Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Jim Kane, founder and director of Culture Xplorers, a travel company that fosters lasting positive impact on local communities. Culture Xplorers pioneers travel experiences that emphasize cultural exploration through cuisine.
Food Tank (FT): How did Culture Xplorers begin?
Jim Kane (JK): For several years prior to starting Culture Xplorers, I worked with a language travel agency, connecting travelers to language schools and volunteer programs throughout Latin America and Spain. During that time I lived and worked in a handful of countries, and saw firsthand the wonderful cultural access that tools like language and volunteering provide. When I started Culture Xplorers in 2003, my idea was to facilitate a similar sense of passion and purpose for travelers with time constraints. My mission, simply stated, was to change the way people travel by creating engaged, reciprocal experiences for both travelers and local communities.
FT: How is the Culture Xplorers model different from conventional models for sustainable travel?
JK: We recognize that making an impact through travel is inevitable. We therefore focus on creating a positive one, as measured by our local partners, hosts, and stakeholders. Our goal is to foster the sustainability of local culture in everything we do. When it comes to supporting the work of our local NGO partners, we act as a catalyst for their efforts, accelerating their progress and promoting their life-changing work. Interactions between marginalized communities and travelers are always achieved in a way that honors local traditions, ingenuity, and accomplishments.
FT: How can sustainable tourism contribute to a more just food system?
JK: I’m very passionate about this area and I see tremendous opportunities. I’m reminded of a phrase Slow Food USA’s Richard McCarthy shared with me recently: for him, food is a balance between joy and justice. I think conscientious travel can deliver both joy and justice by incorporating visits to small producers, farmers’ markets, and restaurants that source locally. These activities provide economic incentives for local stakeholders and strengthen local food systems. We can also act as a catalyst for visionary food projects, engaging travelers with the life-changing work of projects such as the Pachacutec Culinary Institute, outside of Lima, Peru. Our efforts at Cidades sem Fome (Cities Without Hunger), a series of vibrant urban gardens in São Paulo’s impoverished favelas, are bringing travelers and favela residents together for the first time to engage as equals; our travelers are there to celebrate the work and ingenuity of residents’ community-strengthening programs. Travelers return home from these food-focused adventures with a greater awareness of the importance and joyfulness of healthy local food systems. Ideally, this passion and purpose transfers to the food systems back in their hometowns.
FT: What are some of the biggest challenges in integrating food sustainability and cultural immersion?
JK: Almost every time I’ve approached a visionary chef, an innovative producer, or a groundbreaking food justice organization about crafting a sustainable travel experience that supports their mission, the response has been enthusiastic. Challenges arise when it’s time to incorporate the experience, and vary depending on the partner or organization. For partners such as the Pachacutec Culinary Institute, it’s challenging to implement a hands-on cooking class for our travelers without disrupting the ongoing education of local students. For others, like the Por Eso! Foundation, it’s challenging to craft culturally sensitive visits to extremely isolated communities. For leading chef allies such as Virgilio Martinez Veliz, Alex Atala, and Rodolfo Guzman, it’s challenging to schedule around their frenetic restaurant pace and frequent travels.
FT: What are some of the biggest challenges in working with both tourists and local communities to make a lasting impact?
JK: The travelers’ interactions in each country are fleeting. For this reason, it's critical that the organizational partners have a shared long-term vision and a mutual commitment. When organizational ties and mutual trust run deep, individual travelers can contribute in a positive way to increased exchange and understanding.
FT: How would you respond to criticisms that tourism, even when sustainable as possible, still leaves a footprint, resulting in exploitation of local cultures?
JK: I agree that travel always leaves a footprint. However, if crafted collaboratively, within the framework of reciprocity, I believe that travel can strengthen and even resuscitate increasingly endangered local foodways.
FT: How do you see your field changing in the future?
JK: Food travel is evolving from a series of individual culinary experiences to an integrated way of seeing the world. By using the lens of food as a template for travel, visitors can begin to understand issues as wide-ranging as local ecology, climate change, history, geography, politics, economics, cultural traditions, anthropology, and even social rituals. Food travel is becoming more active, social, inclusive, and transformative. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this movement!