Meet Swette Center staff member, Kate Otto


In this series, we’re meeting with Swette Center team members to explore their background in food systems, what they are currently working on, and their vision of food systems transformation. 

Read on for an interview with Kate Otto, Administrative Assistant. 

When did you first get interested in food systems work?

I grew up with the blessing of food in my backyard, whether it was bushes full of blueberries or chickens. It started small, but as I grew older, I helped my father expand our garden to a neighborhood co-op with four families. We would all share crops from our farms, like a litter of pigs, for instance. They would stay in our pen next to the house until they got to the right size, then we would all pay the butcher, and the meat was distributed amongst everybody who bought in. Same thing with cows, and some of my neighbors raised goats. My family always had chickens and turkeys. We also all had a section of our pastures where we grew and harvested our own hay, and one of our neighbors had the machinery that could come in and do that. 

We rarely had to purchase things from the store or anything like that. It was very rare that I ever had to purchase my own meat, that one was always really big. Even when I moved down to Arizona, my dad still brought me meat, and it lasted me like 2 years. I always had an abundance of my own food. It also meant that we were taught how to preserve our own food so that off-season, we were still eating what we grew and supplementing from the grocery store as necessary. I do consider myself very blessed for always having food and knowing how to grow my own food and take care of my own land.

What are you working on currently? 

My work here in the office revolves around supporting all of our researchers and students and managing Kathleen's calendars and trip expenses. Currently, I'm working on wrapping up the details from the Arizona farm immersive. Then it'll be a short break, and then we will start planning for the DC grad student immersive with the policymakers. 

What do you think is a priority in transforming food systems?

I think one of the biggest priorities is in education. Few people know and understand where our food comes from and how it's grown. We have so much diverse food available in grocery stores year-round, and it is often expected and taken for granted. It's second nature to walk into the store and have food readily available. People don’t always make the connection about how it gets there, where it was grown, or how far it has to travel. A couple of times now, I've had the opportunity to do tours through elementary schools to see their food education programs. This includes garden programs where students volunteer and culinary classes. In these spaces, they learn about growing food, harvesting it, composting, and the inner workings of food systems. In these experiences, every single time I talk to them, it's explained that it's a privilege for something like that to be in a school. Yet, it is so important to be part of the education system. I also think it should be much more accessible for people who aren't even in school anymore to learn about their food.

Any advice for current food systems students?

There is a Korean phrase I often hear, which is the term “eat well”. It's an expression of concern to show care for someone's well-being and wish them a good meal. Not just making sure that they're eating well, but also that they're taking care of themselves. There's a second meaning to that phrase, which is to enjoy your food. If you're eating well, you are enjoying the food that you're eating, you're not just eating it to be healthy. I want everyone to remember that food is not just a source of nutrition, it's something to be enjoyed and savored with every single bite. So my advice is to eat well,잘 먹어요 (jal mogoyo). 

What is your favorite food to make? 

 I cook a lot of traditional Japanese, Korean, and Chinese dishes. One of my favorites right now is a hotpot. If you've never had hot pot before. It's so good. It's a boiling, bubbling cauldron of delicious goodness that you drop whatever (meat, veggies, noodles, etc.) into, and it's traditionally shared with friends. We usually use one of the instapots because it holds a lot of broth. I always make the stock a couple of hours ahead of time, and it gets all gingery and garlicky and good. It's one of my favorites, and me and my friends have hotpot pretty regularly. So delicious!