In the backyard stands a sandbox filled with yellow trucks. Next to it is a small vegetable patch. Both are 2-1/2-year-old Leo’s playgrounds. Rick Martin pulls a radish out of the garden, shakes off the dirt, and hands it to his son. Leo takes a big bite. “Is it good?” Dad asks. Leo gives an exaggerated head bob, his mouth too full to speak.
“We weren’t sure if he was old enough to get it this year, but he totally is,” says Eileen Horn, Leo’s mom, gesturing to the raised garden she and Rick planted with foods they thought Leo would like: tomatoes, peas, cucumbers.
Eileen and Rick have focused their careers on this simple thing: getting people excited about eating produce grown near them.
Rick, a restaurateur, makes new converts every time a customer bites into one of his wood-fired pizzas topped with produce fresh from area farms. Eileen, the sustainability director for the City of Lawrence and Douglas County in Kansas, develops visionary programs, such as free community orchards, that get people eating the fruits of their labors.
Together, this couple has had an outsized impact on the health, economy and environment of their community by showing others how fulfilling — and delicious — a more sustainable, just and earth-friendly way of living can be.
A Zig-Zag Path
When Eileen left her childhood home in Lenexa, Kansas, to attend college, she had her life all figured out. She was going to be a doctor. But, as it so often does, life had its own plans.
After graduating from The Catholic University of America, Eileen served as an AmeriCorps member at a low-income health clinic in Denver. After her service year, she stayed in Denver to teach middle school and lead backpacking trips in the Rocky Mountains. Later, as a graduate student at the University of Vermont, she worked in a Costa Rica cooperative helping women cook with solar ovens.
This kaleidoscope of experiences formulated a new set of career goals: promote human health, fight environmental degradation and further renewable technology. All she needed was a job that pulled it all together.
In 2007, she had her chance. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its study on global warming. But government officials back in her home state of Kansas, she says, “…called it a hoax. I felt called to return home and dig in where the battle lines had been drawn.” By 2010, she was a county sustainability coordinator, ready to help turn this red state green.
The Kid Who Could Cook
“I was the little kid who could cook, and people thought that was cute,” Rick says about his start as a chef, growing up in Wichita. “My mom worked a lot of second shifts. I had to cook to feed myself and my brother and sister. When I finally got to the moment when the food I made was good and people praised me for it, that sparked the passion for it.”
To pay his tuition at the University of Kansas, Rick took a job at a restaurant. He liked it so much he switched his career path to culinary arts. His real-world education came from Free State Brewing Company’s brewpub, where he worked as the executive chef for 15 years.
It was there, under the tutelage of proprietor Chuck Magerl, that Rick became a food pioneer, working to build the ways local farmers and chefs could work together to put the freshest ingredients on restaurant tables.
A Food Policy Romance
You wouldn’t think a food council meeting would be the place you’d meet the love of your life. But for Rick and Eileen, that’s exactly how it happened.
One of Eileen’s first projects as Sustainability Director was to create the Douglas County Food Council, the first in Kansas, tasked with developing a sustainable local food system. She stopped by Free State to pester Rick to get involved in the council. So, when Magerl had to pass on his council seat due to scheduling conflicts, Rick jumped in. Rick and Eileen soon became friends.
“The common thread early on was our appreciation for good food,” Eileen quips.
“I cook for her,” he laughs.
They married two years later. Now, they are expecting their second, and Rick’s third, son.
When Rick and his partners launched Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar in 2014, the vision was to create a place to spotlight fresh food and support local farmers. At Limestone, 52 percent of the food and beverages served are locally sourced, which pumps more than $250,000 into the local farm economy every year.
“Pizza was one of the vessels I could use to get local food on the table,” Rick says. “We wanted the overall soul of the product to be very Kansan.” Limestone serves Neapolitan pizza dough made from organic Kansas wheat and topped with meat, dairy and vegetables from local providers — what Rick and his partners have dubbed “neoprairie” cuisine.
The restaurant’s seasonal dishes feature what’s growing right then. “Spinach is a good example,” he says. “We have hybridized the flavor out of spinach to make it more available. People have forgotten what spinach tastes like. When they get a piece of old-school, curly spinach, it tastes like nuts and olive oil. But it only really tastes good in the spring and fall. So, we only have it on the menu then.”
The behemoth pizza oven is the focal point of the restaurant’s open kitchen. Based on a 1,500-year-old wood oven design, it’s constructed from clay bricks. Branches trimmed from local tree hedges, a renewable fuel source, keep the oven roaring at 850 degrees. It takes just 90 seconds to cook a pizza.
Limestone is also committed to eliminating unnecessary waste. Just a few examples: An area farmer converts the restaurant’s used fryer oil into diesel fuel; all of the restaurant’s organic waste is composted; and 97 percent of its solid waste is recycled.
The restaurant’s green formula is working. Limestone has exceeded its financial projections and the awards keep tumbling in. The restaurant won the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s regional Emerging Business of the Year award and nets top honors in the annual “Best of Lawrence” competition.
Juniper Hill Farm, an organic farm just north of Lawrence where Limestone purchases some of its produce, is one of the area farms that has seen a boom in business, thanks to the commitment of Rick and others in the community to loudly support local produce. The farm started with one hoop house, and now is farming 50 acres, with more demand than it can supply.
“Rick has created a culture of appreciation among chefs, restaurants and the food business that sees the extra value of healthy, wholesome, locally produced food,” says Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, whose son Scott owns Juniper Hill Farm. “They see the value of spending restaurant dollars with local farmers, keeping the local farm economy strong.”
Gardens Growing on Common Ground
Recycling. Conservation. Clean energy. Eileen is crazy about it all. She has shaped public policy that is having a profound impact locally, with ripple effects reaching throughout the state and region. Under her leadership, Lawrence became the first city in Kansas to receive a four-star rating from the STAR Community Rating System, the nation’s leading comprehensive framework and certification program for evaluating local sustainability, encompassing economic, environmental and social-performance measures.
Right now, Eileen is leading an $11.3-million energy-efficiency retrofit program for the City of Lawrence, which includes conversion of all city lights to LEDs and upgrades of heating and cooling systems to more energy-efficient models. This will save the city $450,000 annually in avoided utility costs and will reduce its carbon footprint by 3,201 tons of CO2 annually.
Also on her watch, Douglas County built an award-winning LEED-certified Public Works facility and launched a countywide system of single-stream recycling drop-off locations for use by rural residents.
But, she says, “I keep gravitating to local food. It is a win-win-win on the three areas of sustainability: social justice, environmental quality and economic vitality.”
“Having someone focusing on food policy is important because it weaves together so many of our most basic needs and resources,” Commissioner Thellman says about Eileen’s work creating policies and programs that give citizens access to healthy food. “It’s not just about food. It’s about the economy, the environment and social equity.”
Common Ground is one of Eileen’s pet projects that has gained national attention. The idea is simple, yet revolutionary. The city identified vacant lots that could be used for urban farming and made them available to community members, free of charge, to transform into gardens.
In 2012, four pilot gardens were planted. By 2016, 10 gardens were under cultivation, being tended by 203 gardeners from groups as diverse as Cub Scouts and the public library. The market value of the produce grown was $64,200, and 1,350 pounds of it was donated to those in need.
“The best part of our model was we didn’t have a prescribed plan,” Eileen says. “We said to the community, ‘Here is your blank canvas.’ People drew on it.”
A Full Plate
Eileen and Rick struggle with balancing the never-ending demands of saving the world with the needs of their growing family. But they believe it’s the right way to live, embodying their beliefs.
“You decide whether you are going to be one of the doers,” Eileen says. “A real heart-to-heart conversation with a person still changes things, or a real hands-on experience, like working in a community garden with your kids. People are still transformed by biting into a local apple in October.
The Power of One
Outside of the restaurant, Rick volunteers extensively to help the community have access to local food, illustrating the impact one person can have. He has helped spark:
• Just Cook classes at local food bank Just Food, showing clients how to cook healthy, nutritious meals using inexpensive ingredients and local produce.
• The Lawrence Chefs and Farmers Alliance, which provides a framework for farmers and chefs to work together. The alliance pinpointed the procedures that needed to be in place to make the working relationships between chefs and local farmers more seamless, then handed their recommendations off to Eileen, who found sustainable staffing and funding through Douglas County to keep the program going.
• Rick served on the advisory board for the Lawrence Public Schools’ Farm to School program, and worked with students to develop recipes using the produce they grew. In 2016, the school district also spent $61,000 buying food from area farmers as part of this initiative. Today, there is a school garden in every Lawrence public school, thanks to the program.
• This fall, Rick is piloting a new software program called Kitchen Scratch, designed to help small restaurants work with local farmers.
If you’re feeling inspired to make a difference, ask yourself some of Eileen’s favorite thought starters to help determine the best ways to engage:
What are you uniquely poised to do?Identify your skills and abilities. Are you a great cook, gardener, party-thrower?
Where will you have the biggest impact?“What’s your sphere of influence?” Eileen asks. Invest efforts where you have the most social capital — with friends and family, in a club, at church, or with your kids’ school.
Stay positive.“We can get so overwhelmed thinking about all the things that are frightening in the world, then get discouraged,” she says. “But remember, we can act here, people will care here, we can have an impact here.”
Fruit in a Food Desert
Today, a former food desert is blooming, thanks to the Lawrence Fruit Tree Project, which has spent five years planting an orchard of 30 varieties of fruiting trees and bushes to give low-income families easy access to fresh, healthy food.
“We have so much hunger in this community,” says Emily Hampton, executive director of the Sunrise Project, a nonprofit that connects people to good food, community and the environment. “When you are living in a food desert, and if you don’t have transportation, you don’t make lots of trips to the store.”
Now hungry neighbors can enjoy free pears, apples or cherries from the orchard, one of the first gardens in Lawrence’s Common Ground community gardening program.
Micki Chestnut is a Lawrence-based writer who grew up eating veggies fresh from her mom’s organic garden. Since she didn’t inherit her mom’s green thumb, you’ll find her at the farmers market every Saturday.