In early June, the pandemic paused Chef Rasheeda McCallum’s meal delivery service, Ms.Goodies Meal Prep. While she was home in Brooklyn, watching the protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, she thought, “I have to get to the frontlines.”
Kayla Davis, a friend of McCallum’s from culinary school who was working as the catering director at Pratt Institute, felt the same way. The two jumped into action and started to prepare and distribute healthy meals directly to New Yorkers protesting systemic racism and police brutality; they called this endeavor Black Chef Movement. Compelled to show up with and for their community, they also saw an opportunity to harness the skills and energy of other out-of-work chefs and food professionals.
They’ve now recruited a team of volunteers who help transport, shop, prepare and distribute food; and they’ve raised over $20,000 via a GoFundMe campaign to support their efforts. “If we keep cooking, at least if we come out and we can give [protestors] snacks, maybe it’ll give them some fuel and more initiative just to keep on going,” says McCallum. They’ve fed protesters occuping New York City Hall, flooding the streets for the Queer Liberation March, and meditating for Black lives in Lincoln Terrace Park. Handmade signs beckon protesters in for free vegan wraps, trail mix, fruit, low-sugar snacks, and drinks—food that’s rich in nutrients, but also easy to grab and take on the go. Often, they’re serving multiple events in one weekend.
McCallum and Davis are responding to a singular moment in history, facing the combined hardships of an economic crisis, increased hunger, the Covid-19 pandemic, and swelling protests across the country demanding transformation of our political and economic systems. Black Chef Movement is meeting the needs of this moment in its own way, continuing a tradition of Black activists showing up to nourish communities while organizing for liberation.
After hitting their first fundraising goal of $15,000 in ten days, Black Chef Movement increased their GoFundMe campaign goal to expand their work beyond the protests. The new funds will go toward a kitchen serving as a community space for cooking and nutrition classes. For McCallum and Davis, the long-term goal to provide health education and culturally relevant, nutritious food to Black communities in New York.
“For the two of us coming from Caribbean backgrounds, food is considered medicine,” says Davis, who is of Jamaican and Guyanese descent. While growing up, if Davis was not feeling well, before she went to the doctor she was given herbal remedies or teas and specific food instructions from her grandmother, she says.
After a kidney disease diagnosis at an early age, which necessitated a transplant, Davis’ mother put her on a healthy diet. She was homeschooled in Brooklyn for a year, and during that time, baking and sharing pastries became her way to connect with the outside world. At Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Rhode Island, she minored in meeting and event management. Since graduating she’s managed food services in New York City public schools and worked in nutrition education, particularly with patients in the renal unit at the same hospital where she was once a patient.
McCallum grew up in the South Bronx where family meals were centered around vegetables, seafood, tofu, and traditional Jamaican foods like sea moss, as well as fresh juices. At age twelve, after her mother passed away, the family moved to Brooklyn and struggled financially, limiting what they could purchase to eat. After college, she wanted to put her education and experience back into her community by reaching patients through healthcare systems. Studying nutrition gave her the scientific background behind the traditional foods she grew up eating, and the tools to share that expertise. McCallum has since managed operations, and food and nutrition programs for some of New York’s top hospitals, including New York Presbyterian Hospital. And prior to the pandemic, McCallum’s delivery business provided nutritious meals for communities who lacked access to healthy foods.
After managing food systems for New York City hospitals and public schools, McCallum and Davis have witnessed both the causes and effects of diet-based illnesses. They both have concerns about the meals served at schools, and lack of information provided to parents about nutrition. “What people don’t understand is the food we give our kids at a young age, that stuff—their eating habits—they’re going to continue with for the rest of their life,” says McCallum.
The duo are finding the protests to be approachable venues to have conversations about healthy eating choices, and they’re hoping to carry those conversations forward into churches and schools. They’re also encouraging people to vote, stressing that policies and representatives make healthy food inaccessible in certain communities.
Today, Black activists are expanding how to meet the current needs of their communities throughout the country. For example, The People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, which pays homage to the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program with a large-scale community breakfast, is continuing to curate the event for the restrictions of the pandemic. Also in Oakland is the People’s Breakfast, which distributes food and hygiene kits, and supports protestors with bail funds. And in New York, The Okra Project provides mental health resources and meals for and cooked by Black transgender people.
Across the United States, these efforts are motivated by common strife; structural inequities have contributed to low-income communities of color having less access to healthy food while experiencing greater food insecurity and food-related illnesses than wealthier white communities. Food aparthied can look like neighborhoods with sparse supermarkets or land to grow food, unhealthy food at schools, insufficient or culturally irrelevant health education, an abundance of junk food, and targeted junk food marketing directed at youth, not to mention gentrification pushing out affordable and cultural food options. And though the work is focused on feeding protestors in this moment, their efforts have the potential to make long term change in these community landscapes.
But disparities in food environments don’t exist in a vacuum. They overlap with broader racial inequities produced from policies and institutions that have prevented Black communities from living in healthy ecosystems and having equal access to land, jobs, financial systems, health care, and housing. The consequences of these systems have been illuminated by Covid-19, with Indigenous, Black and Latinx people suffering disproportionately.
Because of institutional racism, Black activists have historically offered resources to improve daily life while working toward systemic transformation. For example, one of the lesser known activists of the civil rights movement is Georgia Gilmore, who organized other Black women in Montgomery, Alabama, to sell baked goods, boxed lunches, and other meals to support the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid 1950s. It was called the Club from Nowhere, a nod to the women who participated but were wary to reveal their identities. The funds helped provide alternative methods of transportation during the boycott which eventually led to the desegregation of public buses. Gilmore was also fired from her job as a chef at the National Lunch Company for her activism, but opened a restaurant that fed and provided a safe landing pad for activists, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., during the boycott and the continuing civil rights movement.
Later, in the early seventies, The Breakfast for Children Program was one of the Black Panther Party’s sixty survival programs providing clothing, education, legal resources, banking, and health care which sustained, organized and provided a foundation of systems analysis for Black and other communities. At its height, the program gave balanced breakfasts to tens of thousands of children every day in cities across the country. And yet, in 1969, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, declared the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” and the Breakfast for Children Program “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” The survival programs underscored the injustices of the United States’ socio-economic systems while fueling Black communities with the resources to start a revolution.
As current protests continue, the Black Chef Movement has grown from an idea between friends into its name—a movement with infrastructure, team members, and increasing presence. Large food companies and restaurants are offering donations, highlighting the need for greater storage and a commercial kitchen. As experienced food systems managers, McCallum and Davis are ready for it. And as their social media network grows, they’re readying to use their platform to encourage voter participation. Black Chef Movement will be at the polling locations, fueling those crowds too.