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Credit: From top left to right: photo by Julia Stolz; Courtesy of Feeding America; Hector Velez; Christine Han; Jamie Thrower of Studio Xii

5 Women Doing Strong and Lasting Work to Improve Our World and the Way We Eat

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International Women’s Day is this Monday, and while I don’t usually talk insider baseball about how we plan stories at Kitchn, I have to tell you: When this observance came up in our planning cycle I laughed out loud, painfully, at the sheer irony of this observance after a year that has been so catastrophic to so many women. The day, celebrated since 1914, has focused attention on women’s rights, achievements, and challenges — and the last of these feels the most relevant during a pandemic when over 5 million women lost their jobs, Black and Latina women at twice the rate of white women; and millions of mothers faced the impossible dilemma of closed schools, losing even the wispy support offered by our society to those raising its future citizens. 

Much of this hardship has been borne disproportionately by those who make and cook our food — 372,000 food service jobs were lost in December alone. One of my favorite newsletters led with this arresting quote: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”

But in that bleak picture many of the bright spots are, unsurprisingly, also women, and this weekend at Kitchn we’re celebrating five women who have worked hard to improve the lives of others during this very hard time. 

All five of these women are doing strong and lasting work in improving our world and the way we eat. They include Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America (as always, I urge you if you can to donate to your local food bank), Paola Velez of Bakers Against Racism, Nikeisah Newton of Meals 4 Heels, and Ellen Bennett, whose apron company has donated over 200,000 masks to front-line workers. 

But the first person on the list is the one I know the best and you may know too through your own cooking: Grace Young, the cookbook author and incredible teacher of Chinese cookery. Grace gave me my own wok, which I have lovingly seasoned and treasure above all my other pans. Grace’s mission since the beginning of COVID-19 has been to save Chinatowns — her own in New York City, and others across the country.

Each of these five women are out there working hard to make the world better for those suffering in one of the toughest years in recent memory, and we applaud and celebrate them, and hope you too will follow and support them with us.

Credit: Christine Han

1. The Woman on a Mission to Save New York’s Chinatown

Who: Grace Young
What she does: Cookbook author, launched #SaveChineseRestaurants in partnership with James Beard Foundation; started Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories.

New York’s Chinatown was one of the communities in NYC hit hardest by the onset of the pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 were felt much earlier by businesses in Chinatown in comparison to the rest of the city, due to fear of the virus and anti-Asian sentiments that had grown since January 2020. In order to raise awareness, just days before restaurants in NYC were ordered by Mayor Bill de Blasio to close, James Beard award-winning cookbook author Grace Young and videographer Dan Ahn toured restaurants in Chinatown conducting interviews with owners whose businesses had seemingly come to a halt overnight. 

Grace became a passionate advocate for those whose livelihoods had been completely upended. In October she launched a social media campaign #SaveChineseRestaurants in partnership with the James Beard Foundation to help increase foot-traffic and patronage of establishments in Chinatown. Young’s mission has really been to raise awareness more than anything else, and she has succeeded in that. She has spent the past year helping to preserve the mom-and-pop businesses that are the heart and soul of one of Manhattan’s most illustrious neighborhoods.

Credit: Courtesy of Feeding America

2. The Woman in Charge of Feeding America

Who: Claire Babineaux-Fontenot
What she does: CEO, Feeding America

The pandemic has made America’s already-serious food-insecurity problem a full-fledged crisis. Thousands of cars lined up at food banks. There was a 55% increase in the people needing help finding food. People who were once food bank volunteers lined up for assistance. At the center of the fight to get food to the people who need it the most is Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. She’s leading the country’s largest hunger relief organization with a mix of empathy and a data-driven strategy. 

Empathy started early for Claire. She is one of 108 children (her family is a mix of biological, adopted, and foster children), and many of the children who came into her family had been affected by food insecurity. After years spent as a lawyer and then an executive at Walmart, she pivoted to the nonprofit organization and found her calling. Claire and the extensive Feeding America network, which includes 200 food banks and 60,000 meal programs, were able to provide more than 5 billion meals to Americans while making necessary pivots, like creating drive-through pantries, to get food safely to the places it was (and still is) needed most.

Credit: Hector Velez

3. The Woman Supporting Black Lives, One Baked Good at a Time

Who: Paola Velez
What she does: Award-winning pastry chef, co-founder of Bakers Against Racism.

Just months before Paola Velez was furloughed from her role as Executive Pastry Chef at Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C., she was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star award for chefs under 30. When the world turned upside down, she didn’t miss a beat, and prioritized helping those who needed it most. After making sure her staff were taken care of, she got to work on a pop-up donut shop called Doña Dona, which helped raise money for legal and language services that supported the undocumented workforce in the restaurant industry.

Shortly after her pop-up, and following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she co-founded Bakers Against Racism alongside chefs Willa Pelini and Rob Rubba, to help raise money for organizations that work against racism and support Black lives. Their initial goal for their virtual bake sale was to organize 80 bakers across the country and raise around $96,000. Instead the campaign was wildly successful, and 2,400 bakers from all over the world participated and raised over $1.6 million in a five-day period in June (they have since raised over $2 million total).

Credit: Julia Stolz

4. The Woman Providing Face Masks for Essential Workers

Who: Ellen Bennett
What she does: Founder of Hedley & Bennett.

When the country went into lockdown last March, Ellen Bennett stepped up and got to work. Ellen is the founder of Hedley & Bennett, a Los Angeles-based company traditionally known for their chic and colorful aprons, but at the start of the pandemic, and seemingly overnight, she pivoted to meet the growing demand for face masks — a full two weeks before the CDC recommended people should be wearing them. And through her buy-one-give-one initiative, she was also able to donate well over 500,000 masks to people on the front lines, including food service workers.

Ellen isn’t new to working and helping the food industry. After attending culinary school in Mexico City, she worked the line at a couple of restaurants in Los Angeles (Providence and Bäco Mercat) before starting her own company of fashionable chef-ware designed for creativity and confidence in the kitchen. In a recent interview, Ellen said she decided to pivot to making face masks in order to ensure there was enough PPE for frontline workers. “I felt like I couldn’t not help,” she explained. “I was one of the unique individuals that actually had the infrastructure ready to go.”

Credit: Jamie Thrower of Studio Xii

5. The Woman Bringing Nutritious Food to Sex Workers and Protestors

Who: Nikeisah Newton
What she does: Founder of Meals 4 Heels.

Nikeisah Newton began Meals 4 Heels, a healthy food delivery service for the sex worker community in Portland, Oregon, in January 2019. Her former partner was a stripper at a nightclub in Portland, where many of the dancers often went without food during and after their shifts, so she began Meals 4 Heels as a way to make healthy meals more accessible to both strippers and sex workers.

She has been active in community organizing for years, and after starting her business she used her platform to help provide food at protests and community events. After the pandemic began, she partnered with PDX Trans Housing and Free Lunch Collective to provide hundreds of meals every week for those without housing in the Portland area. Last summer, as communities around the country protested against police brutality and anti-Blackness, she worked with Snack Bloc, a volunteer group in Portland that provides free food and supplies for protestors, as well as Pride NW, which helped to feed protestors at the Trans Pride March in June 2020.