“I believe true food justice must shift power,” says Qiana Mickie, executive director of Just Food, a grassroots nonprofit in New York City with the core mission to cultivate a food system rooted in racial, social and economic justice. Although the organization has been a pioneer in the sustainable food landscape for over two decades, the last two years have brought a shift in how working-class, LGBTQ+ and people of color who are farmers, growers and food producers are being included as leaders in their own movement. Celebrating this evolution, the organization is throwing an “anti-gala” on Tuesday, October 30, renaming it a G.A.L.A., or an event meant to “gather, activate, liberate and appreciate” (hence the name).
Since taking the helm in early 2017, Mickie has used her position to “shift equity as our North Star in solidarity with our partners,” she explains, and “put equity in motion, not just in words.” But having a seat at the table first requires having access through the front door. Events like conferences and fundraisers are often characterized by expensive ticket prices that help secure funds but inadvertently exclude lower-income people who wish to participate, which is why this year, Mickie and her team are doing things differently.
At the “Persist/Resist” conference in the spring, Just Food introduced sliding scale tickets accompanied by transparent language to distinguish individuals and groups with economic need from those with financial security. Funding from the Levitt Foundation provided 100 youth scholarships, and by the end of the event, Just Food had fundraised a modest amount above their costs, proving that inclusive pricing can be profitable, even for a nonprofit. Applying the same approach to their annual public fundraiser, Mickie hopes to rebuild an old model of fundraising and make it radically inclusive to all.
The first annual G.A.L.A.: a gathering to activate, liberate and appreciate will be a walk-around tasting benefit that reflects a new era of food activism where historically marginalized people are the organizers and attendees, and their equity is at the forefront, rather than an afterthought, of the sourcing, labor, flavors and intention behind each plate of food and sparkling beverage.
“It’s a very small team and a big redirection,” says Kimberly Chou of Food Book Fair, who joined Just Food as a special events consultant this year. “I explain it to people like this: It’s for us, by us. Black, brown, yellow and queer folks. People working in and around restaurants,” she says.
Tiered pricing ranges from $65 to $500 tickets, and volunteer opportunities are available for those who cannot afford entry. Donors are encouraged to give generously and may sponsor tickets for those unable to pay the minimum ticket price. The G.A.L.A. highlights over 30 queer and of-color culinary artists, drinks experts and food businesses, many of whom are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants whose culinary expertise is derived from the flavors of diasporic cultures across the globe, like Chinchakriya Un of Kreung Cambodia, Cleo Zuli of BLK Palate, DeVonn Francis of Yardy, Tunde Wey of From Lagos, and cocktail expert Shannon Mustipher of Glady’s in Brooklyn.
The standard model of fundraising in food advocacy often touts craft booze and farm-to-table bites supplied by well-established chefs with the means to donate food and labor. Chou has helped bring in a fresh generation of talented chefs, many of whom work outside of the traditional restaurant space, whose pop-up events and supper clubs intermingle food, queerness and immigrant identity.
But it’s a lot to ask people to prepare food for hundreds of guests without brick and mortar commercial kitchens, Chou explains, so ally chefs within the industry who can leverage resources like food storage and cooking space are vital to the event’s logistics, and Just Food will reimburse food costs to those preparing and serving food.
A common thread uniting the featured chefs and businesses, Chou continues, is their ability to express personal narratives and ancestral histories, removed by time and place, through the food itself. What sets them apart from the chefs at Just Food galas in the past isn’t only their creativity and keen ability to season food but the tenacity that comes with being immigrants and people of color navigating a political, economic and social system built against them.
“When you operate in a system in any way that doesn’t work for you and that isn’t set up for your success, you’re always forced to think about what you would do differently, and you see what isn’t being represented that should be,” says Chou, noting that the ability to translate experiences (sometimes painful) onto a plate of food—let alone convey that pursuit for equity through a fundraising event—isn’t easy, but when done well, “it can be really beautiful that people respond to. For us, by us work is a lot harder, but a lot more rewarding.”
The Just Food G.A.L.A. takes place on Tuesday October 30, 2018, from 7:30–10:30 p.m. For volunteer opportunities, please contact Qiana Mickie at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Facebook/Just Food.