Food Fight: The Power of the Culinary Industry in the Fight for Social Justice
Ladies and gentlemen, I am so thrilled to be with you all today.
There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Looking daily at the newspaper and my facebook feed is a reminder of just how interesting these times are. For many of us in this room, these are times that have drawn into focus what we think, what we believe, and what we will fight for.
But while I have the luxury of standing in front of you, trying not to trip in my high heels, the communities that I work with face far more daunting challenges. Being a refugee in the 21st century is knowing that while we have made so many advances in technology, medicine, and culture, we still have so far to go when it comes to the rights of others. Being a victim of human trafficking in the 21st century is knowing that slavery is not just a story from the history books. Being an asylee in the 21 century is knowing that being true to who you are, and who you love, can put your life at risk.
Like so many others, I remember looking at the photo of that three year old boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on the shores of Greece as he and his family fled conflict. I remember thinking with futility that there is nothing I could possibly do. And indeed, it is too late for Alan Kurdi. As xenophobia pushes more countries to close their doors, it can continue to feel as though there is nothing we can do.
But, being a refugee, asylee, or a victim of human trafficking in the U.S. in the 21st century can also mean a host of other things. Positive and hopeful things. It can mean the chance at a better life. The opportunity to find a new community, and a shot at the American dream. That is where my organization, Emma’s Torch, and so many others come in.
Named after the poet Emma Lazarus whose words adorn the Statue of Liberty, we offer culinary training and job placement services to these newest members of our community. We give them the opportunity to showcase their own cultural cuisine, and join the tapestry of bakers, prep cooks, line chefs, and artisanal food producers in our country. When refugees arrive in the U.S. they often struggle to survive. Our goal is to ensure that they thrive.
James Beard famously said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” That is the backbone of our work. So many of us have memories of cooking with our mothers and grandmothers, be they in small towns across the U.S., New York, Caracas, or Aleppo. It’s a visceral memory. Our hope is that Emma's Torch can help serve as a reminder of our common humanity. We believe that the experience of cooking and sharing meals, can help build bridges between cultures. Our mission is to empower refugees, but also to use food to demonstrate the incredible value that refugees bring to their new communities. American food has always been comprised of a mix of flavors, spices, memories and culinary traditions. In every generation, waves of immigrants and refugees have helped add another serving to the American palate.
One of my students was shocked when I told him that not only did I want him to join our class, but I wanted more. I wanted him to teach me, and all of the other students how to make his grandmother’s arepas. He sent me texts throughout the week showing me how hard he was practicing, and how excited he was to be both the student and the teacher. An asylee who fled his home because of his sexual orientation, it broke my heart to think that for so long he was being told “what you do, who you are, doesn’t matter.” Through food we can show people that who they are, and what they do, does indeed matter. It matters most of all.
We are indeed living in interesting times.
Times like these afford us the opportunity to put our money, our resources, and our efforts, where are mouths are. Emma’s Torch pays tribute to the fact that when Emma Lazarus called on us to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” the subject of her work was not actually refugees. It was America. Emma’s America was defined by its ability to welcome in the stranger.
Emma was born into a life of luxury in the middle of the 19th century, at a time when women in her position were severely limited in what they could and could not do. One of the first advocates for the thousands of Eastern European refugees, Emma lived in interesting times, and she made her life more than interesting, she made it extraordinary. One hundred and fifty years later, her words continue to be a rallying cry.
A few weeks ago, I joined my friends in Battery Park, in the shadow of Emma’s words, to protest the refugee ban. It was only one week after we had marched down Fifth Avenue in defense of women’s rights. Formerly lazy weekends were now being spent chanting, cheering, and marching. One of my favorite signs proclaimed “I miss brunch.” That poster stuck with me because, you know what? I missed brunch too! Brunch is awesome. It is the livelihood of many big cities, like Philly and New York. And protest is the new brunch.
Yet what that sign overlooked is that brunch can be an act of protest. We don’t only need to protest and be active outside of our day jobs, but we in the food community can use our professions, our creativity, and our kitchens to drive change.
When we train refugees, we give them access to a job market that was previously closed. We show them that what they bring to the table matters. When we hire refugees we enrich our restaurants and food businesses, we bring much needed diversity to our kitchens, and we add a key ingredient to the melting pot of our country.
Last month, the “Day Without Immigrants,” created a stir throughout the country. As restaurants, both here in Philadelphia and across the nation, shuttered their doors in protest, it demonstrated what our country could look like if we did not have the benefit of a strong immigrant workforce.
But it is too easy to look at singular days, and singular marches, as frozen moments of change. These shows of strength are important and necessary, but they also need to be coupled with ongoing efforts. We not only need to have the day without immigrants, but also the day, weeks, months, and years with immigrants. We need to showcase their accomplishments in the kitchen before these days without immigrants from becoming reality.
We are living in interesting times. But we can, and should, have a major influence.
My work with Emma’s Torch focuses on employment practices in the kitchen, but that is not the only way that the food community intersects with the push for social justice. So many others work to ensure that no child is left hungry, that parents can afford to feed their families healthy meals, and that our agriculture supports both farmers and the planet. There are so many ways in which the food industry’s business decisions can play an important role in the social justice movement.
You do not need to be a Washington DC lobbyist to effect change. In fact, you have far more power. You control what people eat. You control how you stock your inventory. You control who you hire and how you compensate them.
We live the change we want to see in the world.Your food businesses are microcosms of progress. They are worlds in which memories and culture can be shaped and transmitted. You do more than fill bellies. You fill communities.
So I urge you to use this power to impact change in the weeks months and years ahead.