by Marci Narum  | Photography: Rachael Neva Photo

On a chilly Saturday morning in Bismarck, North Dakota, vendors at the BisMarket Farmers’ Market clutch hot cups of coffee and bowls of soup with mittened hands. They huddle, bouncing their knees to stay warm as they wait for customers to arrive. The crisp October air doesn’t keep shoppers away; this might be their last chance to get the fresh, locally-grown, high-quality produce they’ve been finding at Kiwanis park every Saturday since June. Hubbard squash, farm fresh eggs, watermelon, and much more await them.

BisMarket board member Karen Ehrens sets up the BisMarket Farmers’ Market signs and table; her husband, Duane, is her loyal helper. And then the couple shops. Carrots are on their list. They also find tomatoes and beets at Kara Winkler’s stand, Glimpse of the Prairie. Kara asks for pointers on preparing parsnips.

“We like them roasted in the oven with other root vegetables,” Karen says, acknowledging Duane, a professional chef. “We found a recipe for roasted fall vegetables that we like. We adapted it; added some herbs we like and teach it in our cooking class.”

Karen and Duane teach “Mediterranean Style Cooking on the Prairie” through the Bismarck State College Continuing Education program. For more than five years, seasoned cooks and kitchen newcomers alike have joined the couple for the tasty, hands-on course.

“They learn about the benefits of the Mediterranean way of eating and how we can implement it here, even though we live in the middle of North America,” Karen explains. “It’s a way of eating that places more emphasis on plant foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. What’s most different is there is less meat on the plate than what we’ve grown up with around this area. And we incorporate local foods. That’s the Mediterranean diet; they eat their local foods.”

Karen is a strong supporter of local producers, and as a licensed, registered dietitian, she’s an even stronger advocate for teaching health and nutrition and improving people’s access to food. She says research and positive outcomes are proving the Mediterranean diet has many health benefits.

“Less chronic disease risk, less risk of diabetes, and less heart disease. Some of our health advocacy groups in the United States have started saying, ‘What’s good for the heart is good for the head.’  And those same kind of day in and day out choices we make in the foods we eat are beneficial to preventing not only heart disease, but Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Less risk of asthma, better health outcomes for mothers who are pregnant, all kinds of studies to show that this way of eating does pay off.”

Karen has a strong appetite for learning and is fueled by new information. She attended college twice, studying French and political science at Minot State University, nutrition at North Dakota State University, and later getting her certificate in public health from the University of Minnesota.

“I think it was having parents who died at early ages that helped lead me in that direction; to look at the things that lead to illness and death—diet being very much part of those things—that inspired my interest to work in those areas.

“Both my parents died of strokes. I was 18 when my mom died and 25 when Dad died. Mom was 55 and Dad was 63.”

Karen also lost her only sibling seven years ago. Her brother, Kris, died from congestive heart failure when he was 41.

Karen’s career in dietetics began in a hospital and nursing home. She also worked in a drug store in her youth. These experiences were early influences on her profession becoming her passion.

“I saw how prescription drugs were so expensive and saw people with chronic illnesses coming to get their prescriptions. That started influencing me. And then as a dietitian working with people after they were ill, sometimes to change their lives and habits it took a major wakeup event—a heart attack or diabetes—[for them to say], ‘Now I better do something different.’  

“My brain kept thinking, ‘How can we prevent this from happening, that people have to get to this point? How can we help people have a better quality of life for longer and not have to go through these traumatic experiences, ending up in a hospital, finding out you have to take medications, and even loss of life?’”

Since then, Karen has devoted her life to finding answers while also working to help end hunger in North Dakota. Her curiosity and interest led to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (DPI), where she worked with child nutrition programs statewide.

“Because really, if we can help form people’s taste for food that is healthy and also get physically active at a young age, it can stay with you the rest of your life, rather than going through life and later trying to make those changes.”

During her five years with DPI, Karen visited half the schools in the state, where she trained cooks and administrators and helped implement new meal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She helped them find ways to use less salt and fat in school lunches, and add more fruits and vegetables.

In 1997, Karen and Duane added to their family, welcoming a daughter, Emily. The couple had demanding work schedules which included travel, so Karen started a consulting business and began working from home. She took on project-based work for the state health department and other agencies.

In 2009, Karen became the coordinator for the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition, whose vision is a hunger free state.The coalition connects the multiple groups that provide food for people; they learn from each other, find ways to work together, and share resources. Each one is being stretched much more than they were almost 10 years ago.

“Across the U.S. they do a large study called Food Insecurity in the United States. For several years, we were the state with the lowest rate of food insecurity in the nation. This year, North Dakota is no longer in last place; we’re in third from last place. There’s a small but significant increase over the last 10 years in our food insecurity rates. Even though many people in North Dakota are doing better with the economy here, there are still people that are not. Why is that? We have this great group of organizations in the state that are working on getting people access to foods, and they’re doing a great job, but still, there are conditions that we can’t quite keep up.”

Karen boldly faces those conditions though, keeping her head up and her hopes high. Her faith carries her when she feels that sense of swimming upstream.

“Through our faith, the Bible talks about the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:31-40). So as a person of faith, I can use my talents to address these issues and be with these people who are living through that. Volunteering to serve meals or helping the food bank do the survey.”

Karen helped launch the state ag department’s Hunger Free ND Garden project, which encourages gardeners and fruit and vegetable producers to plant extra and donate to a local food pantry or soup kitchen.

“Over the years, that program has been growing too and helping increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Whether she’s volunteering for the Great Plains Food Bank or helping out at the BisMarket Farmers’ Market, Karen sees the direct impact of the many efforts in place to provide healthier food to more people.

“Even with the foods the [Great Plains] Food Bank is trying to obtain; this week I delivered meal boxes to senior citizens. It wasn’t just boxed and canned foods, but they were able to add fresh carrots, fresh apples, and fresh corn on the cob. And one lady I delivered the box to, it was like Christmas to her, she was just so excited to see those foods in the box.”

Karen says it’s humbling, and it’s one of the reasons she continues to be a consultant, even as her daughter Emily is grown up and attending college.

“I can schedule my time to volunteer, so I can understand the local implications of federal policy. The Farm Bill provides funding for USDA programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and TEFAB (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides food and funding to get these food boxes to seniors. I can take the opportunity in the middle of the day to help do things like that or help prepare meals in a shelter to understand and see from a local level and state level to the federal level how these things are connected.

Consulting also gives Karen the flexibility to be a policy advocate for safety net programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. She has testified before Congress for improving school meals.

“I’m lucky to be able to carry out my passions through my work. I’m not one to set five year goals, but thinking of life as a journey and being open to opportunities that present themselves on the path and also praying and looking for guidance and discernment about how to carry out being the hands and feet of God in the world.”

And when necessary, with mittens on those hands.   

Click here for Karen’s recipe for Roasted Fall Vegetables. And to see more photos by Rachael Neva Photo, click here.