybe they develop some sort of a membership where in addition to the CSA box, you know, if you pay $25 a month to be part of the Hearth Hub that you can

Have as a an add-on to your box of vegetables Then you have access to a whole range of local householders

who are making a bunch of gorgeous products for you.

And, you know, $25 a month, maybe it's $10 a month.

I don't know what the right number is, but the person who's organizing it needs to be paid.

And the person who's assembling the boxes and the person who's refrigerating everything, there has to be some cost involved for that.

And hopefully that number is still quite a bit less

then you would be paying in order to access all of those products at a store.


You know, or a restaurant.

So, this is what we need to figure out.


Yeah, I mean, it doesn't need to be a 50% of your grocery bill to make sense.

You know, if you get 25% of your groceries, you know, through Hearthologist, through the producers within a hub,

25 bucks a month is certainly what you're already saving in terms of getting those same products at a Whole Foods or even a farmer's market.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

The prices are, yeah, unbelievable.

Sometimes they are.

Are your farmer's market prices high?

Very, yeah.

In Bellingham?

Yeah, I mean, they're not too bad here.

It depends.

It's really interesting.

In some markets, like in San Francisco, they're worse than others.

But our Santa Cruz farmers market, maybe because we have so many farmers here, prices aren't too terrible.

But even then, at one point, Farmhouse Culture was doing 14 farmers markets a week.

And by the time I paid market fees and gas and the rent, you know, insurance on the truck and an employee, all of a sudden I wasn't, I mean, profit margins weren't big.

So it is interesting, right?

How do we shift that?

Do you have a lot of farmers and CSA boxes available in Bellingham?


No, we've or no, honestly, I haven't looked into them up here.

We do have a few co-ops.

And we have we've gotten beef from local farmers before.

But no, I haven't.

I haven't really looked at what the CSA sort of world looks like up here.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

I looked at your co-op when I was there last, trying to find honey mead for your honeymoon present, for one of your wedding presents, and the prices seemed somewhat reasonable, you know, compared to, say, a Whole Foods.


Yeah, Whole Foods and even our grocery store, which is called Hagen here, the prices are

I think, you know, I, my primary grocery store when we were living in Seattle, because I literally lived on top of it was a Trader Joe's.

And oh, yeah, they're known for produce that doesn't last as long.

But for us, it was, we were getting one meal at a time.

So it was well worth it.

And their prices, I think, so my, my price sensitivity comes from Trader Joe's, and it's hard to beat Trader Joe's on anything.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

Yeah, yeah.

I just can't bring myself to buy fruit and vegetables there.

I hate buying stuff covered in plastic and knowing that it's got a lot of food miles on it.

But I do live in an area where, you know, we have farmers markets pretty much year round.

And we have amazing health food stores.


Our local health food store is extremely expensive.

But when I have to figure in the cost of driving

You know, it's probably, I have to add $5 every time I drive into town because we are 30 minutes from town.

It's like, okay, I guess, I guess I'll pay it.

But the other day, do you know what an end dive is?

It's a bitter green.

I love putting them in my fancy salads when I'm entertaining.

And I paid $14 for three little endives.

I mean, it was $2 worth of endives.

Okay, maybe three.


I wasn't paying attention.

And I got home and I said, Wait a minute, why was that so expensive?

And I look, it was $14.

And the same thing with a bag of cherries.

I licked

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And, you know, I, we could talk, you know, I could talk forever about this stuff.

But one of the things that I'm really, really excited about and interested in is watching these conservative cattle ranchers convert

to grassland management.

They think of them as grass, themselves as grass farmers now.

And they're making, it's just really wonderful to watch.

I mean, I've been around this scene for, I wrote about them when I worked for the, I had a column for the Sonora Union Democrat in 2007.

A local food column.

I don't think I knew that about you.


Yeah, you didn't?



No, that might be one thing I don't know yet.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

Very cool.

There are probably another few things.

And anyway, I met all these really conservative ranchers and the organic food movement and the local food movement.

It completely bypassed them, right?

But they were so into switching over their cattle ranching practices to more natural ways of managing things.

You know, some of them will have their cattle on grass and they'll graze them at various places throughout the year.

And it's mostly grass-fed, but then they finish them on grain for a month someplace else.

They may not be grass-finished.

And it's like, we need to buy products from them too, because especially if they're small, then they are, they're trying to make that transition.

Not all of them have the option to grass feed year-round because the more traditional model is that you let them feed on the dry grass.

And there are ranchers who can afford to do that.

But it was interesting to come in contact with ranchers who had successfully managed relationships with environmentalists who were fighting to keep cattle off their land.

And they had found a way to compromise and to more responsibly manage the moving, I guess, what do you call that?

Well, the movement of the cattle throughout the season so that they wouldn't completely destroy their habitat that they were in.

Because like, for instance, where their water trough was, if they didn't move it on a regular basis, that land would just be completely destroyed three, four years.

So, just getting out there with their tractors and moving the water troughs around to multiple places.

A little bit more energy, but huge returns in terms of that land being able to hold more water next year, when the grass roots can go deeper.

Just all these different things sequester more carbon.

So, anyway.

It's an interesting time in food and some combination of these hearth hubs and sustainable practices.

And I think technology is going to help us with these sustainable practices, ultimately.

And, you know, the Green Revolution that, you know, that allowed us to grow the population to

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responsible for the ranchers and the farmers who are farming that way.

There are a lot of organizations, you know, geared towards helping them make this transition.

But in this country, unfortunately, we don't have subsidies to help them.

We subsidize corn, wheat, and soy in this country, but we don't subsidize organic farming.

And so

You know, I have a lot, a lot more to say about this subject and I've gone on too much.


I know it's good.

Yeah, it's, it's not really, you know, there's so much going on in the, the culture war in the political space that we don't really

You know, have thoughtful conversations.

What you're just saying is that there's conservatives who are working with environmentalists.

And I think I would argue that the conservatives are more environmental than we they get credit for, you know, hunters and, and some of these ranchers and farmers really do care and invest a lot in environmental protection.

And we just get it, they just get a bad rap.

Um, but you're talking about collaboration and solutions and that's, you know, we love to hear about that.

SPEAKER 1: Kathryn

Yeah, yeah.


Thanks again for tuning into the Hearth Matters podcast and for letting us riff.

What I love about conversations with Catherine is that she has a different approach.

She is from a different generation than mine and yet at the same time we're looking at issues relating to home and hearth through the lens of householder feminism.

So we hope you find these discussions interesting

And if you're new to Householder Feminism or want to explore more of our work at Hearth Matters, we invite you to check out our substack at www.thehearthmatters.com and we'll see you next time.

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Hearth Matters Podcast
Join us in thought-provoking discussion about the connection between home life and human flourishing in the 21st century.
Hearth Matters nonprofit co-founders and householders Kathryn Lukas-Damer and Erin Szuma interview experts and ordinary women who are rethinking, revaluing and reinventing home & hearth. Kathryn, in the matriarchal phase of her life, embodies the wisdom and practical knowledge of a lifelong entrepreneur, local food system expert and mother of a grown son, while Erin, a Millennial with her first baby on the way, shares her journey as a new mother navigating career and family life.
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