Zsofia Pasztor is many things: arborist, horticulturalist, landscape designer, urban farmer, teacher, lecturer. Many know her as the force behind the Edmonds Community College on-campus farm, the various demonstration farms at local schools (see a My Edmonds News article on the Chase Lake Elementary farm here) and as the executive director of Farmer Frog, an organization whose mission is to promote, support and teach urban and small-scale agriculture.
A one-woman dynamo, she embodies a laser-like passion to share her vision for addressing problems as diverse as community disintegration and the American obesity epidemic through re-thinking the role of food in our lives and involving people directly in cultivating, harvesting, preparing and sharing food.
“Good food is the basis for a good life,” she said. “Depression, obesity and host of individual and societal ills are the direct result of what we put in our bodies. Good food equals a good life; crappy food equals a crappy life.”
And she’s quick to point out that the foods we need to effect this transformation can be grown right at home in urban and suburban yards, church pea patches and parking strips–virtually anywhere where there’s a patch of soil and sunlight.
“You don’t need much space to grow enough to feed your family,” she said. “All it takes is a little education and the willingness to shift some attitudes.”
Part of this attitudinal shift means looking at the plant in a way that’s new for most who’ve grown up in Western society.
“Most people really don’t know how to eat their food,” she explains. “Take green beans or peas. Our culture tells us that the pod, or just the seeds in the pod are the food, and the rest isn’t. That’s crazy! The leaves and stems can be steamed or stir-fried, and they’re delicious. They taste just like the beans and peas themselves.
“And pumpkins!” she continued. “Just one vine produces enough leaves to feed an entire family. Just cut the leaves off during the growing season as you need them, steam them up with a little vinegar, and they’re soft, tender and absolutely mouth-watering. We throw away so much of what other cultures eat. It’s a shame.”
Pasztor grew up in a small farming village in Hungary.
“We worked our own place, helped our neighbors with their crops and animals,” she said. “We ate what we grew and raised, shared food around the village. We ate seasonally, enjoying a range of foods as they grew and were harvested. We were close to the land — we were part of it — and lived in harmony with the plants, animals and the rhythm of the seasons.”
She and her husband left Hungary in 1987 “with two backpacks” during a period of political unrest. They spent the next two years in a refugee camp, finally locating in the Pacific Northwest in 1990, which they made home for them and their four children.
“One of the first things I did when I got here was learn about the history and culture of our new home,” she said. “People lived here for centuries before the Europeans came, and you know, no one ever starved. They did great eating what was here: native berries, leaves, bark, roots, wild game, fish and other seafood. And there’s no reason we can’t cut back on importing foods and incorporate more of these local foods into our diet too — and there’s every reason that we should.”
Pasztor believes that growing our own food is a critical first step, and has benefits that go far beyond nutrition, cutting waste and using resources wisely.
“When families and kids participate in growing, harvesting, preparing and eating food, families become stronger,” she said. “And when families become stronger, communities become stronger. Growing up in Hungary, we heard so many glowing stories about the west, all the amazing things you have there and it all sounds really good.
“Isn’t it ironic that today people actually pay — sometimes a lot of money — to take vacations where they work on a small farm, dig and harvest crops, cook and eat what they harvest. Why do they do this?” Pasztor asked. “I believe it’s because it speaks to something very elemental in us. We are, after all, part of a much larger thing, and by doing this we touch something deep inside that is sadly suppressed by our western way of life. But the good news is that we don’t have to limit this to a two-week back-to-the-land vacation. We can do it right here, right now starting with families growing and eating their own food, sharing it with neighbors, and building community.”
Pasztor is both Executive Director and President of Farmer Frog, a local organization promoting urban farming, nurturing communites, and building, health and well-being through a wide array of programs, school gardens, and hands-on learning experiences. She oversees the 3/4 acre Edmonds Community College farm and various school gardens, where students get directly involved in growing food and learn the principles of sustainable urban agriculture. The EdCC farm supplies food, education, and the opportunity to participate in farm operation to low-income families year-round.
–Story and photos by Larry Vogel