FIVE LOCAL FOOD FIGHTERS DEMONSTRATE THE POWER OF THE PLATE
It’s obvious that food connects us. We gather around the table so much this time of year that January is always filled with tips to help combat the consequences of our holiday overindulgence. But food is not just for celebration. It can also serve as a catalyst that inspires us to reach out and connect with someone we would not have otherwise, to give, and to help empower. The following Southern foodies saw a need and realized they could be a part of a solution. Then they acted.
ADAPTIVE GARDENS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY
When Maria Baldwin joined Thornhill Farms in McClellanville, South Carolina, as a volunteer in 2007, she had no idea that she would fall in love with students. As a certified Master Gardener with a degree in environmental biological sciences and a midcareer turn to the culinary field, she was brought in to establish a working organic garden that could be used for therapeutic purposes for developmentally disabled youth.
The small organic garden has since become the emphasis on this working farm, with a budding twelve-acre certified organic production area. And for Baldwin, it has been the setting for one of the biggest surprises of her working life.
“It is so interesting because I took on this project as a service to the non-profit. I had no experience and really no desire to work with students,” she explains. “But when I started interacting with them, I opened up a new world of learning for myself. Gardening is a universal language.”
The farm sees about one hundred students per week, many from area high schools. The students have a wide range of physical and mental abilities, but all get to put their hands in the dirt or contribute to the farm stand.
“It’s amazing the empowerment,” Baldwin says. “They see the yield, then they taste, share, and the light bulb goes off. They start to take pride in what they’re doing. And they really enjoy people buying ‘their’ products at the farm store.”
Of course, unique challenges are just part of the job. But adapting is inherent for Baldwin. Recently one of the students who is wheelchair-bound wanted to get out in the fields. But his wheelchair got stuck in the mud. The group of students and volunteers started laughing at the situation, and soon everyone was laughing, including the one in the wheelchair. It’s just part of life on this farm, and it’s hard not to laugh when things get muddy.
Firm paths are now being constructed around some raised beds to improve wheelchair accessibility because being stuck in the mud proved how much these students long to be working and contributing once they get a taste of it.
“We really do hope that one day we can help them develop gardens at home—that’s the goal—and they can contribute to their family.”
OPERATION CHEFS UNITE
When Chef Michael Deihl first said yes to a request to help out the troops moving though the Atlanta airport, he didn’t think it was a big deal. “I figured this war would be six months,” he says with a dry laugh.
As the busy chef of East Lake Golf Club, he was not expecting to add another steady job to his weekly routine. And yet here he is eight years later coordinating sandwiches for the troops five days a week with Operation Chefs Unite (OCU), and that is fine with him—actually, more than fine. It feels like normal, like home. His mother was one of the biggest influences on his philanthropic attitude. She was a remarkable example. “My brother found a kid living in a car in the woods. He was about twelve or thirteen, and my brother brought him home. My mother took him in the house, set him down, and said, ‘Here are the rules.’ That kid lived with us for a long time,” says Deihl. “She [my mother] was so non-judgmental. She was so ‘Do what needs to be done.’ It was amazing to watch.”
Deihl executes a flawless approach to food, and he never forgets that it is supposed to taste good no matter the venue. Whether plating at an affluent golf club or serving a sandwich to a soldier who is en route to serve our country, he wants the experience to be memorable. OCU not only prepares sandwiches for soldiers at the Atlanta airport five days a week but also now prepares holiday buffets for the soldiers on thirteen holidays each year. That is one million meals or so over the past eight years.
Deihl’s favorite day with OCU is Christmas, when he and his staff rise before dawn to prepare a buffet of traditional holiday foods. They take it to the USO Welcome Center located on the second floor of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
“It totally changed my outlook on the holiday,” he says. “We go down to the airport, and there are hungry, tired people with only family. There was this girl once that said, ‘I want to thank you. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another holiday with my husband.’ And then I’ve heard, ‘Thank you. It was great to have someone come and spend Christmas with me.’ These are amazing young people. They are evidence that our country has a future.”
The five-person staff of Tricycle Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, is a hardworking bunch. Yet they are just so giddy about the whole farming thing that they don’t seem to mind. The organization started with the seed of an idea, its mission hatched by three architects in 2002. They shared a vision for urban agriculture, both as a means for beautification of abandoned lots and for improving the overall health of their community. They started by creating a community garden in their own neighborhood of Church Hill and then branched out (literally) from there.
One by one, patches of cracked cement and vacant overgrown lots were reclaimed as flourishing urban gardens. Members of each community became involved— across social, racial, and financial divides. Now the organization boasts five community gardens, three learning gardens, a greenhouse at Bryan Park, a half-acre urban farm, a healing garden at Bon Secours Memorial Regional Medical Center (which grows vegetables and herbs used in the hospital cafeteria), and a 3,000-square-foot edible forest garden at the Science Museum of Virginia.
It’s not about free food—it’s about community and sustainability, with a snowball effect. The multiple gardens have spawned green-collar jobs, a welcome perk in low-income neighborhoods. Some gardens have led to cafés that have then hired cooks and which provide healthy snacks to community kids. You should see the children’s eyes light up the first time they bite into a stevia leaf (the plant that tastes like sugar).
Humans aren’t the only ones excited by this transformation of the blighted urban landscape. Farm Manager Josh Schweizer explains, “Something that surprises me are all the creatures that still roam the city during the night when everyone is sleeping. They slowly make their rounds and munch on veggies as they pass. Each day, I notice a missing or half-eaten veggie the following morning.”
In short, these sites, these gardens, attract amazing diversity, of both people and animals, and what that does for an urban setting is dramatic. In the end, though, it always comes back to the work and how the work connects people.
“There is something about finding healing in this work together,” says Executive Director Sally Schwitters. “It’s always a fantastic surprise and delight to feel that connection to another person through the garden and through the simple medium of food.”
THE CHEF DUKE FOUNDATION FOR KIDS
You might think that pediatric oncology care, new Italian cuisine interpreted by a Louisiana native, and a Chanukah Elvis would not go together. But to Chef Duke LoCicero in New Orleans, they’re just all part of the jambalaya that has kept him fueled up for more than twenty years.
The Chef Duke Foundation for Kids focuses on providing much-needed funding for children in difficult financial circumstances. That can include one child meeting the New Orleans Saints or another getting his wish to visit a department store to purchase a gift for his mother before he passed away.
The culmination of the year comes in the Not-So-Silent Auction Gala, which raises thousands of dollars annually that the foundation uses to purchase toys for children in New Orleans’s children hospitals, including the Tulane Hospital for Children. Chef Duke’s wife, Kelly, a nurse for thirty-two years, currently serves in the oncology unit at Tulane, and Chef Duke is quick to point out that it was her concern for the children that first got him involved. The foundation was his logical next step. “My friends in business come to the rescue every year,” he says, donating everything from gift baskets to golf outings to spa packages.
After the gala, the organization uses the money to purchase hundreds of toys and also accepts donations of many more.
This is where Chanukah Elvis comes in, along with a gaggle of elves, a man who plays Santa every year, the LoCicero family, and countless volunteers; they all descend on the hospital units like a costumed band of angels passing out Barbies and trucks and coloring books and in general creating a happy diversion for the children who are facing pain and treatments.
“It is such a joy for me, just that five to six minutes with a kid. That’s really why I do it,” he says. “It is a very joyful thing, and I feel like I’m getting so much by doing it.”
The rest of the year LoCicero receives requests for help and responds in numerous ways from cooking for homeless shelters and sending food to tornado victims in Tuscaloosa to helping out with medical bills. But he’s always quick to say “we.” As he muses simply, “We love what we do.”
It was all just fun and food for Thomas Williams until the floods hit his native Nashville in 2010. In a two-day period, more than nineteen inches of rain fell on Music City, causing the Cumberland River to swell far beyond its banks and flood the greater Nashville area. For Williams the devastation hit hard. This was his home. He had to do something. “I thought, ‘I don’t have construction skills, I’m not wealthy, but I do know chefs.” Williams, a real estate broker by trade, had become involved in the Southern food scene organically. Fueled by his love for fried chicken, bacon, and all things delicious, he joined the Southern Foodways Alliance and got involved in the Slow Food movement. His deepening culinary connections inspired him to create Cornbread Consulting, a firm specializing in public relations, brand strategy, and event planning for the culinary and hospitality industries. Chefs needed people to cook for, and Williams was a super fan. It was a match made in culinary heaven. Soon Williams found himself riding shotgun with culinary heavyweights like Sean Brock on rural BBQ road trips and presiding at board tables fine-tuning the details for charity benefits. When the flood hit, Williams started doing what he knew best—making calls and connecting with people such as Hugh Acheson and John Fleer. The first Nourish dinner was born to benefit Mobile Loaves & Fishes Nashville, an organization that served close to 19,000 meals to people impacted by the floods.
“That first Nourish dinner netted eighty to eighty-five thousand dollars, and we had it at the farmers market,” he says nonchalantly, as if that sum of money were easy to raise for a volunteer who “just knows a lot of people.” Mobile Loaves & Fishes Nashville soon transformed into the Nashville Food Project, and Williams sits on the board. It’s an independent entity that uses local funds and local volunteer labor to address the problems of poverty and food insecurity in the Nashville community, with 100 percent of donations staying in the Nashville area. Williams continues to sweeten the pot with his involvement in the now annual Nourish dinners, but he’s quick to deflect any light that might shine on him.
“Really, the chefs and the food community are so kind and supportive,” he says, “and they are so quick to donate time and resources. It just works to get them together.”