Philip and June Jo Lee’s publishing company explores where our food comes from, and the impact diets have on our health and the world.
AS A STORY, “food literacy” seemed pretty dry: consumer data, educational outreach, executive reports.
Then — it was 2009, but we can call it once upon a time — came June Jo Lee and Philip Lee. The couple made the “literacy” part literal, founding the Readers to Eaters company specializing in food-related children’s books.
Their Bellevue-based business began as a pop-up bookshop selling at farmers markets, then grew into a publishing company commissioning its own titles.
The Readers to Eaters mission was similar to those in adult programs. Food literacy basically means teaching people where their food comes from, and the impact their diets have on their own health and the world.
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But the plotlines turned from dry to diverse, offering stories about spinach seeds and bulgogi tacos and curious children, about school gardens and the poetry of meals and living “food heroes.” It was a literary feast meant to reflect America through what we eat.
They cooked up an award-wining success in 2017 with “Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix,” written by June Lo Lee and Jacqueline Briggs Martin, a child’s biography of the Los Angeles chef who won fame for his Korean-Mexican taco truck.
With graffiti-style artwork by Man One, the words on the page read almost like a song:
“Roy calls himself a ‘street cook.’
He wants outsiders, lowriders,
kids, teens, shufflers and skateboarders,
to have food cooked with care, with love,
with sohn maash.”
That last phrase, literally “the flavor in your fingertips,” is how Choi describes his own cooking life, and the cooking talents handed down through the generations.
“It really is a story about food culture,” Philip. “It’s an immigrant story, ultimately.”
Philip had worked in publishing for decades, co-founding Lee & Low, a New York publishing company focused on multicultural children’s books. After moving to Seattle, he married June, a food ethnographer who spent her days studying modern trends in eating and consumerism.
Through her work, they saw the many broken spots in our modern food system. They came to understand, Philip says, that, “We have more than just a learning problem in schools; we have a public health problem in terms of hunger and obesity.”
They didn’t have a business plan. The “tipping point” of public interest hadn’t quite happened yet. But they set up shop as Readers to Eaters.
“I just knew there was a need, and the time was right,” he says.
Since then, they’ve been a mainstay of public events that deal with growing, creating and eating food — as well as literacy and books.
June still works as an ethnographer for companies like Google Food, traveling the country and studying how Americans eat and how it changes over time. The next book on their publishing calendar is “Bread Lab,” a story based on the Washington State University lab that’s been revolutionizing grains and baking.
“She looks at these large, broad cultural issues in food,” Philip says. “I listen to her and say, ‘So, how do we translate that into a message to kids; how do we make that a story?’ ”
Their “food heroes” series began with chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and continued with Will Allen, the former college basketball player who turned an abandoned lot in Milwaukee into an urban farm. Choi’s life, for the third book in the series, especially resonated with June, who was born in Korea the same year as Choi. Sohn maash, to her, is the same design principle she uses in her day job, but she calls it “food care,” meaning care for those we feed and those feeding us.
Maybe it’s not strange that the book hit a sweet spot with readers as well.
With all the food heroes they write about, Philip says, he tells young readers, “These people are making a difference today … these are people who are alive and doing it and taking their chances.”
He’s seen enough young readers grow up to see that every generation is different, just as June sees the changes in each generation of eaters. Today’s young people, he thinks, are empowered. They just need good fuel for their bodies as well as their minds.
“I just need to plant the idea, plant the seed.”