Eve Kelliher gets food for thought from ‘Grow Cook Eat’ presenter Karen O’Donohoe
Buying cheap food is a false economy — that’s the view of Cork grow-it-yourself expert Karen O’Donohoe who is calling on us to “put our money where our mouth is” and support local producers.
You’ll get plenty of ideas on sustainable cuisine, from plot to plate, when Karen returns to our television screens as a presenter on RTÉ series Grow Cook Eat this Wednesday.
Throughout the seven-part series, Karen and her co-presenter Michael Kelly, founder of social enterprise Grow It Yourself (GIY), visit expert food producers, chefs, and innovative community food projects.
GIY aims to support 100 million people to grow, cook and eat some of their own food for a more sustainable world by 2030.
Grow Cook Eat shows how simple, everyday actions can make a powerful lifestyle change.
The first episode visits Cork and Dublin and sees Karen stop off in Fota in her native East Cork.
“Of course, I’ve been to Fota lots of times but never had the opportunity to really stop and appreciate the conservation element of the wildlife park nor the education aspect of the work they do,” she says.
“The majority of us still don’t understand the devastating impact our consumer choices have on wildlife — I don’t believe it’s that people don’t care, rather I think we’ve become so detached from nature through busy, stressful lives, an over-reliance on convenience and an addiction to consumerism, that we consider ourselves separate from it with no sense of the consequences of our actions nor do we fully realise the positive impact we can have by making better choices.”
Meeting the people behind the stories was what Karen loved about making the series.
The growers are maintaining and developing their businesses in the most difficult of climates — both environmental and cultural, she points out.
“Extreme weather conditions can wipe out an entire growing season in a matter of hours and for small farmers in particular there is no Plan B — and culturally we continue to place a higher value on the cheap food, seemingly great deals and what is actually a false sense of economy, than we do on paying a fair price for a local, seasonal, sustainably produced product,” she adds.
Karen moved to her new home and garden in the rolling East Cork countryside recently.
“The garden was one of the main reasons I bought the house (although the house is pretty amazing too) as it’s a great space with well-established mature trees and hedges and loads of potential for food growing,” she tells the Irish Examiner.
“We are very, very lucky to live here.”
Despite the chaos moving house can entail, Karen still adheres to the GIY ethos.
“Moving and renovating the house has been a priority so I’m only too glad to embrace the concept of ‘rewilding’ when it comes to the garden! Until such time as I get the polytunnel and raised beds sorted, we’ll rely on containers to get the spuds and salads planted and I’ll grow tomatoes from plants in a little while using old windows as a makeshift greenhouse,” she says.
“Bio-diversity is also a priority so I’m going to rethink how I’ll maintain the grass to ensure there’s shelter and food for the bees and anything I do plant out will be pollinator-friendly — there are some excellent resources available to help me make better choices around the bulbs I choose.
Karen returned to Ireland in 2012 after a decade living, studying and working in Bristol.
“It was there, predominantly through my MSc in Physical Activity, Nutrition and Public Health, I came to fully appreciate the importance of food and its impact on the health of people and planet,” she says.
“I can’t quite remember how GIY came on my radar but starting a GIY group in my home village of Ladysbridge when I first moved back from Bristol seemed like a good idea as I was keen to meet people and get actively involved in my new community plus my mom and I had a small site on the corner of the village that, as overgrown and littered as it was when we bought it, had huge potential as a community allotment.”
Joining forces with like-minded people from the village they successfully applied for a grant through GIY’s Get Ireland Growing campaign and created a community garden.
“I was really impressed by GIY’s ambition and growth as a social enterprise and at the time was starting my own, The Cottage Market, so literally picked up the phone and asked Mick (GIY founder Michael Kelly) to mentor me! He then offered me a part-time role to fundraise for GROW HQ and the rest as they say is history,” adds Karen.
In fact, the RTÉ show is anchored at the home of GIY, at GROW HQ in Waterford City and each week urges viewers to participate in the UN’s Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with food systems playing a major role in several of the 17 SDGs.
Getting her children, Dylan and Saoirse, involved in food decisions is key.
“It’s not just about growing food, it’s about making sustainable food choices and whilst of course I encourage Dylan and Saoirse to help me out in the garden, I also encourage them to think about all the food decisions we make and how we can make better ones. I encourage my family to buy better bread, milk, cheese, meat and fish and to change well-established shopping habits — it’s not easy but we simply can not keep going the way we are,” she says.
GIY employs 28 people in Waterford. “We are passionate about the power of food-growing experiences to set people on a journey to sustainability and an improved understanding of food and nutrition (‘food empathy’) and work with come of the world’s leading brands,” adds Karen.
Grow Cook Eat is on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on RTÉ One. For further details see https://growcookeat.ie/