On May 15, the Avondale restaurant eden, 2734 W. Roscoe St., was the site of a rather extraordinary gathering of Chicagoland chefs, nonprofit CEOs and other business leaders in a moving discussion that centered on building a thriving community that supports all the people.
Chef Sebastian White (who heads The Evolved Network, which provides culinary and gardening programs to equip youths in systemically oppressed communities) and Prairie Grass Cafe Chef Sarah Stegner (part of The Evolved Network's advisory board) hosted the event, "Round Table II," which featured a panel of at least two dozen individuals. Said panelists included Green City Market CEO Mandy Moody, Chef Paul Kahan, EDIFYE Executive Director M. Pauly Jackson, Growing Home Inc. Executive Director Janelle St. John, chef/author Rick Bayless, eden Chef Devon Quinn, Grow Great Englewood's Bweza Itaagi, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology's Dr. Todd DuBose and Batter and Berries Chef Ken Polk, among others.
One question that started the hour-long-plus talk was "What is your vision of a thriving, connected and healthy community for all and how does your organization, work, philanthropy, etc. contribute to achieving this?" The other was "What is our collective vision and how can we support one another in achieving this?"
Panelists naturally supported the need for everyone to come together, but also acknowledged that the battle to achieve food equity has many components.
St. John said that people often asked her how the COVID pandemic affected her organizationand she stated that she said, "It was a positive experience. Why? Because communities that never experienced food insecurity got to experience it for a short time"and that insecurity is something that neighborhoods like Englewood (where Growing Home is located) deal with on a daily basis. She added that affordability and cultural competence are part of the solution toward food equity.
Others also commented that it's important for youthsthe next generationto feel loved and to be connected to food and community. And one panelist pointed out the shame that's often tied to food.
Polk, who's from Chicago, said, "When we talk about food insecurity and 'lack of,' I think about the places where I grew up and the things I didn't have. My mother said, 'Charity starts at home.' You've got to take care of your own and your community first. … The work that we do every single day is important. I lean back and think about what my grandmother said: 'Food is medicine.' You didn't get it at the doctor's office; you got it at the kitchen table. But you go out into the communityand lead with TRUST. That's part of the problem right now with the community and with youth: a lack of trust." He then went into details how he builds trust with his training program. White then added how even something like trusting youths with knives (a comment that initially drew laughs) can be a major thing. He then added, "I'm serious. It changes the dynamic of the relationship."
Knowledge is also key, Polk added, talking about how the concept of "food ignorance." At one point, he stated, "Believe it or not, there are kids who don't understand that potato chips or French fries come from potatoes."
Alexandra DeSorbo-Quinnthe executive director of Pilot Light, which deals with classroom food educationadded to Polk's comment, saying a person can go to the supermarket and see an item and not really know what it is: "There's a hole [in education] there. You could hear about a squash and a person has no education about where it comes from." She added that Pilot Light has worked with organizations like Green City Market to educate children about food.
White commented that it's important to also get parents involved. "I have kids who made a Caesar with Brussels sprouts and one kid didn't want the recipe, saying, 'My parents won't buy it.' … [The kids] don't buy groceries, so we have to figure out how to gain access to parents." And in what was one of the key lines of the event, White said that, through education, "we're increasing possibilities."
Nurse/Food Matters founder Laurie Ouding raised a few eyebrows by talking about what she's seen as a result of food insecurity in kids who've been admitted to hospitals. "They're malnourished and obese at the same time. There are kids that are 11 that are on blood-pressure medication. Or they're admitted because they're so chronically constipated that we literally put tubes in their noses and flush their systems outfor days, sometimesand then they come back because we're sending them back out into the same situation. How do you expect parents to fix the problem when the situation is the problem?
"Blowing up the local food system is what needs to happen. For me, the overall goal is not have where you live be your mortality. In Oak Park, your life expectancy is 82; if you live in Englewood, it's 69. That's tragicbut it can be fixed."
Bayless agreed with the other panelists but also emphasized the importance of the goal. "Going back to the question of the vision of a thriving, healthy community, I'm not sure we're really touching on that," he said. "What I want to encourage everybody to do is to [envision] what it would be to not need to have this meetingthat [community-building] is built into our culture. We say, 'Our culture doesn't support this,' so we have to be the lone voice in the wind, trying to make a difference. The big vision is that we don't need speakers because [the goal] is built into our culture."
Impact for Equity Managing Director of Development of External Relations Tamara Reed Tran said, "I'm hearing about all of this wonderful workwork for education, development and [more]. When you take all those things and add them together, there's a strategy at play. Everything's working disparately toward this one goal that everybody's trying to achieve. But once one goal is set [among disparate individuals], then we can advocate for resources and assets, changing how the law is set, and creating a new system and a new structure with new rules about what is right. You can't keep fighting things by putting a Band-Aid on it; you've got to change it. So I would just encourage people to think about that system, that structure and that coalition-building."
Lastly, Jacksonwho introduced himself, in part, as the brother of Jacob Blake, who made national headlines in 2020 when a Kenosha, Wisconsin cop shot himalso stressed the importance of trust, culinary education and team-building. "We're in this conversation right now," he said. "How do we accomplish [the goal]? It's through a coalition."
Stegner encouraged people to continue the conversation: "Pick up the phone, textwhatever you need to doto keep those connections alive to move our community forward."
As for my takeaway from this discussion, the main word was "value." It's critical to know the value of the fight, the visionand of selfin order to build and maintain an environment that supports everyone equally.
For more about The Evolved Network or to join this coalition, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit theevolvednetwork.org/ . For more restaurant items, visit future3733.substack.com .