The poorest among us, those who might benefit most from the Food Revolution--in relation to their health and well being--are the furthest removed from its reach. Ironically or not so ironically, this includes food service workers who labor each day, often in the shadow of the Revolution, feeling "the sting" of exclusion.
I know some of these food service workers. For almost a decade now, I've been writing and telling their stories. I've met my subjects not quite on their own ground--at home or at work--but on common ground, so to speak, at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside, on the edge of Newark. The protagonists of my stories have all been students at the FoodBank's free 14-week Food Service Training Academy (FSTA). The majority of them now work or are looking for work "in the industry."
How did I get to the FoodBank--and why--you may be wondering? In 2003, I was deep into a memoir about my life as an eater--about the dizzying choices available to a culinary-conscious, health-aware, and globe-trotting American. Couscous or curry, sushi or souvlaki, paella or pozole? Lettuce grown where? Hogs slaughtered how? Who sells "the best cheese in the world"? Even as I extolled my options, I knew about neighborhoods in Harlem and Newark without supermarkets, where vegetables at the local bodega were anything but fresh, and where "choice" was between McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Shouldn't this "other world" cast a shadow (at the very least) over my wry celebration of adventurous eating and America's culinary diversity?
A friend suggested that I visit the FoodBank, where I was introduced to the Executive Chef of the Training Academy. His description of his program as "an intervention in the desperate lives of some very poor people" caught my attention. I wanted to watch the training process and get to know the trainees. Before I knew it, I was hooked. After my memoir was published in 2006, with a chapter on the FSTA, I became a regular visitor. Two to four days a week for the next five years, I hung out in the kitchen, the classroom, and the FoodBank's cafeteria--observing cooks-in-training and asking many questions. But mostly I listened. In 2010 I invited photographer Steve Riskind to join me. The results of our collaboration are the book, Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Full Court Press, 2011) and a traveling exhibit, "Cooking for Change; Job Training at an Urban FoodBank."
The people we came to know, men and women, ages 20 to 70, are predominantly African American and mostly from the greater Newark area. They are, most of them, glad to have witnesses to their struggles with poverty, life in the streets, and time in prison and rehab. Often, they weep when acknowledging self-doubts; they drop their heads and sometimes their voices when describing efforts to stay clean. But almost always there's the hope, asserted defiantly or dreamily, for the proverbial second (or third) chance at employment in the mainstream economy.
Many food service workers earn what's called a livelihood by helping others eat better. The "others" are usually richer, more knowledgeable about diet, more intimate with their physicians, and healthier, too. YES, food service workers employed in upscale restaurants, retirement communities, corporate dining facilities, country clubs...