Where does one begin with changing the employment and food systems in America? On a national level, the task is daunting; it seems as though only someone in a high-ranking, high-impact position, like Michelle Obama, could incite any transformative action. But for Debra Richardson of Utica, changing the status quo begins by identifying the strengths and weaknesses, on an individual level, within a small corner of one’s own community.
Ms. Richardson’s New York state of mind is to “protect, promote and develop a resilient food system.” In pursuing this goal, Ms. Richardson has developed various creative social enterprises for change that are based in her hometown. For Ms. Richardson, education and awareness — identifying the voids within a specific community — comes before taking action. “I’m a recovered alcoholic and that’s really what the under-journey was of starting this enterprise,” she says. Within her own life, and in the lives of many others’ who are or were in recovery, Ms. Richardson recognized that void could be filled through working with food.
Ms. Richardson is the Program Director of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle in Utica, a catering program at the Resource Center for Independent Living. While she was in recovery, Ms. Richardson was working at the Hotel Utica as the director of catering, until she received a promotion to a sales and marketing position. But what her new position lacked was her greatest strength: working with food: “I was disconnected from food, something I’ve always found pleasure in, and it’s kind of that connecting thing to all people,” says Ms. Richardson. “I can connect to anybody through the vehicle of food.”
Ms. Richardson extended her desire to be into the kitchen to a wider group. Through job skills training and work preparedness in the kitchen, the Leaf, Loaf & Ladle program integrates back into the community people who have struggled with barriers in life. Inspired by a larger program in Seattle called Kitchens with Missions (now, Counterless Kitchens), the commercial kitchen structure of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle offers a variety of positions that play to the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team, and matches them to the role best matched to his or her strengths.
Ms. Richardson spent two years developing networks for Leaf, Loaf & Ladle. “Most recovering individuals are required to do service work; that’s where we are first introduced, or where people are first introduced to our kitchen,” says Richardson. For the next three to four months (depending on the progress of each individual), the commercial kitchen becomes an assessment tool, which can then lead these recovering individuals toward the job at which they will be most successful.
“We all have strengths, and we all have weaknesses,” says Ms. Richardson. Laura*, for example, a young teenage single mom who came to the program from Evelyn’s House (a halfway house with which Leaf, Loaf & Ladle has a relationship), was not necessarily a team player. When presented with a task, however, “she would excel, complete and even exceed expectations for it.” Laura’s competitive drive and individual mindset while working made her the perfect candidate for driving and operating a forklift for the company’s deliveries. Ben*, on the other hand, had a calm, even-handed approach to his tasks, never becoming stressed or annoyed, which made him an ideal candidate for executing catering orders. After working at Leaf, Loaf & Ladle for roughly four months, Ben was hired to work at Sons of Italy, a catering company in Utica. Two and a half years later of recovery later, he is still working there.
The biggest daily obstacle is encouraging others that “we really need to see these people as individuals,” says Ms. Richardson. No two people in recovery share the same story and experiences, thus their recovery program must be tailored to their own individual strengths and weaknesses.
Every corner of Ms. Richardson’s daily life is committed to creating a resilient food system. From her own vegetable garden in her backyard, to the Food Culture Society she helped found in May through her involvement the Mohawk Valley Food Action Network, Ms. Richardson has had a major impact on the food system in her own community. “It’s been a wonderful process of getting people in our communities to connect the dots — of how we may not at first seem like we have much to do with each other, but through food, we actually do,” says Ms. Richardson. “It’s been a real learning process.”
The council is made up of members of the County health department, school district food service providers and superintendents, environmentalists and conservationists, among others. In learning about USDA hunger-free communities, Ms. Richardson learned that she should form her own regional food policy council if her community did not have one. “A food policy council comes in one of two ways: some areas are being driven by actual government, and then other areas are more by grassroots,” says Ms. Richardson “and we are more of a grassroots coalition.” Since its founding in May, the council has identified and addressed voids of serious issues, like rural senior citizens living in food deserts,” and have brought them to the attention of the USDA. Or, those individuals who might want to get a meal at a food pantry, but might have access issues, like transportation. “We just contracted a food service provider who will now only be delivering once a week one fresh meal and one frozen…I know that next meeting, we’ll discuss what we can do to change that situation, if possible,” says Ms. Richardson.
Until then, Ms. Richardson will continue to relay the message of the food policy network, and to give those with problems in their past a second chance, making a difference with one small change at a time…
* Names of recovering individuals in this article have been changed.