Community through Sustainable Food

The discussion was lively after UC Davis graduate student Lauren Howe and a group of Ethiopian farmers prepared and enjoyed a meal that included sweet potato leaves, which are sustainable, tasty and nutritious. (Courtesy photo)
The discussion was lively after UC Davis graduate student Lauren Howe and a group of Ethiopian farmers prepared and enjoyed a meal that included sweet potato leaves, which are sustainable, tasty and nutritious. (Courtesy photo)

When friends and family dine at graduate student Lauren Howe’s home, they know they will enjoy something tasty, healthy and new. Howe may whip up carrot-top pesto, for example, or beet-greens sauté or some other dish from ingredients other people might throw away.

“I’m a huge proponent of ‘root-to-leaf’ cooking, where we look more creatively and sustainably at the foods right in front of us instead of tossing them,” said Howe, who is a master’s student in International Agriculture Development. “Root-to-leaf cooking nourishes us and helps reduce food waste.”

Howe is passionate about sustainable diets—foods that support both human and environmental health—and she shares that commitment with people around the world.

Last summer, for example, she spent two weeks as part of a Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture project with farmers in Ethiopia, sharing ideas on how to harvest, prepare and enjoy sweet potato leaves.

“Before our project, most farmers didn’t know sweet potato leaves were edible and only used them as feed for animals or to propagate plants,” Howe said. “But after one taste, they were convinced. I love it when you can open people’s eyes to food they might otherwise overlook, especially when you can cultivate community along the way.”

Linking students with local farmers

In addition to her master’s studies, Howe works as a graduate student researcher with the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis, which advances fruit and vegetable innovations to empower smallholder farmers to earn more income while better nourishing their communities. At the horticulture lab, she manages the Trellis Fund, a program that links U.S. graduate students with local organizations to address horticultural challenges in developing countries.

In the last two years, Howe has coordinated 15 Trellis Fund projects in six countries. One of those projects was led by a nonprofit group called Send a Cow Ethiopia. Howe traveled as a student fellow to southern Ethiopia in August 2018 to work with Send a Cow to help small farmers see sweet potato leaves in a new culinary light.

“I was really excited when I heard about this project because I, too, didn’t know sweet potato leaves were edible,” Howe said. “I learned something new!”

‘Blind’ taste test

Sweet potatoes are a staple in many Ethiopian communities, but most farmers don’t consider eating the leaves. For greens, they grow crops like cabbage and kale.

“We normally only think about eating the tuber, but the sweet potato leaves are tasty and nutritious and can be harvested in small quantities during the growing season without harming sweet-potato development,” Howe said. “They are drought-tolerant and available during the dry season when farmers can’t grow kale and other leafy greens, so they are a climate-friendly crop.”

Seeing is believing, so Howe set up a workshop with about 25 farmers in the Gurumo Koysha community to harvest and taste the leaves. Together, they cooked the leaves with a bit of oil, onions, garlic, green chilis, cardamom and salt and compared them in flavor to freshly cooked kale.

“My plan was to set up a blind taste test, but most of the farmers were involved in the cooking so they knew what they were tasting,” Howe said. “And everyone shared their opinion out loud, so we couldn’t collect private feedback. But it was a very lively form of outreach.”

And the consensus was overwhelming: Sweet potato leaves are yummy.

“They taste mild, kind of like spinach, but with a little bit of a starchy texture,” Howe said. “The farmers said they would absolutely incorporate sweet potato leaves into their diets. Some farmers, in fact, prepared them for their families that very night.”

Slow food at its best

Before entering graduate school at UC Davis, Howe worked in Denver for Slow Food USA, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable diets, local food, traditional cooking and community. She and her partner, Dain Holland, met through their shared love for the Slow Food movement and still celebrate it in their lives today. Holland is a sous chef for UC Davis Student Housing and Dining Services and manages on-campus eateries at the Silo, like Gunrock Pub.

In Ethiopia, Howe felt the power of the slow food philosophy.

“Food is truly a universal language, and the act of cooking and eating transcends culture,” she said. “Ultimately, this project was about gathering families, friends and neighbors to a communal meal—already a strong practice in Ethiopia—to share stories, experiences and hopes for the future. What matters is that people can sit together, enjoy a culinary discovery and be fully supported by their community."