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2014 FALK SUMMER SUSTAINABILITY FELLOWS: ROSE HERMALIN

The Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowships provide an opportunity for students in Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability’s Master of Sustainability (MSUS) or Master of Food Studies (MAFS) program to engage in meaningful work or research in their field. The Fellowships are supported by the Falk Sustainability Endowment, and in 2014, were awarded to six students.

“Community diners” – also known as non-profit restaurants – are social enterprises. They usually provide free or low-cost meals to qualifying customers, or run on a pay-what-you-wish model. Locally sourced food is used as much as possible to keep money within the local economy, and diners frequently offer on-site job-training.

For her Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowship, Rose Hermalin visited two of these diners: Inspiration Kitchen in Chicago, IL, and Kula Café in Asbury Park, NJ, with an eye toward building a knowledge base for future community diner projects. Inspiration Kitchen is located in Chicago’s Garfield Park, which Hermalin describes as “a primarily working poor neighborhood with few other food options, though the restaurant attracts primarily customers from outside the neighborhood.” As with many of these establishments, Inspiration Kitchen must make sure that the restaurant appeals to both the community members who would benefit from its services, and those whose patronage would allow the services to continue. “As with most anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations, Inspiration is invested in maintaining the dignity of their students and customers, so creating a comfortable environment for neighborhood families to go out is an important project for them,” writes Hermalin. The Kitchen was enjoying some success with its job-training program: community members were being trained in kitchen skills, which tends to lead to more stable employment with a great chance of employment mobility, and the program boasted a 75% post-graduation job retention rate 90 days after graduation.

Among the challenges facing Inspiration Kitchen is that of optimizing their meal voucher program. While the Kitchen has distributed thousands of meal vouchers through associated organizations (e.g., anti-poverty, job-training), only hundreds have been redeemed. The vouchers look like credit cards – and, like credit cards, are presented at the end of the meal – and recipients are invited to bring their family, with no restriction on what “family” might look like. Still, Hermalin suggests that the low return rate may indicate a need to further destigmatize free food, noting that vouchers for restaurant meals, with the associated connotation of “entertainment,” may be perceived differently than food stamps.

Kula Café is located in the West side of Asbury Park, NJ, a primarily African-American neighborhood with high unemployment rates. The Café’s aim is to establish ties with the East side, which is home to the town’s beach tourism, and therefore the majority of service jobs. Kula trains their participants in a 16-week program that focuses on the “soft skills” that are in demand for front-of-house positions, and in hospitality positions as a whole. Kula has partnered with a local restaurateur who employs program graduates in her establishments.

“Unfortunately, these jobs tend to be less stable than kitchen jobs, especially given the seasonal nature of much of the service/hospitality work to be found in Asbury Park,” says Hermalin. In addition, current funding stipulations require that Kula’s job-training participants be 24 or younger, limiting the impact on the community.

Kula’s menu items are designed to cost the same or less than the fast-food equivalents. “Their menu was designed with input from community members, and features mostly healthy versions of traditional Soul Food items (their Chicken & Waffles, for instance, is a baked breaded chicken breast on a whole-grain waffle, rather than the traditional fried chicken),” writes Hermalin. While next year Kula will start a garden and build a greenhouse, their current focus is on keeping food affordable, so they can’t be choosy about food sourcing. In addition to involving the community with their menu, Kula Cafe provides other events and programs, such as a jazz and blues night, and “Coffee with a Cop.”

One of Hermalin’s most significant findings was that the enterprises skirted along the edge of promoting narratives that “apply negative moral codes to food that’s culturally relevant to the community,” she says.  “And this creates unhelpful, negative associations between well-loved foods and health.” This conflict also shows up in a tension between financial and cultural sensitivity. “Lentil soup may be healthy and affordable,” Hermalin explains, “but it’s often thought of as hippie food.”

In both non-profits, Hermalin noted some degree of reluctance to talk about the projects in terms of class and race; for example, a tendency to refer to “high crime” areas, which, she points out, “puts them (the speakers) in the position or reinforcing negative stereotypes even as they try to advocate for the community.” She also noticed that the communities tended not to be represented within the non-profits that serve them.

Hermalin’s summer research forms part of her larger thesis project, which investigates questions of food justice, racial discourse around food, and how (predominantly white-led) non-profits can work most effectively within communities of color.

2014 FALK SUMMER SUSTAINABILITY FELLOWS: ZIG OSIECKI

The Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowships provide an opportunity for students in Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability’s Master of Sustainability (MSUS) or Master of Food Studies (MAFS) program to engage in meaningful work or research in their field. The Fellowships are supported by the Falk Sustainability Endowment, and in 2014, were awarded to six students.

Zig Osiecki thought that his Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowship at John’s Folly Learning Institute – located on St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) and dedicated to providing positive opportunities and environments to community youth – would be spent creating a more sustainable garden and a plan for its year-round use. He was wrong.

“The larger of the two cisterns, capable of holding ten thousand gallons and the only source of water for an irrigation system, was never fixed,” he writes. “I was told it would be operational by the time I got here but when I peered inside I was surprised to find nearly a foot of scummy water in the bottom, teeming with mosquitoes and tadpoles.  The roof is completely missing and there are cracks and holes throughout the inside,” he continues. “Tree roots have also found their way through the concrete and caused it to crumble in certain areas. I’ve had to reassess my work for the institute and make fixing the cistern a priority.”

And so began Osiecki’s induction into the realities of sustainability projects in developing nations – although “developing” is a strange word to use for an island that is 70% national park, and where the average price per square foot nears that of Aspen, Colorado. But St. John harbors extreme economic disparities. The side of the island on which JFLI is found is tremendously poor, and JFLI provides an important source of community and resources for the young during the yearly summer program. Despite its tropical location, St. John is largely desert, and, as Oisecki reports, “resources at the Institute are very slim and gathering the necessary materials has taken a great deal of time. There is still much to acquire. Concrete that was supposedly available at the institute had gone bad and turned into one big brick in a bag.  Thermo seal is expensive and there is yet to be the discussion on roofing materials. It will be done but there may be some Henry David Thoreau style bartering going on.”

Oisecki did repair the cistern. He also worked with JFLI to hold a farmer’s market on the main road in town. “We often ended up giving the food away,” he says, “but the important thing was to draw attention to the Institute, and foster good relations. After I left the island I researched desert gardening and believe that the JFLI has the ability to adopt various methods without spending too much money. However, to further aid them in their gardening goals I have been working on writing a grant proposal to fund the irrigation system and the necessary tools and supplies needed to complete this project and maintain it for future use by the kids and families of the community.”