The once hearty relationship between Philadelphia and food has been on the rocks lately. Perhaps no other industry in the city, and the country, has been hit quite as hard as the restaurant industry throughout the pandemic. And this grim circumstance certainly hasn’t been helped by the fact of the city’s food insecure areas. But Everybody Eats, a local culinary collective founded by chef Stephanie Willis, is looking to conquer both these concerns.
The industry is already known for its history of subsisting on thin margins. Customers are asked to essentially help pay employees by way of tipped wages. According to the Economic Policy Institute, only 14.4% of restaurant workers receive health insurance from their employers, compared to approximately half of workers in other industries. Then COVID-19 struck. Alongside the narrow margins brought on by a perishable inventory and high labor costs, locally mandated restrictions on restaurant business practices like entertaining indoors became the final blow for many establishments. In March of last year, the National Restaurant Association went as far as to warn in a letter addressed to the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that in the three months following the beginning of the pandemic, five to seven million jobs could be lost.
Then, just as the city began considering loosening COVID related restrictions in early June of 2020, property damage and clashes between protesters and police in the wake of the murder of George Floyd caused changes in traffic patterns, city mandated curfews, and closings for many businesses. For Black workers and the 2.5% of businesses in Philadelphia that are Black owned, these conditions were especially tough.
Enter Everybody Eats. Spurred by the wave of Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, in less than a week Willis, alongside local chefs Kurt Evans, Aziza Young, Malik Ali, and Gregory Headen, composed a plan to help out the community. Their first food drive was set for June 5, 2020 on 52nd Street and Girard Avenue. It was so successful that a plan for a second drive was in the works within two weeks.
“There’s a lot of black chefs in the kitchen,” Headen, culinary director at Everybody Eats said. “Most of us are doing the executive chef work, and are not getting the credit for it or not getting those executive jobs. Chefs who are very talented don’t get the opportunity for whatever unknown reasons. So for us, it was important to highlight the skill that we have in the city within a collective and show what we can do to the masses.”
These drives were designed to function at the intersection of working toward food security and empowering Black chefs in the city. Willis, a private chef for a Philadelphia 76ers player and member of another Philadelphia based food collective known as Cooking for the Culture, was looking for a positive reaction to the previous weekend of protests in early June. Evans, a chef and co-founder of Cooking for the Culture with chef Elijah Milligan, was looking to do the same. At a collaboration dinner with several Black chefs, the group went on to bring Young, Headen, and Ali into the mix. Many of them grew up in Philadelphia’s own underserved areas, Headen said.
Word of the first food drive promptly spread on Instagram using the hashtag #everybodyeats. As chefs, their access to the food industry helped in terms of compiling help for their events. Restaurants throughout the city such as High Street on Market, Helm, River Twice, and others offered to donate meals or lend space as drop off points.
Though information about the event was successfully circulating online, the group recognized that those who may follow the work of the chefs may not be of the same demographics that the group sought to bring out to a community event in West Philadelphia.
In an analytical report of federal data by Hunger Free America, it was revealed that between 2014 and 2016, 19.3% of Philadelphia residents lived in food insecure households. This is an increase from the reported 15.4% percent between 2011 and 2013.
“Pre-riots, we didn’t realize that there’s really no place to get food in the city,” Headen said. “You don’t pay any mind because you’re not exposed to it. In West Philadelphia, it was one market within like a 20-block radius and that market was closed. So if the market’s closed, and the little corner stores are closed, where are you getting groceries? You don’t have cars for travel sometimes, so you’re pretty much stuck in a food desert. And that was our biggest issue at that time.”
The scope of intersectional events Everybody Eats plans doesn’t end at grocery giveaways. Headen explained that warmer months call for their fish frys and cook outs, while the recent colder months allowed them to hold soup drives.
In February, the group partnered with Fitler Club for a garden pop-up in celebration of Black History Month, when the club was similarly looking to uplift unrepresented chefs. A percentage of the revenue from the pop-up went to the group’s efforts to combat food insecurity in the city.
The club became aware of Everybody Eats through an application into their nonprofit in residence program. Though they didn’t receive the residency, the door to later opportunities opened. Fitler Club’s chef collaborations had been going strong since COVID restrictions allowed them to operate the restaurant in the summer, and the team intended to reach out to closed businesses that needed revenue.
“I would put Philadelphia’s food scene against any food scene in the world,” Albert Butler, director of community outreach and diversity at Fitler Club said. “I think we don’t get enough credit because we’re squished between D.C. and New York, and that’s always been a thing for Philadelphia. But I really do think our food scene is second to none. And I think we have a lot of great chefs.”
Challenges arose in planning for the winter pop-up. The venue’s 20 heaters, four igloos, two fire pits, and sterilized blankets offered some respite from the cold, but COVID safety precautions were a constantly present factor for servers. The club even hired specialists to substantiate its safety compliance.
“We go through a crazy amount of rubber gloves,” Butler said. “I can’t even tell you the amount that we go through. Servers are flipping them out every time they touch a table. It’ll probably be weird when we go back to a more normal dining situation. But right now, it’s so embedded in what we do that it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything extra.”
In the wake of recent events related to race and equity, many chefs of color are reconsidering their roles and reassessing the food industry. Collectives throughout a number of industries have offered a space to work on community minded business models and initiatives. Everybody Eats was formed to be such a collective in Philadelphia’s changing food scene. Fitler Club reaching out to them was the chance the chefs needed to show people what they do in addition to their food drives.
Most recently, the chefs ventured to San Antonio, Texas to help residents in the aftermath of the historic snowstorm in the Lone Star state. The city’s distance and lack of infrastructure and preparedness for such irregular weather called the Philadelphia chef collective to action. The group discussed a plan to help and decided to take their operations south. The group recognized food deserts there may not have as many resources as in Philadelphia.
On Saturday, March 6 cars in San Antonio lined up to receive water, essentials, produce, and cheesesteaks. Willis came into contact with Elder Manuel Walker at Agape Christian Church and quickly formulated a plan to reduce food inequality in the area. The church had been conducting food drives since the beginning of the pandemic in March, Walker said. And following the partnership with Everybody Eats, the church quickly followed suit with a similar event in mid-March.
“Last week we had a food drive, but this one was actually through the food bank ministry at our church,” Walked said. “We purchased enough food to feed 600 families and we gave away every single box. That’s amazing. Yes, it was truly a blessing.”
Headen stresses the importance of reaching out to residents in regions that don’t have the readily available connections by way of proximity in the way a metropolitan like Philadelphia does. Anybody who needs, should receive.
“We’re not just staying in Philadelphia or South Jersey. We’re providing food and stuff to anybody who needs it.”
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