Phil Kauth

Phil Kauth, formerly of Seed Savers Exchange, is the new executive director of REAP, a Madison-based food nonprofit. 

Phil Kauth was posting another job opening on the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies job board when the executive director position at REAP, a Madison-based food nonprofit, caught his eye.

Kauth (pronounced like “south”) had spent eight years at Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit with international scope, most recently as Director of Preservation. But he and his wife were from Wisconsin — Manitowoc and Waukesha, respectively — and had always hoped to return.

“I wanted to work for an organization that was really entrenched in the local community,” Kauth said. “I wanted to be with a mission-driven organization, one that’s been making a difference for quite awhile. REAP’s been around for 25 years now.”

Founded as the Dane County Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group in 1997, REAP has three main areas of programming focus: farm to school, farm to business and farm to families.

Following the departure of Helen Sarakinos, Kauth has led REAP for a month and moves with his family to Madison this week. Kauth spoke to the Cap Times about how he defines food justice, why “together” is a favorite word, and what the future of REAP might look like.

You’ve said that you worked with “underrepresented people” at Seed Savers Exchange. What were some examples of that?

We did work with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. In the midst of the pandemic, we resurrected the Heirloom Collard Project, working with a lot of Black farmers in the southeast. We’ve been doing work with Asian American farmers in California. There’s a wealth of knowledge in farming and seed-saving.

How do you intend to translate those national efforts to REAP’s regional focus?

Being local, being state- and regional-focused, is awesome. I love the emphasis that REAP has on transforming local foodways. My relationship building with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network was very regional, in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan.

I would love to see REAP get more involved in inviting people to the table who traditionally aren’t listened to and heard. It will make for a stronger food economy, a more cohesive community around food, food access and food justice.

Would you clarify what you mean by “food justice?”

Food justice is about equitable food access. Land access for farmers, access to markets and grocery stores in food deserts and food apartheid areas.

You have food sovereignty, which is a subcategory of food justice. That’s more about marginalized communities having the ability to make their own decisions around food. It’s also the right of people to have access to healthy and culturally appropriate food.

Not just, “Hey, here’s government cheese for you, be grateful.” It’s, “What culturally appropriate food is out there and available to communities? And do they have the right to access that, and make decisions around that?”

There’s a lot of invisible labor involved in diversity efforts. How do you balance your interest in hearing from marginalized people and respecting their time and labor?

Stephen Covey coined the term “the speed of trust.” You go at the speed of trust. There are so many variables, and there’s no endpoint to relationship building.

It’s approaching people and communities and groups and organizations, (but) not saying “I want to help you. What can I do to help you?” It’s more, “Hey, we have intersecting goals and commonality in what we do. What can we do together?”

I am really big on that word “together.” For the longest time, we have not been doing things together in food justice areas. I want to bring people together to co-create. People are always asking, “How do you get organizations and people to buy in to what you’re doing?” There’s no buy-in if you co-create, because you’re doing it together.

Co-creation can be very messy and very hard, but it’s so rewarding. Part of the speed of trust is you need to push aside your own assumptions about what you think you know. You need to have large ears, hear people, take that to heart and back off if need be. And dive in when people say, “Let’s go, let’s figure this out together.”

When you look at what REAP is doing now with things like the school snack program or the Farm Fresh Atlas, can you identify areas you’d like to push more toward and where you might scale back?

I’m a firm believer that, at a nonprofit, if you’re not looking at your programs and morphing and evolving, you’re kind of stagnant and might not stick around much longer.

With Farm to School, several years ago we partnered with AmeriCorps, with volunteers going into schools and teaching kids about food. That phased out and now we’re doing this snack program with the Madison school district. I was talking to Allison (Pfaff Harris), the Farm to School director, like “let’s take a look at this program and see how it’s working.”

The Farm Fresh Atlas is a good tool, but we’re evolving into a wholesale-readiness website, where organizations and businesses can have access to farmers selling wholesale. We’ve been talking about whether it’s feasible for REAP to have a vegetable processing facility.

During the pandemic, the other program that popped up was Farms to Families. Roots4Change is a community wellness organization led by Latina women, healthcare workers and doulas that specialize in maternal and child health. Helen (Sarakinos) reached out to them. They also partnered with Rooted, which has Troy Farm and Badger Rock Urban Farm. They were putting these boxes (of produce) together.

There’s immense opportunity there. Providing good food for families that really need it is a big future for REAP.

It sounds like REAP is focused on making those connections for farmers, with grant funds and communication.

The big challenge for farmers — they need to be farmers. But then if they want to make any money, they also need to be business people. If you’re a business person, you have to also be a marketing person.

In realty farmers just want to farm and provide food. They don’t have the resources to do marketing, or the time to apply for USDA grants for assistance.

We want to have a robust, locally based food economy but most small farmers don’t have the capacity to ramp up what they do and provide a lot on a larger scale. When you combine all the market farms and CSA (community supported agriculture) farms they do, but singly they don’t.

But what better way of knowing where your food comes from and who’s growing your food than to buy it locally? There’s a big opportunity there.

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