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“It all started with soup,” Polish volunteers nourish Ukrainians fleeing war

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And then the next vat would be chicken soup and then the next vat would be beef stew, and they just kept coming, and coming, and coming, and it was this act of profound care in a way that no institutionalized form of care could ever be.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, a conversation with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, who has been in Poland on the Ukrainian border, working with refugees fleeing the war in their home country. She brings us stories of everyday people, organizing, cooking, transporting, and comforting families in crisis. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Corn, soy, and wheat make up about 70% of Midwestern farmland. But, as the planet heats up, scientists are developing new crops to replace them; plants that can survive and thrive in a changing climate. Rachel Young produced this story with the Food & Environment Reporting Network. It's about one crop that some scientists and farmers think could be the grain of the future.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  Now this is the stuff we're going to be planting in that field right out here.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Carmen Fernholz has been farming organically since before the term "organic farming" was even a thing. He owns A-Frame Farm in Madison, Minnesota, where he grows corn, soy beans, and small grains, including one you might not have heard of.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  Right now, we have about 80 acres of Kernza.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Kernza, a species of wheatgrass. Some scientists and farmers say we need to change the crops we grow in the face of climate change, and Kernza could be part of the answer. It's a crop that can feed both people and soil in a warmer world, which is a dream come true for Carmen, who cares a lot about keeping his soil healthy.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  I just cringe every time I see soil disturbance.

RACHEL YOUNG:  By "soil disturbance," Carmen means tilling: churning up the soil to plant new crops. Tilling releases carbon into the air as a greenhouse gas. It disrupts all the processes that make soil healthy. Most corn and soy farmers have to till their fields every year because corn and soy, those are annual crops. Kernza is different; it's a perennial grain so its roots get to stay in the ground for several years, while the plant above ground keeps producing grain each season. Those roots pull carbon out of the air, they build healthy soil, and they make Kernza resilient to extreme climate events like droughts and floods. And, if Kernza really takes off, farmers will be able to make money growing it.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  It's exciting and to me it's just a tremendous gift to our food system.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Kernza is also helping Carmen imagine a new future of growing grains. He says he chats with conventional farmers all the time, who see problems with the way we farm today.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  They're seeing soil degradation, herbicide resistance, increasing costs of production. They're on a treadmill with corn and soybeans, and they're looking for something to break out of that.

TIM CREWS:  People are very excited at perennial grains.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Tim Crews is the Chief Scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. They're the agricultural research organization that's been developing Kernza for the past 20 years, and they want perennial grains like Kernza to replace the annual crops we grow now. That would mean doing away with a lot of that annual tilling and adding the environmental benefits of perennial roots like Kernzas on millions of acres of the world's crop lands.

TIM CREWS:  It's just a matter of getting them to the point where they can actually start to replace the annual crops economically.

RACHEL YOUNG:  But today, there are just about 4,000 acres of Kernza growing worldwide, most of them in Minnesota. Minnesota is also home to a small but enthusiastic Kernza supply chain as local brewers, bakers, and chefs, experiment with niche Kernza products in microbrews, pancake mixes, and dessert bars. National brands are starting to pay attention; Kernza was listed among Whole Foods top ten foods trends of 2022. Still, don't expect to see Wheaties swapped out for Kernzies in the cereal aisle anytime soon. University of Iowa Economist Silvia Secchi says that, for Kernza to actually replace the grains we grow now, we'll need to see major changes to the US farm bill first.

SILVIA SECCHI:  You can't just change the crops; this is a whole system that we need to modify.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Part of that system: federal subsidies for annuals like corn and soy which incentivise farmers to grow those crops, even if they end up losing them to extreme climate events.

SILVIA SECCHI:  What we need for Kernza to find it's place is changes to our farm policy, for example, if you have crop issued subsidies for corn and beans, you should have them for Kernza.

RACHEL YOUNG:  Farmer Carmen Fernholz isn't waiting for changes to the federal farm policy. He's been mentoring young organic farmers for a farming future that benefits the earth, instead of degrading it.

CARMEN FERNHOLZ:  To start seeing the next generations being engaged in it, there's nothing more rewarding.

RACHEL YOUNG:  For the Food & Environment Reporting Network, I'm Rachel Young.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This story comes from Hot Farm, a new podcast from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, about the intersection of agriculture and climate change. You can listen to Hot Farm wherever you get your podcasts.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I'm Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, I'm the Director of Indiana University's new Center for Refugee Studies.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Elizabeth Dunn is also a geography professor and food studies scholar. We've had her on the show before, talking about refugees working in the U.S. meat packing industry at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Before that, we interviewed her about her work on emergency food aid for refugees after the war between Russia and Georgia, over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, back in 2008. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, and refugees were fleeing into Poland to escape the violence, Elizabeth Dunn headed to Poland as well.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I went March 9th, and I was there until about March 26th.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I had a chance to talk with her a couple of weeks ago here in Indiana, just before she headed back to Poland, where she is right now. Her research is centered around international humanitarian aid for refugees and displaced people. She wants to learn about what kind of aid is helpful in specific situations. She speaks Polish fluently and thought she could be of assistance at the border, and further her research with her colleague, Ivanna Kyliushyk, from the University of Warsaw. Just a note: our conversation drifts away from food at times and into other areas of life, which makes sense I think. Food is not always its own separate subject; it's integrated into other aspects of our everyday lives, in normal times, and in crisis. Here is Elizabeth Cullen Dunn talking about her experiences in Poland at the border with Ukraine, in March of this year.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I went because I've worked in this part of Poland since 1991. So, in the early '90s, I actually worked in a factory in the town of Rzeszów, Poland, for almost two years. It was a baby food factory, so my first book was about the transformation of labor from communism to capitalism, and I worked with blue collar workers in this town in the middle of nowhere. And now, that town has become the center of the Polish IT industry, it's become surprisingly wealthy. I didn't recognize my own old apartment when I was there because there's a shopping mall all around it now, where it used to be communist worker blocks. But, Rzeszów also became the hub of humanitarian aid to refugees. The U.S. 82nd Airborne is there; they're running weapons and training, and other forms of aid, into the Ukrainian Army from Rzeszów, out of Jasionka airport, And many of the big humanitarian NGOs setup shop there.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So, we went there and then we also went to a town called Przemysl.which is closer to the Ukrainian border and, from there, we went to the border crossing points. I was with my colleague, Ivanna Kyliushyk, from the University of Warsaw. So, we're looking at these volunteer aid chains, which are people mostly who know each other, or who connected via Facebook, and who are passing aid hand-to-hand, until it reaches refugees who need it, or reaches internally displaced people in Ukraine, or reaches volunteer military, which is almost every man in Ukraine right now. And so, this is a crowd-sourced war in a way I have never seen. Almost all the humanitarian aid we saw in Poland was coming from volunteers, who were not organized in the standard NGO form, but who were organizing themselves into hand-to-hand chains of aid delivery, via Face-book.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So, we saw the example I keep talking about is these amazing women called the [UNSURE OF WORD], which is the Rural Women's Circles. And these are farming women who are part of an organization that was founded in 1915. And so, they're neighbors, they're friends, they've known each other for years, and years, and years. And they were on the border when the refugees started coming. And so, what these women do is what every Polish grandma would do; they made soup. They made vat, after vat of soup, and it was amazing because people who were crossing the border in March, from Ukraine, had sometimes been traveling 36 or 50 hours and they were starving, and they were cold, and it was just miserable. Many of them had come out of open conflict zones. Many of them had waited more than 30 hours in line to cross the border and, as they stumbled across the border, they were met by these Polish women who made sure everybody got a hot bowl of soup because, in Poland, soup is what you need; when anything goes wrong it's soup, that's the universal cure.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And, when one vat of soup was gone, a woman would arrive with another. And I even asked them, I said, "How do you have these big vats on hand?" and they said, "Oh, we use them for festivals." So, they put on these village festivals every year and that's why they have these thermal insulated containers of soup; huge, like maybe 20 gallon containers of soup.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, what kind of soup?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Oh, it was amazing. So, every woman made her own vat of soup at home, mostly with food she grew herself. And so, you'd get a vat of Fasolka po bretonsku, which is one of my favorites, which is white beans in a tomato broth with slices of Kielbasa. That's a good one. And then the next vat would be pickle soup, which is another big favorite of mine, which is a kind of a half thick creamy soup full of dill and chunks of pickle. And then, the next vat would be chicken soup, and then the next vat would be beef stew, and they just kept coming, and coming, and coming. And it was this act of profound care, in a way that no institutionalized form of care could ever be. Sure, UN Asia could have shown up, they could have had refugee camps on the border; that's standard procedure. But, instead, local people in Poland helped the refugees as they crossed, then helped them get to a transit shelter where they could spend the night and figure out where to go next.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Then, helped transport them to Warsaw, or to Krakow, or on to other parts of Europe, took them into their homes and fed them for months. Every Polish family I know had a Ukrainian family in their apartment when I was there. So, it was this act of solidarity and neighborliness, and care, that was something more than humanitarian aid usually is. And it all started with soup.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Director of the Center for Refugee Studies at Indiana University. We'll be back in a moment, with more from our conversation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. She's been talking about her recent trip to the Polish Ukrainian border, where she was volunteering and researching with her colleague, Ivanna Kyliushyk, from the University of Warsaw. During their visit, they were struck by the immediate response from local volunteers in Poland, and the slowness of the larger more institutional NGOs who, typically, respond to refugee crises.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  We volunteered at the border crossing points, which were all made up of volunteers. We did not see any of the big aid organizations there until about the 20th of March, when World Central Kitchen arrived. And, World Central Kitchen, they were late to the party. By then, more than three million people crossed before World Central Kitchen arrived, and they were the first big NGO to arrive and start working. But, once they got up and running, they were providing 35,000 meals a day. Yes, but the local women were very upset by this because they wanted people to keep having soup. And, and they found it very upsetting that these foreigners were pushing them out.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's interesting. So, they didn't feel relieved that they didn't have to come up with all this food?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  No, they wanted to keep doing it, yeah. They were really wonderful actually, and they also opened transit shelters in their villages that were warm and caring. We also worked at two of the really big transit shelters: one in a, in an old Tesco supermarket, where there were thousands of people in Przemysl, and then we also worked at an old merchandise mart, or what had been a merchandise mart, in Korczowa. And, in Korczowa, the merchandise mart had these little shops inside it; it was a place where Ukrainians would come to buy things wholesale and then take them back to Ukraine, to retail them. And so, each of these little shopettes in the merchandise mart had been re-purposed as a room for 20 cots. So, there were rooms full of Roma people, there were rooms full of people with small dogs. There were rooms full of people with cats. There were rooms full of mercenary fighters who had to come out when a training center about 12 kilometers away was hit with cruise missiles, while we were there.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So, we were a little closer to the action than I wanted to be. So, at this center, thousands of people a day were passing through and so, Ivanna and I worked, we handed out food, we helped translate for people. We helped them find rides onto Germany or France, and we interviewed a lot of the volunteers who had come themselves to provide aid.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Earlier in our conversation, before my mic was on actually, Elizabeth had mentioned a story she wanted to tell me about pierogis.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Ivanna went out to do a follow up interview with the Rural Women's Circles, and she found them in this little village making pierogis, which are little meat filled dumplings. Sending pierogis to soldiers on the front in Ukraine is a little complicated because there's no refrigeration. And so, they reverted to this very old technique, which is to sink them into buckets of lard, and the lard creates an anaerobic environment and it keeps the pierogis from rotting, so that they are food safe. Here were these layers of dumplings in layers of pork fat, and Ivanna was standing there and one of the women said, "Oh, well we also have these thermo visions." Thermo visions are thermal imagers used to find heat signatures in the dark which, obviously, is military equipment. And these women were also running military equipment in. So, these 50 or 60 year old grandmothers were running pierogis, soup, and thermal imagers to hunt Russians with.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  They were trying to figure out how to get these things across the border because, although the Ukrainian border guards are not particularly picky, you don't want to be too obvious. Ivanna said she just looked at them and they looked at her, and people started wrapping them in plastic and sinking the thermo visions into buckets of lard. Then, the gave the buckets of lard to a priest who drove them across the border.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can I just picture the pierogis in the buckets of lard again? Are they in plastic bags and then put in the lard?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  No, no, they're just put directly in the lard because the fat creates an anaerobic environment so they're preserved. They're-- it's basically pierogis comfit. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG:  And then, you don't have to oil the pan before you heat them up.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  You do not have to oil the pan before you fry them, no. They're in good shape; they're pretty fat covered.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What are you thinking about right now? What is on your mind, what is troubling you? What is keeping you up at night, when you think about what's happening?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  As a geographer, one of the things that always interesting or troubling to me, is spacial unevenness, and we're certainly seeing this in the war now. The Russians thought that they could take over Ukraine in five or six days, like they did in Georgia in 2008 when I was there. And the Ukrainians fought back hard enough that the Russians have had to pull back to the eastern regions of Donbas, as well as cities on the coast like Mariupol and Odessa. And so, what's happened is that the intensity of fighting is dramatically different from east to west. So, the people who are suffering the most are the people that are the hardest to see. They're in an underground shelter in a steel plant in Mariupol. They've been living in the Metro in Kharkiv for 60 days. So, those people are the hardest to reach, and the most in need, and the hardest to see. Whereas the people who can exit into Poland are generally the people who are in the best shape, which is not to say good shape. That unevenness really troubles me.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  The other thing that's keeping me up at, at night, honestly, is how, I think, ineffective the international humanitarian aid system run by the United Nations has been. And part of it is because the UN is not setup to operate an aid system in a developed country. They come into places where there are no markets, so they setup housing, they give people food deliveries from the World Food Program but, that's not needed in a place like Poland which is, after all, in the European Union. So, the UN didn't have a mechanism for helping people who still needed help but were in remarkably different economic conditions. And that meant that the bulk of that work, for 3.5 million people, was left for volunteers and citizens, just normal everyday people, to figure out on their own, because the UN no longer had a mass produced solution for this.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  This is not the Sudan. It is not tents out in the middle of nowhere. We don't need to give people bags of cornmeal to eat, but you still have to give people things to eat, and we're finding that many Ukrainians are starting to run thin on cash. There is a wonderful shop in Warsaw called The Help Center at 20 Psavska Street, and this was just a rundown empty space that was taken over by a bunch of volunteers who have created a shop out of it where everything is free. Ukrainians can line up and they can come and get groceries and they can come and sort through clothes and pick out clothes they like, and take them away. And the line outside that building is non-stop; hundreds of people. And we thought that over time that line would dwindle as Ukrainians got jobs, as they got settled in, but it's intensified. They're running out of money to buy their own food. The UN has tried cash transfer plans, the Polish Government is giving Ukrainians some cash but, what they really need is housing and jobs, and the UN cannot provide that to them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When you're talking about that many people coming into these places, there's not going to be enough jobs, there's not going to be enough housing. I mean, aren't there housing shortages everywhere?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  There are housing shortages everywhere and they are particularly intense in places like Warsaw. When the war broke out, the people who came out could stay in other people's apartments but, now, it's two months on, can you do this for six months? Can you do this for a year? So people are looking for their own housing and it's extremely difficult to find. What we're seeing is that almost a million Ukrainians have gone back into Ukraine. We stood in the line to watch the train come in from Lviv, and there were more people getting on the train to go back to Lviv then got off it to get into Poland.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And that's a question I have for you because I know when this first started, I think I might have heard you say in a report that this might not be a long-term refugee situation. People are planning to go back, it's not let's go to the U.S. and start our new lives. It's like we're planning to go back. Do you still feel that way?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yes, but that's going to be real different depending on where you're from in Ukraine. If the war ended today, you could go back to Lviv and everything would be like normal, more or less. If you went back to Kyiv, things are starting up to work again; there's going to be a lot of repair and construction that needs to be done but, unless your home was destroyed, you can move back into Kyiv. If you are from Mariupol, that city has been flattened. There is no undamaged building in Mariupol now, and it's going to be years before that city is rebuilt. If you're in Kharkiv, it's going to be a very long time before the city is up and running again like normal.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And it's not over.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And it's not over, and it's not going to be over soon. The Russians have been in that part of Ukraine now since 2014. So they're pretty dug in, and this part of the war could go on a long, long time. So, I think we're going to see different groups of people who have differential access to going back.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Is that getting back to what you were talking about, about the unevenness?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yes, about the unevenness of it. Luckily, the labor market in Europe needs the workers, and Ukrainians are, in general, quite highly educated. So they are finding work fairly quickly. It's not always work they want but, before the war, there were already 1.8 million Ukrainians in Poland, mostly doing domestic work but, also, doing construction, warehousing, those kinds of what we would consider low wage jobs. So, a lot of those 1.8 million Ukrainians are now bringing their family members into Poland with them and helping them resettle there. And, luckily, the labor market is absorbing a lot of them, but the housing market is not. So, that's going to be the stopper; whether people can find a place to live, and I think we will see that there will be at least a million people who cannot go back anytime soon.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I wanted to get back to the food situation. You talked about these groups of volunteers who were making soup and bringing food and that it was really consistent and a lot of people doing this. And then, World Central Kitchen came in and what kind of food were they bringing, or offering?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  They had a central food production facility in Przemysl, where they rented a warehouse, and they were then shipping out food to reheat at all the transit shelters and at the borders. They made pretty good pierogis and I ate some of them. Potato, cheese, that's a classic. They had some very nice vegetable stews. They tried to make sure all the food was hot and then, like everybody else, they were also giving out massive quantities of sugar. You ought to have seen these Ukrainian kids; never before have children received so much chocolate at one time, and the kids were flying on sugar highs for days, because World Central Kitchen would give them candy bars and then they would go to the next tent, where somebody had candy bars, and then the next tent where somebody had candy bars. So, there was also a lot of giving out of sweets going on.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I thought one of the most interesting places that I went was the border crossing at Medyka, where people are crossing on foot. As soon as they crossed through the Polish border control, they came down this long winding sidewalk and, on both sides of the sidewalk, all of these volunteers had setup various tents. There was a Sikh community kitchen that had driven a food truck from England and they were giving samosas and Indian food; that was one of the first ones that people hit. There were lots and lots of groups offering sandwiches, you know, these beautiful Polish sandwiches are the best. It's a thick cut ham with butter and cheese, pickles sometimes on these crusty rolls, like Kaiser rolls. They're fabulous. There were tons and tons of sandwiches of all different kinds. The soup ladies were there, so there was a lot of food as people came down the walkway at Medyka.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  There was an American guy from the state of Georgia. With me, you have to say this. [LAUGHS]. He was making Nutella filled crêpes, and he had been there for three weeks, and he had made tens of thousands of these crêpes that the kids were running up to get. But he just stood there all day making crêpes and filling them full of Nutella.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Turns out, that guy was not from the state of Georgia, he was from Florida, and she didn't catch his name, but she did record their exchange at his crêpe stand at the border crossing in Medyka.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Where are you from?

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  I am from Maryland, but I live in Florida, in the U.S.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  You live in Florida, and what brought you here to the border? Are you here with a group? Did you organize yourself?


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  You just bought a plane ticket?


TIM CREWS:  Are you the only person in this particular operation?

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  No. Artur put this tent up. I came in here, I started asking around and somebody stuck me with, "Hey, meet this guy" and he asked me if I could do carpentry. I was like, "I'm pretty handy" and so I helped him fix a hole in the tent and then we started building these ventures in here.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  A little warm place for people to sit.

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  I wouldn't call it warm, but it's warmer than out here. And since Sunday we've been hanging out together doing this.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Wow. And tell me what you're making.


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  The Polish equivalent of crepes.

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  Well, in Polish it's pancakes, but it's not pancakes to Americans, so we're still having this argument he and I, that's a joke.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  About what naleśniki is?


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  And what are you putting in the middle of your naleśniki?

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  You can put anything you want. You could put Nutella, you could put fruit. He's gone upscale, he started putting bacon and pears in his.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Bacon and pears? That is really upscale.

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  Yeah, that's upscale. [LAUGHS]. But, I would say 95% go with Nutella.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  For kids or for adults?


ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  What do you think you get out of this? What's your benefit?

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  I haven't really figured that out. I don't know, I think it, it's about the kids really. I mean, they love this. That's the best thing I've taken from this is seeing the kids, and it makes them happy.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  For a second, when they're in the middle of a bad place?

MALE FROM FLORIDA MAKING CRÊPE AT BORDER CROSSING IN MEDYKA:  Yeah, and you can joke around with them with when you can flip it up and act like, you know, I can't even talk to them, but-- I was worried, you're taking a long break, weren't you?

KAYTE YOUNG:  The guy from Florida at the Medyka border in Poland, where people are crossing from war torn Ukraine into Poland and, sometimes, back again. This American, who speaks only English, bought a plane ticket and headed to Poland to see what he could do. He's flipping pancakes, or crepes, filling them with Nutella, and giving them to kids and adults, anyone who could use a bit of comfort of something handmade and sweet during this time of crisis. It speaks to a long-held understanding about the power of food; to comfort and to connect, across language, across borders. This is Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. We'll be back with more from our conversation with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn after a short break. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with geography professor, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. She's been at the Polish Ukrainian border working with volunteers providing aid to Ukrainian refugees.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  What was interesting was the people were so excited to help that the refugees got asked if they wanted something to eat 17 or 18 times in the 100 yards between the border crossing and the bus to the train station. People were thrilled to help. People felt a moral duty to help. A lot of Polish people, I asked them why they were helping, particularly because there's been this issue where Syrians at the Belarusian border with Poland have been treated very differently. Poland has militarized that border, it's pushed Syrians and Afghans out and there have been accusations that the Polish Government is racist, because it will admit Ukrainians but not Syrians. So I started asking Poles why they wanted to volunteer to help, and they said a couple of things: one is, of course, Ukrainians are like us, that was a big one. I mean, they speak a language we can understand if they speak slowly. They eat the same food as us, they look like us. They share our culture.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  But, there were other reasons that were more important, and the more important reason was many people said, "Because they're what stands between us and Putin and, if they don't fight, Putin will be here at any moment." Many Poles felt this absolute visceral sense of threat about this, and they believed that by taking care of these soldier's families, that the soldiers could then fight, and fight harder. And that was important. And then, there's also the shared longstanding hatred of the Russians, and Poles, almost universally, hate Russians, and that's historic because of World War II, and the communist period. But it's also been whipped up a lot by the current government, which is remarkably anti-Russian. So, a lot of Poles were already primed to be very defensive about Russians and so, on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they helped Ukrainians. So, I think it's more complex than racism would allow.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I was just wondering, when you said that there were all these places that people could get food, and all these people offering food, what was the atmosphere like in these border crossings, and was it festive, was it desperate? It sounds like there was a lot of people, was it stands? How organized was it? Did it feel like chaos?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It was complete chaos, because the volunteers were organizing themselves, you know? The buses, for example, were run by the local volunteer firefighters who were running people to the train station. And the food stands were all run by volunteers. So, there was no standardization and there was no standard procedure for any of this; it was just walk across the border and here we are to help you. At the other border crossings, it was less chaotic because those people were generally being dropped off at the border crossing on foot and waiting for someone they knew to pick them up. So, they would sit in warming tents for several hours, sometimes, waiting for a pickup and then they would slow down and have a bowl of soup and they would get to lay down and nap for a little bit, so things were calmer and there was less volume of people coming through.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  But, at Medyka and at the transit shelters, the atmosphere was strangely carnivalesque. It felt like a summer fare in a lot of ways, with different food stands full of food and people bringing out toys for the kids, and volunteers blowing big, big bubbles for toddlers, and people having food and water for animals, and places for animals to get out of their little crates. So, it did feel very carnivalesque, and I think the Ukrainians themselves were, obviously, desperately worried and for many of them, it was stepping of a cliff. They had no idea what was going to happen. But, for the volunteers, it was almost euphoric helping. People were running at top speed and working really hard to help, and they felt really good about it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Sounds like care on lots of levels. It wasn't just food or warmth, it was what might these families need? What might be helpful for kids who have just gone through something terrible?

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yes, I think that's true, especially this attention on kids, because most of the people coming out were women on their own with children, or women with their mothers and their children, who then were double burdened. And so, this question of how can we help the kids, was really important. I know, at one point, the mothers were complaining that the kids were so hopped up on sugar that they were being hard to manage and so, other volunteers shifted gears and started apple sauce vouchers, so that the kids would have something healthy to eat, which I suppose was still quite a lot of sugar. [LAUGHS]. But everybody felt like it was more healthy, and that's what mattered. Finding toys and games and distractions was really important.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  What was interesting about the Ukrainians that I met was that they, themselves, alternated between being mostly okay and having these moments of utter meltdown. We talked to a woman who was the single mother of five little kids; I think there was an infant and a toddler, and twin four-year-olds. I mean, they were tiny kids. And she had setup a kind of play area for them outside one of the transit shelters in the parking lot, just so that they could run around. And she was talking about going back; she was hysterical about going back into Kyiv which was then being occupied by the Russians. And we kept saying, "You can't go back. Now is not a good time to go back." And she said, "We left four cats in the apartment, I have to go back and get the cats, I can't leave the cats there." And it was like that was all she that she could focus on. She could not think about the bigger picture; it was just too much to wrap her brain around, and she was trying to load up her five kids and go back into a militarily occupied zone to go get four cats.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So, we helped her arrange for a neighbor to get into her house and feed the cats which, sort of, calmed her down enough that she could think rationally about where to go next, and we helped her find housing in France for the short-term at least. But, she was obviously too overwhelmed to think about what she really needed to think about, and she was making terrible decisions.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I told Elizabeth that I could completely relate to that.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  So could I. There's one thing you can control so go control that, because the rest of it you can't even think about or you're going to crash. We saw people like that and then they would, sort of, pick themselves up and they would be okay for a while and then they would crash again. I think the true emotional burden of the war we don't know yet. But I do know, and I see it on Face-book all the time in all of these groups, Ukrainians posting to say thank you. Thank you for taking care of my family, thank you for taking care of me. What would we have done without you? And they post in the groups to the volunteers.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I was thinking about I heard some report where they were talking about people who are still in Ukraine, not having worked for so long and running out of money. And then, I just started thinking about what we've all been through here in the U.S. with the pandemic and how disruptive that has been, and just thinking about trying to get everything back on some kind of track, or people who didn't have work and now do, just all the things. And then, I started thinking about what you said before about just cities being demolished and how lives are totally, not just disrupted but, totally destroyed.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  Yes, I think that's the big thing about forced migration. It's not like moving. A lot of people think, "Oh, it's moving" and moving to another country is hard and moving to another part of your own country is challenging. But, the real damage is that your whole life is destroyed and all of the familiar things that you know are either gone or exist in weird fragments that now are not related to each other in a way that makes sense anymore. I think that the emotional fallout for this we are only beginning to see now, and it's not just that people saw violence. That's bad enough. But it's also that when your apartment is blown sky high, you lose all your familiar possessions, you lose your world. And, for many of these people, their world is gone, it will never come back. No matter how much you rebuild, it will never come back. So, the war is going to fall off the U.S. front pages, but the actual effects of the war haven't even started yet, and they will be with people for decades.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  I've worked with people who were involved in the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and I talk to them all the time. And, when the war in Ukraine broke out, people were texting me at 3 o'clock in the morning because they couldn't sleep. I mean, they were up remembering how terrible it was and, many of them, their lives have never come back to being normal. They're poorer, their families have been blown apart. My friend, Maya, has not seen her sister in 14 years because she can't. Her sister is 15 miles away and she cannot go and see her. So, I think we're going to see those effects playing out for a long time to come.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When we spoke, Elizabeth Dunn was getting ready to head back to Poland. This time, she was bringing some much needed medical supplies that she'd managed to secure here in Bloomington. I asked her what she had planned for this next trip.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  On this trip, we're going to be going back to all the people that we met; people in the transit shelters, people who were volunteers. We worked with a guy who had started out as a volunteer doing humanitarian aid at the shelter and then he started moving humanitarian aid into Ukraine, and then he became, sort of, an amateur arms trafficker. So, he was routing military supplies into Ukraine. We'll be talking to people like him and we'll be talking to the political leadership. We'll be talking to people at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, to try and understand how the volunteer aid system came into being and why? Why institutional aid had such a hard time starting up there, and what they see as the long-term needs, and whether the institutional aid system can meet them. That is the focus of the next trip.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  But, of course, I will always be thinking about food and what people are eating, so we're also going to be going to the, the Help Center on Posavska Street, to see what people are eating, and to see how they're buying groceries, and how their diets are changing as their finances and their cooking situation changes.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, food scholar and Director of I.U.'s News Center for Refugee Studies. Thank you so much for talking with me.

ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN:  It's always my pleasure, Kayte. Earth Eats is one of my favorite shows.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Elizabeth Dunn is currently in Poland at the border with Ukraine, with an audio recorder in tow. We hope to talk with her again when she returns, so stay tuned to Earth Eats and subscribe to our podcast. You can find links to Elizabeth Dunn's work at our website: Next up, we have a recipe from my garden for, of all things, soup.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've got a French sorrel plant in a perennial garden bed next to my front porch; I've had it for years. It comes back every spring. Sorrel is a delicate leafy green with a distinctive lemony taste. I never know quite how to cook with it but, when I tried this soup recipe last year, I loved everything about it. It's rich and satisfying but still light and fresh tasting. It's a nice soup for spring or summer, and it's simple to prepare. You can probably find sorrel at one of the local farmer's markets or possibly at the grocery store and, if you have some growing in your garden, you can start there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Sorrel is a great green to grow in your garden because it is a perennial; it comes back year after year. As long as you can keep the deer off of it, you've got it three seasons out of the year. It's a very pretty plant too, so it's nice to put in your garden beds as a landscaping plant. It's got bright green oval shaped shiny leaves. It's a lot like spinach in texture. It's a very tender leaf. We'll want to wash it and spin it dry in a salad spinner.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Once you have the sorrel leaves washed and spun, chop them up. You'll need two and half cups. If you don't have enough sorrel, feel free to substitute spinach or charred leaves to make up the difference. Next, you'll want to get the rest of the vegetables and herbs prepared. The recipe calls for one small onion, one medium peeled carrot, one stalk of celery, and two small potatoes. All of the vegetables should be diced into small pieces. The soup won't be blended so, think about what you would want in a spoon sized bite of soup. Also, the smaller pieces will cook more quickly. The last ingredient to prepare is the fresh thyme. Strip the leaves from the stem and finely mince. Now you're ready to start assembling and cooking the soup.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We're going to start by melting two tablespoons of unsalted butter in a heavy pot such as a Dutch oven and, to our melted butter, we will add the chopped celery, onions, and carrots. We'll cook these vegetables over a medium heat until they begin to soften. Then, we'll add about two teaspoons of salt, a few grounds of pepper. And, once the mirepoix vegetables; the carrots, the onions, and the celery, are starting to get soft, we're going to add the diced potato, a third of a cup of uncooked rice, so that can be a basmati or jasmine, and four cups of vegetable broth. You could also use a chicken stock for this. I've made my vegetable broth a little bit more rich by heating it up with some Parmesan rinds. It really adds a nice savory flavor to soups. We'll simmer this on a low heat until the rice and potatoes are tender, and that should take about 20 or 30 minutes. Once they are tender, we'll add the cream, the sorrel leaves, and some fresh thyme. And then, once the sorrel is wilted, we'll taste and adjust the seasonings, maybe add a little bit of salt and pepper, and that's it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Now that our soup has been cooking for about 20 minutes, we're going to check and, yes, those potatoes are tender and the rice is cooked. Now it's time to add one cup of cream, two teaspoons of fresh thyme finely chopped, and then about two and a half cups of sorrel leaves, and just stir that in, heat through, and adjust the seasoning, and then you're ready to serve. This does not get pureed. You could do that if you'd like but, I think it's a really nice soup with all of the textures of the diced potatoes, onions, and carrots, and celery, and a little bit of that rice just to thicken it and give it some body. The cream is adding the richness and then that bright sorrel flavor. The sorrel is very tart, it has a lemony flavor. But, in this dish, it's not overwhelming because of all the other flavors and proportions that you have going on. So, it's a really nice soup, it's a great way to serve sorrel, and I hope you'll try it. As always, you can find the recipe at

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED:  The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media, and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and the pancake guy from Florida.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey, and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Production Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

Two women standing in front of a metal garage door, one with her gloved hand over a large metal vat with a clamp lid, the other leaning on a make-shift countertop

Volunteers with the Rural Women's Circles in Korczowa, Poland organized to share homemade hot soup with refugees crossing into Poland from war-torn Ukraine in March, 2022. (Elizabeth Cullen Dunn)

“And then the next vat would be chicken soup, and then the next vat would be beef stew and they just kept coming and coming and coming-- and it was this act of profound care, in the way that no institutionalized form of care could ever be.”

This week on the show a conversation with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, geographer, food studies scholar and Director of Indiana University's new Center for Refugee Studies. 

She brings us stories of everyday people--organizing, transporting, comforting and cooking for families in crisis.

Hear more from Elizabeth Dunn on Earth Eats, here, and here

On this episode we also share a story from Hot Farm and Harvest Public Media about a perennial grain that could help reduce agricultural carbon emissions, plus,a bright spring soup featuring French sorrel. 

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Kernza — the grain you’ve never heard of that could revolutionize farming

Lee DeHaan holds up a stem of grain inside a greenhouse.

The perennial grain can produce an annual crop even as it stays in the ground for up to four years. Its deep root system helps pull carbon out of the air and makes it more resistant to floods and drought.

Creamy French Sorrel Soup

Soup in ceramic bowl with green and orange flecks visible in a creamy broth. linen napkin and spoon to the right on a wooden surface.

Sorrel is a delicate leafy green with a distinctive lemony taste. This soup is rich and satisfying, but still light and fresh-tasting.

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