THE POWER OF ONE, DEMONSTRATED
Our nation’s relationship with food is in an interesting state. The term “food desert” is part of our lexicon, describing areas where healthy affordable food is hard to find. One in six Americans doesn’t have the resources to buy enough proper food to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Our obesity stats are higher than ever. Towns that used to thrive on local agriculture—for both jobs and food—are in dire economic straits, with many being labeled “persistently poor.” Seems we’ve lost our collective way a bit, having traded farmers’ markets for drive-throughs and fresh local provisions for gas station grabs.
But something’s brewing, for the better.
Folks in the food and restaurant industry are stepping up around the South to make a difference. They’re passionate about kids and using food as life lessons, teaching the kids how to have healthy bodies and thriving lives. They’re putting people to work and showing them a path for success. Preaching the gospel of “eat local and fresh” for both personal health and to support purveyor neighbors. And helping each other during really hard times, so they can all keep pushing forward as the soul of their communities.
Here are the stories of just a few.
Robert St. John
of Extra Table
Hattiesburg / MS
Chef Robert St. John couldn’t reckon how Mississippi could be number one in the nation in food insecurity, with an estimated one in five people going to bed hungry each night, and yet also have the highest obesity rates. “How can we be the fattest and the least well fed?” he questioned. “But then I started researching and discovered those two always go hand in hand.” Persistently poor communities are often food deserts, devoid of proper grocery stores or farmers’ markets. Residents primarily rely on convenience stores for daily meals, which are all too often a ninety-nine-cent bag of chips and a sugary drink. The fix, St. John realized, is to give hungry Americans access to healthy food.
Then a fortuitous call happened: a local Hattiesburg mission, which was feeding about 700 people at the time in 2009, called St. John in a panic—they’d completely run out of food. He thought the quickest, easiest way to get food to the pantry would be to call Sysco and just have them make a delivery. “It was important to me that they delivered healthy food. So the next morning when the Sysco truck came, I climbed in with my [scanner] gun and picked out all the items to be delivered—lean protein, no-salt-added canned vegetables, low-sugar fruits, healthy carbs, grains, nothing with high fructose corn syrup. The truck left and delivered it to the mission. Easy.” This sparked an idea: Perhaps more people would give if it were always this easy, if they could say to Sysco, “Add an extra table’s worth of healthy food to my shipment to be donated.” St. John called Sysco to share his idea, “and they didn’t even bat an eye.” They worked together to form Extra Table.
Fellow food professionals around Hattiesburg were the first to sign up for regular donation deliveries. Before long, it was a state-wide movement and is now on its way to becoming a national program. The mission that made the original panicked call now feeds 1,200 families, and for a year now they haven’t had to purchase any food due to Extra Table’s donations. “The resources they were using on food are now used for afterschool programs, job fairs, getting people back into the job force, and community gardens. We’ve taken care of food—the most basic need—so they can focus on more holistic growth,” says St. John.
Melissa Martin of Cafe Hope
Marrero / LA
Melissa Martin’s friends thought she was nuts to take a job that combined two exceptionally challenging gigs: working for a nonprofit for at-risk youth and running a restaurant. “When you combine those two together—it’s like a circus,” admits the chef, whose résumé and skills could land her at the helm of her pick of glitzy kitchens. But what she gave up in poshness, she gained in purpose as the executive chef for Cafe Hope, a restaurant outside of New Orleans that hires and trains only “at-risk” or “opportunity youth”—anyone ages seventeen to twenty-one who’s not in school, not employed, and from a low-income family. The initial goal is helping the “apprentices” land a job in the culinary industry, with the bigger mission of helping them cultivate life skills essential for being a successful adult.
The chef explains, “While we’re teaching them about the industry, we’re also educating them on what to eat and what kind of job they need to sustain themselves.”
Martin has a history of serving hyper-local dishes, and Cafe Hope is no exception. Each day, she stops by the farmers’ market for vegetables and picks up soft shell crab from her guy, “Denny.” Her favorite seasonal lunch dish: “Fried soft shell crab from Denny on a beautiful piece of bread from our local bakery, some phenomenally good husbandry-raised bacon, a housemade pickle, local tomato, and homemade mayo. You eat this sandwich and you’re not only supporting the students cooking and serving it but every other person who made a piece of this sandwich. The meal has so much effect.”
Executive Chef of Miller Union
Atlanta / GA
Steven Satterfield and his doctors believe that his diet of fresh local foods helped him bounce back from stage-three testicular cancer and rounds of chemotherapy. That edict—that food is medicine—is an important one that Satterfield, executive chef at Atlanta’s Miller Union, is hot to preach. “We know for a fact that if we all eat healthier diets, we can prevent and cure disease faster,” he explains. “And for a cancer patient, that’s a fascinating and exciting story to hear.” He presents cooking demonstrations at the Cancer Wellness Center at Piedmont Hospital, sharing his personal experience and teaching attendees how to prepare delicious and nutrient-rich, cancer-fighting meals. “The people at Cancer Wellness, they’re desperate for knowledge on how they can take better care of themselves. There are so many excited faces as they’re tasting things, and they’re saying, ‘I can’t believe I like beets,’ or ‘I didn’t know I liked rutabagas.”
This chef and local food advocate thinks this is a microcosm of a shift that’s happening across our nation; the necessity of incorporating local fresh produce into our everyday diets is becoming a mainstream thought, he insists, coupled with an increasing delight in eating fresh produce as opposed to nutrient-deplete food products. “It’s a big, important shift.”
of The Green Project
Charleston / SC
A couple of years ago in the fall, the third graders at Mitchell Elementary in Charleston planted sweet potatoes. In the fall of their fourth-grade year, they harvested all 150 mature pounds of them. “The school cafeteria didn’t have anything to properly cook them—no olive oil or anything—and they came out with this sort of leathery texture,” explains executive director of The Green Heart Project Drew Harrison. “But these kids were eating them like Go-Gurts, squeezing them into their mouths. They were so proud to eat what they’d grown; there wasn’t a bite left.”
Another group of Mitchell students was offered kale to taste, straight from the garden. They declined with a collective and hearty “no way.” A few months later, the same group went on a field trip to a local farm. “The farmer was pulling up these dirty carrots and the kids were chomping on them,” laughs Harrison. “To see their paradigm shift just from one season to the next is inspiring. You can see their perception change.”
But turning urban youth into adventurous eaters is just a byproduct of the mission of Green Heart, which was founded by restaurateur Karalee Nielson of Revolutionary Eating Ventures in 2009. Explains Harrison, “We instill the values of hard work, success, and respect. We always say, ‘Respect yourself. Respect your fellow Green Heart buddies and peers. Respect the garden, and remember that the Earth is our big garden.’”
What started as a community garden at Mitchell Elementary has grown into a 5,500-square-foot urban “micro farm” that is GAP Certified (meaning they can serve the food they grow in the school’s cafeteria), organic, and maintained voluntarily by the community and students. The program has expanded to Zucker Middle School, where they’re growing fruit in an orchard and have plans to package, market, and sell it to their restaurant partners. Harrison is passionate and excited about this venture, which College of Charleston students are helping to execute: “Everyone can build this program together—these kids get to work side by side with the college students, who they think are hip and cool. They learn how to work hard and respect each other while connecting with fresh local food. And they literally see the fruits of their labor.”
Andrew Thomas Lee of
The Giving Kitchen + Staple House
When a charity needs food for an event, a local restaurant typically steps up. They cook it, cart it over, serve it—oftentimes for no more than a logo placement on a banner and a thank you. It’s what they do: they serve in their restaurants, they serve in their communities. But what about when something bad happens to one of their own—a house fire or a terrible sickness? Restaurants aren’t known for their great insurance benefits. In the case of Chef Ryan Hidinger, who was diagnosed with stage-four gallbladder cancer last year, a community rallied, a restaurant was born, and a new organization was formed to take care of other industry friends in need.
Ryan and his wife, Jen, are beloved members of the Atlanta food scene. After moving from Indiana, he kickstarted his culinary career at one of the South’s most revered restaurants, Bacchanalia, then continued to work under Chef Anne Quatrano as sous chef at Floataway Cafe. His next move was to Muss & Turner’s, a decidedly more casual place that Ryan thought might be more like a restaurant he’d open one day. Ideas for the Hidingers’ own restaurant started sparking, including a clever marketing plan: Ryan figured that a great way to get his name out into the community, test concepts and recipes, and meet potential patrons would be to host dinner parties at their home. In 2009, he and Jen hosted the first “Prelude to Staplehouse,” named for their future restaurant, still in dream state. Held regularly through 2012, these casual and comfortable dinners always sold out—sometimes in one to two minutes—and received rave reviews, both for the food and for the charming hosts. The essence of Staplehouse was established, and bricks and mortar were close.
In January of 2013, the Hidingers announced Ryan’s diagnosis with a battle cry against cancer. The Atlanta restaurant industry—chefs/owners, staff, patrons—joined in the fight, and in total “Team Hidi” raised about $275,000 for his treatment and bills. He proceeded with a cancer-fighting regimen, and while the dream of Staplehouse had to take the back burner, it was still a part of the Hidingers’ future.
A series of events shaped the next moves: An email from Hidinger’s friend and boss at Muss & Turner’s, Ryan Turner, telling him he felt the need to encourage him to open Staplehouse, suggesting it would be good medicine for him; the same day, a confession over coffee with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Ryan Smith, telling him he wanted to leave his much-lauded executive chef position at Empire State South to work with him on Staplehouse; and soon after, a “For Lease” sign appearing at their “dream location,” the first building they’d looked at several years earlier. They felt momentum along with a directive. “The love we’d felt…we knew we needed to change the business model [for the restaurant]. It had to be more, different,” explains Ryan.
And the plan was conceived: Staplehouse would be a not-for-profit restaurant. Every cent made would go to a charitable organization that helped people in the industry, just like the Hidingers had been helped. Continuing in the community spirit of their vision, they started a crowdsourced fundraising campaign for Staplehouse, which raised nearly $100,000. The philanthropic who’s who of Atlanta heard about the initiative and raised their hands to help, and the start of a powerful board for “The Giving Kitchen” foundation was formed.
Staplehouse will open in early 2014, with The Giving Kitchen operating out of the second floor.
“We get to be groundbreakers again—we get to pioneer this. It comes with a major education, pitfalls, hurdles, things we have to figure out,” says Ryan. “But it’s my mission. It’s my job to take care of people the way they’ve taken care of me.”