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Behind the Plate

BEHIND THE PLATE: KORI PETROVIC

May 26, 2016

kori_petrovic_youthmarket_foodstand

Kori Petrovic, Youthmarket Program Coordinator at GrowNYC, is passionate about educating children about the food system. We all need guidance and opportunity to be able to make good food and life choices, and Kori is a crucial figure for our New York youth. You can follow Youthmarkets on Twitter @NYCyouthmarkets, and read Youthmarket staff experiences on their blog—Young & Green Homegrown.

For those just getting to know you, please tell us about your role at Youthmarket.
Youthmarket is somewhat different from a regular Greenmarket that you’re used to seeing on the streets. Instead of farmers coming to the market to sell their products, we buy wholesale produce through Greenmarket Co. and hire youth from the neighborhood to sell the produce at the stand. That way we provide seasonal jobs to teenagers, bring fresh produce to underserved communities, and support regional farmers. Youthmarket is also an educational program. We teach the youth how to run a small business; through cooking demonstrations we teach the community how to use veggies they’re not familiar with, and ways to store produce so it lasts longer; and through nutrition education workshops we show them how much sugar is in sodas and how many calories are in their favourite fast food meal. My role at the Youthmarket is to coordinate all fifteen Youthmarkets across four boroughs—from hiring and training the market managers and youth, to maintaining equipment and keeping track of paperwork. In a nutshell, I make sure that everything runs smoothly.

Foodstand celebrated Food Revolution Day last week, on May 20th. What does a food revolution mean to you?
A food revolution means going back to the basics—meaning more cooking at home from scratch with simple and fresh ingredients. I think as a society we distanced ourselves from the kitchen and communal cooking, and we’re too busy to share meals and enjoy what we’re eating. We should definitely start paying more attention to where our food comes from and how we’re using it.

What does the food world look like post-revolution, and how do we get there?
In my ideal post-food-revolution scenario everybody would have their own garden plots, would be involved with planting their own food, and would prepare food themselves. Wishful thinking. In a not-so-ideal-post-revolution-world we would just be more aware of what we’re eating—less processed foods and more home-cooked meals.

How did you first get involved with Youthmarket?
I first got involved with Youthmarket when I was part of GrowNYC’s program “Learn It Grow It Eat It.” It’s a program that works with high school teenagers, teaching them how to grow and maintain organic fruits and vegetables in three community gardens in the South Bronx. During the summer, as part of their summer job, they learn how to cook with fresh produce, teach smaller kids about gardening, and conduct simple nutrition workshops in schools and health centers. Part of their weekly job is to run a Youthmarket. At that market, three groups of five teens rotate through selling the produce, conducting cooking demos, and presenting simple nutrition workshops.

How do you define good food?
For me good food is tasty food. The kind that makes you go mmm. Food that makes you feel good after you eat it. If it’s prepared with fresh ingredients and potentially didn’t travel too far, all the better!

Who is your food inspiration?
My mum, firstly! I learned a lot by watching her prepare food while we were in the restaurant business. Secondly, being a food blogger myself, I’ve learned tons from my fellow bloggers as well. I now use spices and ingredients I probably wouldn’t use otherwise.

We believe that food can help change people’s lives. Can you tell about a success story you’ve seen at Youthmarket—how a youth’s life has been changed for the better by his/her involvement?
Every season about 60-70 teens participate in our program and early in the season most of them will be reluctant about trying fresh produce. However, by the end of the market season they’ll often proudly tell me what new fruit or a vegetable they tried and really liked (or disliked); they’ll tell me how they started to eat more veggies, and how they prepare meals at home that they share with their families. Some of them will tell me they reduced the amount of sugary drinks they drink; others say they stopped eating chips. These are small steps that lead to big changes. By positively changing their habits they directly influence their friends, siblings and other family members.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
At the end of the season—after the youth have struggled with cold and rainy weather in October and November, after the hundredth time the tent wouldn’t open, or a customer would complain about something—I’ll hear from the youth how this job was a great learning experience and how it changed them. They’ll usually tell me how it helped them improve their public speaking and that they are less nervous when speaking with new people. As a result they socialize more with their school mates; they are more outgoing, and more likely to try new things. In general, they become more confident and more patient. These are the stories I value, and these stories make my belief stronger that, indeed, we are doing something meaningful and worthwhile!

Are there any personal beliefs that you have on the overall food system that make their way into your everyday business (e.g., curbing food waste, sustainable sourcing, local sourcing)? Do tell.
I think we are wasting too much food in general. We either buy too much of it and it goes bad in our homes, or we prepare it and don’t eat everything—in both scenarios too much food ends in the garbage and eventually in the landfills. We should start paying more attention to where our food ends up. Since I started composting my food scraps I have reduced my garbage by more than half. More and more places are offering drop-off sites, and it’s becoming easier to deal with the waste. This personal belief led to finally adding compost drop-off at two Youthmarkets this year. I hope that number will grow next year.

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If you had to make a food resolution this year, what would it be?
To make a new dish by mastering a new cooking technique at least once a month.

What has been your biggest work-related challenge?
One of the struggles that continuously repeats year after year is dealing with the lateness of youth staff. Out of the whole pool of teens, there are always a few that are late more than others. For a lot of them it’s their first job ever and each teenager has a different learning curve when it comes to working at a new position. I usually start by talking to them to see what’s going on in their life (personal or professional) that’s making them being late. Some may just need a subtle reminder, while others require more clearly defined consequences to get the point. If talking doesn’t work, with the help from the manager we try to work on their motivation. We’re all late from time to time, so I start at the softer end of the scale, and take stronger measures only when nothing else seems to get through.

Weather can also sometimes be a challenge. Two years ago we had a lot of cold and rainy market days in October. You have to be innovative to keep everyone’s spirits up and keep everyone positive. I always try to encourage the managers to find fun activities during the day to take their minds off the miserable weather. On the other hand, last season was very sunny and dry. We have yet to see what this year brings us.

Food issues have barely made it into the race for President. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
One of the important issues to address soon is more support for small, diversified farmers! By providing small family farms a viable outlet through which to sell their products, we help preserve farmland. Protecting family farms becomes a shared goal for both farmers and their consumers when we create more local food systems that in turn create direct-to-consumer markets that further strengthen relationships between farmers and their consumers.

If you could get the general population to change ONE aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
Less processed food!

What’s one of your first (and most memorable) interactions with food?
During my childhood in Croatia, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ house. Polenta and thick homemade yogurt was a spotlight breakfast before we took off to do our farm chores. But nothing could beat grandma’s warm bread with the best homemade rose hip or plum jam—the smell and the taste of which I still remember pretty vividly. I also loved chewing honey comb right after my grandfather pulled it out from the bee hives! (I also remember him saying a bee sting is good for arthritis!)

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t running the Youthmarket program, I’m pretty sure I would be involved in some kind food-related field. I think in today’s world it’s crucial to educate children and adolescents (and adults) about the food system and food cycle. Giving kids an opportunity to learn about the issues that affect food, and to take an active role in their own nutrition, prepares them for a lifetime of considering both health and sustainability when making choices about the food they eat.

Who is one famous person, dead or alive, that you want to share a meal with? And where?
Nobody in particular comes to mind. If I could, I’d really like to have a meal with a Native Indian a few centuries back. I think it would be truly remarkable to find out more about how they gathered food, prepared it and what different cooking techniques they used.

What’s always in your fridge? How do you use it?
Honey, carob powder, olives and dry sage! I love to bake so I use honey instead of sugar, and you can never go wrong with carob powder in sweets, and olives in salads. Sage tea just tastes wonderful, hot in the winter or with ice cubes in the summer.

What’s your favorite meal-on-the-go?
My favourite meal-on-the-go is oatmeal with roasted butternut squash, honey, chopped walnuts and cinnamon in a jar—it’s a great stress reducer (in combination with WQXR classical radio) while I’m driving the Youthmarket van on the FDR during the morning rush hour!

Favorite recipe?
One of my (many) favourite recipes is brownies with seasonal fruit (cherries and currants are soon to be found at the farmers markets!) Note: Once you click, scroll down for the English translation.

Your good food wish?
Cook! Experiment with new ingredients and try not to eat alone.