Chatham Views

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.