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The Recorder – Vegetarian cafe finds healthy home in local food web

The Pioneer Valley is in an interdependent web of community, and few things highlight that more clearly than the job of getting food to people. This is especially clear for Ethan Vandermark, who co-owns Nourish Wellness Cafe in Northampton with his partner and wife, Ashley Niles.

Their journey started with a vision for an eatery where, as Vandermark put it, “after enjoying anything on the menu, you’d leave feeling satisfied and happy for your body and the world.” That dream became the Nourish Juice Bar in Thornes Marketplace, which the couple opened just a month after their wedding in 2015.

Soon, it grew to encompass their cafe on the corner of Market and Bridge streets, still in Northampton. They let the juice bar go and doubled down, expanding their vegetarian menu. These days, their main offerings are bowls, smoothies, smoothie bowls and toast.

“Bowls include a protein, grains, greens, healthy fats and a bomb dressing that tops it off,” Vandermark explained. Many ingredients highlight their connections with local businesses, from Gill Greenery pea shoots to shredded cabbage from Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland or kale from Queens Greens in Amherst.

Hearty local bread grounds their toast. “Rise Above Bakery in Greenfield makes us a delicious, sprouted sourdough rye,” Vandermark said. Paired with homemade pumpkin-apple butter or cashew cheese, “it definitely satisfies winter cravings.”

What’s different about Nourish?

“When we first started,” Vandermark said, “I wanted to be an all-organic cafe. We’ve tried to focus on that while sourcing locally as much as possible. Even now, we haven’t seen anyone else exactly like us.”

That goal comes with challenges, including finding a consistent supply of affordable ingredients.

“Some organic ingredients are almost double the price, but we try to stick to our values,” Vandermark said. “It’s healthier for our bodies and the environment, and if we all invest in it, maybe someday that can change how food is grown across the board.”

Running a values-centered business is rarely easy, especially since restaurants skate by on razor-thin profit margins already. Then the pandemic happened.

“I’m gonna be honest, when the pandemic started, Ashley and I were almost ready to throw in the towel,” Vandermark said. “We have young two kids at home, and it was just so stressful not only as a business owner, but as a parent too.”

Without the Paycheck Protection Program, “we would have been done for,” Vandermark said, referencing the federal program offering small businesses forgivable loans to help keep staff on payroll. “I’ve also applied for so many grants I have trouble remembering.”

Without these collective resources and restaurant owners’ tenacity in securing them, even more of the region’s independent eateries would be in danger of folding. The Burger Kings of the world have immense resources to tap. Business owners like Vandermark and Niles don’t. And when a local business shutters, the impact dominos.

“We’re part of one big web, and if one person or business is affected, it impacts everyone else,” Vandermark said. “I have such gratitude for our employees right now. But with sales down, we’ve had to cut our staff by half and reduce hours. We’re also not buying as much food, so our suppliers’ business declines and more people lose jobs.”

Besides advocating for systemic support, Vandermark explained, we can all help re-weave the battered web of our local economy though intentional consumption. One option is obvious: “If you eat out, think local,” he says.

Or grab a gift card: “You’re giving a gift for your friend, but also the restaurant. It’s a win-win.”

Vandermark also has a more committed suggestion: supporting local currencies.

Common Good credit is one such currency, exchanged one-to-one with U.S. dollars and accepted like normal money at participating locations. To join, simply open an account and invest dollars in a community fund in exchange for equal credit on a Common Good card — making it much like a debit card for local businesses (for a list, see commongood.earth/businesses).

What does this accomplish? First, it directly encourages users to think local when they buy. Plus, as users join, the community fund grows, and when it’s large and stable enough it can be invested back into community projects. For Nourish, being part of this intentional economic system is part of their ethos. You can nourish yourself and their mission by checking out their takeout at nourishnoho.com.

“When current events feel overwhelming, we can redirect that fear toward making a difference in our community, for our neighbors, right now,” Vandermark offered. “You’re helping others, but you’re also helping yourself.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).