Putting food on the table is an expression of pragmatism, politics and poetry for Greenfield Community College graduate Joshua Lipkowitz. Even before his first kitchen job at 15 at a college cafeteria, Lipkowitz, 22, of Amherst, knew that he had found his vocation.
He loved food and loved cooking it. The piping hot pots, preparation of good food and the very purpose of the job – to feed people, fired his passion. In the end, though, he opted to start at the beginning of the food chain and become an organic farmer.
“The act of planting a seed, taking care of it as it turns into a plant, harvesting the fruit, cooking a meal with loved ones and having the great conversation that inevitably stems from great food,” he says, captured his imagination.
His journey to this point might have been considered improbable just a few years ago. High school was a disappointment to him, and so he cut classes. But he didn’t stop thinking about the future. Smart and inquisitive, Lipkowitz entered GCC through the Early Transitions Program, which connects high school students who are ready for college. “I can honestly say that I have no idea where I would be if it were not for ETP,” he says. “I entered the program at GCC at a time when I was completely disillusioned with high school, and thus chronically skipping school. I was very interested in learning and had many passions but high school for me was only hindering those interests. ETP got me out of that situation and into one where I was free to pursue my interests and passions and where I loved learning once again. Having such an incredible variety of courses available to me due the wide variety of course offerings at GCC allowed me to develop new interests and learn about things that never would have been an option an high school. My time at GCC through the Early Transitions Program is most likely the largest reason that I was accepted into Pitzer College.” And here begins his pragmatic view of the value of education and its relationship to strengthening the community. At Pitzer, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for his application to go to Romania and learn, according to his project title, about “Culture and Agriculture: Collective Consciousness and Choice with Organic Farming.” A series of jobs in acclaimed restaurants uncovered that something important was missing from the menu — awareness. “We were making great tasting food,” he says, “but we, and in turn, everyone who came into our restaurant, were completely disconnected with the food. This is the essence of my project here in Romania, I’m looking at people’s relationship with the food they eat and their consciousness about the social and environmental cost of what they choose to eat.” He chose Romania in part because that is where his grandparents are from and also because it straddles the developing and developed worlds and he wanted to learn from that experience. This where his political beliefs are embedded with his goal to be an organic farmer. “When the majority of us eat food, especially in the urban world, we never think about the social and environmental ramifications of what we are eating. We don’t think about how that item was grown, or in the case of animals how it was treated. We don’t think about what methods were used to grow it, whether there were pesticides, herbicides, or other inorganic chemicals put into the ground. We don’t think about who picked the item and under what conditions they were working. “We don’t think about the overall health of the ecosystem where the item was cultivated. We don’t think about how that item was transported to us, and how much water and oil were used from start to finish from the day the seed was germinated to the day it winds up on our plate. We don’t think about the cultural and historical significance of what we are eating and the information passed to us for thousands of years through the food we are eating, nor do we think about our own health in the things we eat or in the way they are prepared,” he says. “In my opinion, this disconnect is what leads us to support an agricultural system that destroys the planet, destroys those who are exploited by the system, and in the end, destroys ourselves.” At Pitzer, where Lipkowitz’s majored in international and intercultural studies – he is also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese – he and four others opened The Shakedown Café, an organic restaurant that served locally grown produce that served up more than food. The café is a place for the community, and art shows, live music and speakers. It is also a place where revelers find food for their souls. Since he graduated from Pitzer, the café has been passed to other managers. But the philosophy that created it remains the same. And here comes the poetry in Lipkowitz’s life’s work. It is from the café’s mission statement that he co-wrote: “The Shakedown is about reconnecting people with their food. The Shakedown is about showing people the beauty that lies within the act of planting a seed that has been saved for generations upon generations, taking care of that seed as it germinates and grows into a plant, and then harvesting the fruit that the plant has reaped. That fruit is purchased at a fair price from a farmer who worked under fair and humane conditions and turned into a delicious creation served at The Shakedown made with love by our staff.” For Lipkowitz, what he missed in high school he found at GCC, which in turn helped open the doors to the world, and what he learned he cultivates both as a philosophy and a source of nutrition.