Event Alert: K Street Farm Dinner
Next month, some of the best chefs in the DC area will come together in the name of building a healthy food system in DC. They will prepare a multi-course, family-style dinner to benefit DC Greens, a nonprofit that uses the power of partnerships to support food education, food access and food policy in the nation’s capital. It’s called the K Street Farm Dinner, and it will take place on DC Green’s urban farm on the corner of K Street and New Jersey Ave, NW. The meal, prepared by members of the DC Greens Culinary Council (Ruben Garcia, Spike Mendelsohn, Mike Friedman, Jeremiah Langhorne, Bryan Voltaggio, Mike Isabella and Tiffany MacIsaac) will combine the styles of these seven chefs and will feature locally grown produce. Jake Gyllenhaal, a supporter of the local food movement, will be in attendance.
To find out a little more about the event and the partnership between top area chefs and DC Greens, I spoke to Lauren Shweder Biel, the executive director of DC Greens, and Spike Mendelsohn, the owner of Good Stuff Eatery, We, The Pizza and Béarnaise, and the Chairman of DC’s Food Policy Council.
Here’s what they had to say:
Lani Furbank: Sum up what DC Greens does.
Lauren Shweder Biel: DC has so much infrastructure in place – 108 school gardens, 51 farmers’ markets, incredible nonprofits all over the city that are doing really wonderful work – and there’s a lot of will to collaborate. But at the end of the day, all of these collaborative groups have to go back and do the work of their mission. What DC Greens does is the work of this collaboration. We use the power of these partnerships to support food education, food access, and food policy in that nation’s capital.
LF: Why do you feel that this sort of organization is so crucial?
LSB: We’re in a moment when so many institutions want to do something to help improve the negative health outcomes we’re see in our city and across the country. People want to get involved in healthy food access, food education, and food policy; and so what we try to do is help these different institutions identify their niche and synchronize efforts for collective impact… I feel so lucky to be doing this work in DC, where there are such strong nonprofits that are all so committed, but at the end of the day, they have heavy lifts on their own… There’s so much important work to do, that sometimes, really putting energy toward collaboration is the last thing that they have time for.
LF: What are some of the most recent breakthroughs for DC Greens?
LSB: Some recent successes have been the establishment of the DC Food Policy Council, which I’ve worked very closely on over the last year. It’s going to be an important new body in the city that creates a space within the city for people to come together and really talk through what kind of policy changes are needed regarding food. Another recent win is the establishment of a Produce Plus program, We’ve worked very closely with the city to make this program a reality and it’s making an enormous difference across the city. Anyone in the city who is on Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, Senior FMNP, or TANF can go to any farmers’ market in the city and automatically get $10 a week to spend on fruits and vegetables. It has had stunning success. Markets across the city last year had lines around the block of people waiting to get these checks.
LF: What kinds of projects do you have in the works right now?
LSB: One thing I’m really excited about is the launch of our Culinary Council. This group of chefs is coming to the table to be partners in building a healthy food system in DC. We realized that we work with health clinics, government agencies, farmers markets and schools, but that we weren’t tapped into the chef community. With this new stakeholder group, we’re listening to how they want to contribute to building a healthy food system and plugging them into that work.
LF: Why did you feel that chefs were such an important piece of this puzzle?
LSB: We know chefs in DC are so generous… They are constantly doing events and making donations, but what we were hearing from some chefs is that they felt disconnected from the work. Chefs care about food… and in this day and age they are in a position of celebrity. I think a lot of them want to leverage that in a hands-on way.
LF: Why did you decide to host this Farm Dinner?
LSB: We’ve never had a big fundraiser, and so we felt like it was time to do a signature event. With the emergence of our Culinary Council, it just felt like the perfect thing to celebrate. This event is really meant to be a conversation… it’s people coming to the table and saying, I care about healthy food and I want to be a part of this movement.
LF: What can guests expect at the dinner?
LSB: We’re going for low-key and laid back. We’ve heard from a lot of our donors that there’s a bit of “gala fatigue,” so we’re trying to get away from anything that’s going to smack of a gala. There’s not going to be an auction; there’s not going to any additional asks of guests. We’re just going to have a good time with great family style food prepared by all our Culinary Council chefs. Early Mountain Vineyards will be there with Virginia wine, as well as Bev Eggleston with local charcuterie.
LF: What’s the role of the K Street Farm on a day-to-day basis?
LSB:The K Street Farm does a lot of different work for us. It’s a site where we hold large-scale trainings for teachers across the city. It produces food for our fruit and vegetable prescription program and pay-what-you-can produce for our weekly farm stand. And it serves as a welcoming site to host volunteer groups and hill staffers to get a sense of the value of urban agriculture.
LF: How is DC Greens connected to Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal?
LSB: The true story is that Maggie and I bussed tables together when we were 19, and just have been fast friends ever since… Both Maggie and Jake really care about these issues. They’re obviously not in DC, but they recognize how important the conversation in DC is to the national conversation that’s happening around food.
LF: What’s the most rewarding part of this work? Why do you do what you do?
LSB: I love fixing problems. And I love working with partners to fix those problems. When we can come together to vocalize collective issues and identify solutions, that’s when I feel best about the work I’m doing.
Lani Furbank: How did you get involved with DC Greens?
Spike Mendelsohn: While I have been involved with the DC food community in many ways over the past six years with programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign and Chefs Move to Schools, I haven’t really been attached to one specific organization. Last year, I went to a food policy boot camp with the Chef Action Network and Michel Nischan. While I was there, I became really inspired and realized that chefs have pretty powerful voices in the space of food policy and food issues. As I dove deeper into the DC food policy scene, many roads led to Lauren at DC Greens since she has kind of been the one holding the flag on a lot of the food policy issues in DC.
LF: You mentioned that you feel chefs can have a big influence in food policy, but do you also feel like you have a responsibility?
SM: Definitely. If you look at the evolution of a chef these days, it’s gone from a chef staying in the kitchen behind closed doors and not being able to go out to the dining room, to all of a sudden, being on TV in food competitions and gaining a celebrity status. Now I feel like what you’re going to start to see is a lot of chefs are going to attach themselves to some real issues that matter become advocates, not only on a national basis, but internationally as well. For example, many chefs work closely with farmers to source ingredients, so it makes sense that we advocate to help our farmers gain all of the opportunities that they can get in order to be successful.
LF: In your kitchen, how does this responsibility and influence manifest itself in specific ways?
SM: In my fast casual restaurants, we work very hard to provide people with the best version of American comfort food as we can. I have to find the perfect balance of being a responsible chef and a responsible business owner. We work with local suppliers to get our produce locally and we use fresh meat for our burgers. At Béarnaise, which is my more fine dining restaurant, I am currently installing an urban farm on the rooftop with Calleva Farm. In this double crate system, I will be growing lettuce, radishes, herbs, and other great produce that I will use at the restaurant. I have been really inspired by all of the amazing urban farming development by groups like DC Greens and Arcadia. I look forward to helping break down barriers that could prevent chefs from offering healthier and more sustainable options at their restaurants because of economics not making sense. I know we can come up with some really creative solutions to make these options more accessible while also being financially sound.
LF: How do you feel the public is reacting to your role as Chairman of DC’s Food Policy Council?
SM: Overall, it has been pretty positive. Like I said before, while I have been involved in the DC food community since 2008, I have never attached my name with one particular policy group or initiative. I think that once it was announced that I received the position of Chairman, there were some people that saw a celebrity chef that seemed to appear on the scene from nowhere, get this position and that was frustrating to them. What I want those people to know is that these issues do really matter to me and I truly do care about food policy in DC. The people that have met me and have worked with me were totally excited, supportive and couldn’t wait to start working with me in this role. During my time as Chairman, I plan on tackling a lot of pressing issues and resolving them with the support of the Mayor. At the end of the day, this council in DC is going to set the stage for the rest of the United States.
LF: What has your role been in the Farm Dinner?
SM: My role is just to be like one of the other chefs right now, and be a voice on issues that concern me. You have many different chefs that are going to come with things that are a little bit personal to them, whether it’s sustainable seafood, or it’s an all veggie restaurant, or whatever their own policy food issues are. The point of these councils are to unite people so we can all tackle these issues together and have a stronger voice.
LF: What plans do you have for the menu?
SM: It’s all going to be local, in support of the local economy and seasonal.
LF: What can people expect from the event?
SM: I think they should expect a great evening in DC with a lot of passionate people, a lot of great conversation, delicious food, and an all around successful, educational event.
When: Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
5:30 p.m.: VIP Welcome
6:30 p.m.: Cocktail Reception
7:15 p.m.: Dinner
Where: The K Street Farm, New Jersey Avenue & K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001. **Rain location is at Dock 5 at Union Market.
Tickets: VIP tickets are available for $600 per person. General admission tickets are $250 per person. Tickets can be purchased here.
Dress Code: Festive attire and farm-ready footwear.