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Celebrity Chef Superfriends Vs. Hunger

Chefs Make Change, a loose coalition of superstar chefs, is leveraging the power of micro-donations to raise a million dollars for charities, many of them focused on how, what, and whether people eat. 

Q. How do you raise money for charity in the midst of a recession? A. Go for the gut, and take small donations. 

This is the powerful strategy behind Food and Wine Magazine’s initiativeChefs Make Change, a loose coalition of ten superstar chefs, each of whom supports or runs a charitable organization. Not surprisingly, many of these are focused on whether, what, and how people eat. Chef Cat Cora’s group, Chefs for Humanity, for example, sends chefs to organize food-relief for emergencies in the US and abroad. The Mario Battali Foundation takes a holistic approach, aiming to keep children “well read, well fed, and well cared for.” Together, they hope to raise a million dollars, much of it through microdonations via Food and Wine’s Facebook page.

Dana Cowin, Food and Wine’s Editor-in-Chief is, if you will, the Professor X behind this team of celebrity superfriends. Cowin asked each chef for recipes to share in a magazine and web feature she wrote about Chefs Make Change.  Chefs, she says, are unique among philanthropists: 

Dana Cowin: Every single chef I know feels privileged to be doing the job that they do, which is making food that they love for people who can afford it and appreciate it.  But equally, every chef I know feels an obligation to give back in some way.  I think chefs are fundamentally generous people.  They’re creating a place for people to gather and enjoy life. And when a chef thinks about giving back, they think about giving back what they care most about – good food.  

The Psychology of Giving: Why No One Can Raise the Dough Like a Celebrity Chef

Since time immemorial, the centerpiece of any good fundraiser has been good food. Celebrity chefs combine star power with the warm, open feeling we associate with being fed. To watch Mario Battali on Food Network is to feel that you’re hanging out in his kitchen, a casual apprentice to the art of the meatball. It doesn’t take a tremendous leap of imagination to extend this sense of trust to a charity he supports. And with incomes tight, trust is key; people are self-interested at the best of times, and a prolonged recession can induce a siege mentality, inducing us to hoard what little we have toward the uncertain future. 

Microdonations – a Little Adds up to a Lot

Chefs Make Change leverages Facebook to enable large numbers of people to support whichever cause appeals to them most via online donations of any size. While Cowin believes that the recession inspires the wealthiest individuals to give more generously out of a sense of gratitude for their own good fortune, microdonations allow for a broader base of grass-roots participation, enabling people with tighter incomes to support causes they believe in. And as the 2004 Obama campaign demonstrated, a sufficient number of small online donations can add up to an economic force to be reckoned with.  

Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin on Each Cause Behind Chefs Make Change

One of my favorites is Rick Bayless’ Frontera Foundation.  What Rick does is he gives $12,000 grants to Midwestern farmers for capital improvements.  It is such a small amount of money, $12,000, and you’re going to change a farmer’s life, you’re going to take them from a small farm to a mid-size farm because you’ve given them enough money to build a hoop house, for example, so that they can extend the growing season from the warm months all the way throughout the year.  This is extraordinary, not only for that farmer, but also for the entire community that then benefits from the farmer being able to have a season year-round.  So Chicago, which is where Rick Bayless is based, is a short season in theory, but with all of the grants that Rick Bayless has been able to give, they now have many more vegetables available locally grown all year round.  That allows the chefs to have a local cuisine that relies almost entirely on local ingredients. 

Alice Waters  is the godmother of sustainability and she has an extraordinary program called the Edible Schoolyard.  She believes that every school should have physical education, PE, and edible education, EE, aimed at teaching kids to make healthy food choices and connecting them with the community and the environment. 

There’s Dan Barber, who is an extraordinary advocate of young farmers –– a growing group of young people who want to become farmers, but need mentors.  Chefs have a built-in apprentice system, but farmers don’t.  So Dan is trying to do that with Stone Barns

We have Emeril Lagasse, who is the most generous individual I have ever come across.  He raises money for tons of charities including his own in New Orleans and other places where he has restaurants.  If I could have a personal god of philanthropy, he’d be Emeril Lagasse. 

Mario Batali with The Mario Batali Foundation.  He has a very interesting approach, which is that he wants people well read, well fed, and well cared for.  So he is approaching not just hunger, but literacy, hunger, and well being.  And Mario takes an enormous amount of pride getting to know the kids who go to the food bank, for example, with which he’s affiliated, and teaching them how to use food bank items to put together nutritious meals. Mario is helping train and teach not only the kids, but their parents, which I admire enormously.

Cat Cora is interested in emergency relief, both here in the US and abroad.  It’s very hard to get Americans interested in international relief. There’s Doctors Without Borders for medical needs, but Cat’s group, Chefs for Humanity, sends out chefs to help in emergency situations.  Who is preparing the food after a flood, after a hurricane?  It’s volunteers, but what do those volunteers know about food safety?  That’s a really enormous and significant question.  Chefs know a lot about food safety and they can bring so much to the table in these emergency relief situations.  

And Bill Telepan, here in New York City, works with a program called Wellness in the Schools, where he helps train kitchen workers in schools to make healthier meals, and he gets the kids involved, too.  So they learn at school and then they can bring these skills home, but they’re also better fed during the school day.

Jose Andres, who has World Central Kitchen, brings an international point of view.  He’s very interested in alternate fuel sources. In third world countries, you have a lot of people cooking over fire, and how do you get that fire?  You have to scavenge for wood.  If you’re scavenging for wood, you’re probably a little kid or the woman of the family.  For children, that means you’re not able to go to school. It also means that when you cook, you’re creating smoke, which isn’t good for the environment or your lungs.  So Jose is very interested in solar technology that will bring solar stoves around the world to help reduce the need for wood-fire cooking.  

I think that’s particularly interesting because it attacks so many challenges: deforestation, child labor, child education.  And at the end of the day, what he’s really trying to do is get a good meal on the table.

Art Smith with Common Threads, has an after school program that teaches diversity. When you get kids together and you talk about food, you find a common ground, a common thread. The program started in Chicago, where Art is based, but now it’s expanded all over the country.  One of the things that’s so inspiring is that these movements that start really small can grow enormous. 

Michel Nischan has an organization called Wholesome Wave.  Wholesome Wave may be the most complex among the charities in Chefs Make Change. One thing Michel does is to set up public/private partnerships.  He looks for businesses to donate funds to help those who are on food stamps, to double the value of their food stamps to spend at farmer’s markets.  This is such a win/win/win because it means that the farmer gets to make the money from the low income individual, the low income individual can afford vegetables, which is just not in their, you know, $2 a day food allotment, and it builds community.  

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