Turning “foodies” into “food activists”

I didn’t cook last weekend. I only cooked twice during the week, once in a hurry and the other time on a whim. The lull started Saturday when I had other things to do. I marched in Florida’s state capital along with thousands of others there and, from what I’ve seen, a couple million more worldwide. The photos, snap stories, Facebook posts, Instagram pics, and dialogue around the Women’s March was moving, from the seemingly endless sea of people on the National Mall and in major cities around the world to the simple photo of five women standing in solidarity in Russia or a brief shot of a silent, single file stream of pensive women walking in Malawi (these were in the feed on Pantsuit Nation if you’d like to peruse that).

Then, admittedly, I’ve spent the week obsessing over politics, and not just the political tone surrounding the women’s march. In the U.S., it’s been quite a week, no matter your take on things (visit your unbiased news source of choice for details). For me, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m angry; I’m not worried about the effects of disagreement on my “followers.” I’m frustrated. I don’t like this, and I’m not going to excuse my disagreement or belittle my stance by saying, “We’re all different, and it’s okay if you support the new administration.” I’m just not going to. I’m not sorry about this.

The march was just one important moment this week, but it signified something a bit different than the hand-wringing and promises of further resistance that followed for the rest of the week (although I fully support the further resistance). This march (and perhaps subsequent ones) is empowering for us all if you strip away the politics, which I don’t recommend since what we marched for is not only socially important but politically vital. Regardless of what you support, though, there’s beauty and power in the ability of people to come together in unity on a scale of this magnitude. Last week’s worldwide gatherings showcased the human condition, declaring, “We are as alike as we are different, and for that, we stand up.”

There was an outpouring of support and of derision, none of which I’ll link from here because we’ve all likely seen the more prominent prose on this topic (besides, I will freely admit I hate giving clicks to things that make me want to punch walls). However, in a sweeping statement, responses like those shaming me for going or those shaming someone else for not going are the driving forces behind the need for events like this to even happen.

It was a good decision to go, despite the heavy rains and the three-hour drive. Before I went, I kept saying I wish I could have been in DC, but now, I think I was right where I needed to be. As I watch the new president (little “p” intended) sign executive order after executive order in the first week, I’m more and more convinced it wasn’t about being a part of the largest crowd or in the coolest city. It was about being able to see the faces that make up this movement and others that are forming as I write this (there are protests for science, climate change, and immigration, and I’m sure–I hope–this isn’t the end), each uniquely fighting for a right or a cause, all of whom said, “We are here. We will be seen. We are valid.”

However, I digress.

This next series of posts is about two women whose voices were among the assembled last week but whose work began long before our march and will sustain long after. Today, I introduce you, in words alone, to Dawn and Carol Cooper.

We met them early last month, if you recall, but we only did so briefly. My goal today is to show you a bit more of who they are and what they do that’s worth presentation on a food blog.

In short, Dawn and Carol feed the homeless and hungry in communities around Pensacola, Florida. This short description doesn’t do much to set them apart, though. It’s the longer version that enraptured me (and has a tendency to do to others) and ultimately helped me decide to make them a part of Wait! I’ll Eat That. As I’ve been writing, the mission of Wait! has been evolving, and while the depth of that is for a future post, I can safely say the Coopers’ work has helped with that evolution.

When you think of homeless feeding projects, what do you think of? I obviously can’t speak for you, but I envision the cold, clinical, institutional places, not exactly vibrant, warm, or hope-filled meal gatherings. This project, known somewhat unofficially as the Lee Street Feeding Project, is different. It focuses on food, but it also focuses on nutrition, flavor, and relationships. Right after Thanksgiving, when I sat down with Carol and Dawn Cooper, I learned more about how Lee Street exemplifies these basic human characteristics and some basic themes emerged. The success of their work relies on empathy, rapport, accountability, and an enviable education in the art and science of food.

Getting to know this couple is half the fun. Sometimes you meet people and they’re interesting enough. You can talk to them and share with them, and you walk away at least half-heartedly content with doing it again. Then there are times you meet people, listen to them talk, and realize there is no need to add your own stories because theirs are so powerful. You look forward to the next time you can just listen to them talk about their lives. Charisma, it might be. Authenticity, perhaps. Compassion, it certainly is.

When Dawn pointed out early in our conversation that the people they feed are “not on the streets because they make good decisions,” she was being authentic. When she followed with a story about Mr. White’s dental concerns (more in a follow up post), she was being compassionate. When Carol regaled me with tales of their time in “the CIA,” cheekily referring to the Culinary Institute of America by the acronym it shares with the notorious US intelligence agency, she was being charismatic. Such was the cycle throughout our chat.

It’s all these traits—charisma, compassion, authenticity, empathy, accountability, and expertise—that set these women apart from the tired stereotype of dreary halls serving colorless commodities, no one ever looking into the eyes of their neighbors. This is not to say other feeding groups don’t care or don’t share any of these traits (because one does not work this hard for strangers if one does not care about people), but it is to say they do so with a unique set of skills.

Over time, I’ll pepper (get it?) our recipes and cooking adventures with tales of Dawn and Carol’s unique set of skills and how these skills provide the lifeblood that makes the Lee Street Feeding Project something different in Pensacola (not completely new and different but certainly so in this area). We’ll also tackle nutrition, food insecurity, and homelessness in general. We’ll look at some of the specific problems the Coopers’ program addresses as well as some obstacles they face in their work and through their organization. We’ll get to know the couple better, focusing on their passion for food, gardening, and people. As well, we’ll look at other programs doing similar work in other cities and some of the research that’s contributed to our current understanding of food access, homelessness, and the people dedicated to alleviating it.

Today, I merely provided you with an introduction. I want you to know and understand not just the Coopers’ mission but the impetus behind including it in a blog that otherwise focuses on my own food privilege. This cannot be achieved in one post. In the coming weeks, months, hopefully years, I’ll join Dawn and Carol at Lee Street on a Thursday night or two, and I’ll work on some ways to help spread their message and their mission.

I invite you to share your own stories, research, and resources with Wait! I’ll Eat That. We read, post, and share recipes because we love food, and admittedly, sometimes our love of food stops where our privilege stops. There’s no shame in loving and celebrating food, but to do so without acknowledging our advantages is both dishonest and a disservice to the people we share with and the food we share. By following the Coopers’ journey, becoming hands in our own local programs, and using the Giving section on this blog, together, we can turn being foodies into becoming food activists.

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