When I joined the James Beard Foundation as CEO just over two years ago, my goal was to elevate the organization’s mission and the Impact initiatives that had been underway for years—work that focused on gender equality, sustainability, and diversity. I felt that the future of this organization required integrating these values into everything we do, from dinners at the James Beard House to our annual Awards—to show that the James Beard Foundation believes that the definition of good food extends beyond what’s on the plate.
While we set out on a path to realize this, we were not aggressive enough. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with this historic time of reckoning around racial injustice, we are accelerating the reorientation of the Foundation. The food and beverage industry, and the Foundation itself, can never go back to accepting inequity as the status quo. While we carefully begin to apply a more stringent racial justice lens to everything we do, we need to acknowledge where the Foundation has perpetuated racial inequities in the industry, and—critically—determine how we can use our platform going forward to make meaningful and lasting change.
Internal Structures and Leadership
We are a White-led organization where White people have traditionally had the decision-making power. We embarked on anti-racism training last June, and our commitment to this work needs to go much deeper. We realize that we cannot continue to support our industry and not be reflective of it. We have begun working with outside consultants on an audit of the Foundation’s internal practices around racial equity. We will implement recommendations to restructure positions and recalibrate those practices to ensure a more inclusive workplace and more diverse leadership. We must live in our discomfort and truly examine our White privilege. We recognize the unique position we are in to engage with our audiences and communities to be a part of the societal transformation that is needed.
- James Beard House Dinners and Events: The model of James Beard House dinners and other Foundation events have relied on the generosity of chefs and has acted as a barrier that disproportionately impacted chefs of color. Cooking at the iconic James Beard House in New York is for many chefs a rite of passage and career highlight. However, the “privilege” of an invitation to cook has required featured chefs to foot much of the bill to participate. While we’ve increased the stipend for chefs cooking at the James Beard House and at other events around the country, the expense of participation still denied many deserving chefs the opportunity. When we resume events at the James Beard House and around the country, it will be with a new financial model that prioritizes compensating talent.
- James Beard Awards: Core elements of the James Beard Awards, which recognize and celebrate excellence in the industry, have also reinforced inequities. These elements include the composition of the voting body and
submission fees to enter the Media Awards. Two years ago, we made changes to the makeup of the committees, revamped the criteria of judging for restaurants and chefs to include the culture of the restaurants being submitted, and introduced a free entry window for the Media Awards. We have seen some progress in the results since then, but there needs to be more done to address the power imbalances in the system. We are working with James Beard Award committees and outside consultants to identify changes in the Awards selection process needed to support racial justice.
- Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund: In addition to analyzing our existing programs, we’ve been building out new initiatives in response to COVID-19. In March we launched our emergency relief fund for restaurants, and disbursed nearly $5 million in grants to small, independent restaurants across the country. We are creating a new Open for Good Industry Support Fund that will distribute phases of grants, with the first phase prioritizing Black-owned businesses. We will have more details about the criteria and application process in the coming weeks.
- Open for Good: The relief fund grants are part of our Open for Good campaign, launched in April to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable, and more resilient. Racial inequality has been undeniably pervasive in the restaurant industry, and it is critical that the industry that opens up post-pandemic looks very different. Open for Good programs will prioritize racial justice and will include a mentorship program for Black and Indigenous food professionals.
This is not a quick fix. We aren’t just going to try to make things look better. We’re going to do the work to make the industry better for the Black and Brown people who not only make up half of our industry, but who are fundamental to the history and expression of America’s food culture—past, present, and future. Good food is not made in a vacuum, and for the James Beard Foundation to claim to stand for it, we must acknowledge and elevate the people who create it, especially those whose work is so often hidden or misattributed.
I look forward to sharing more with you as our efforts take greater shape, and I welcome any feedback you may have for me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join us Wednesday, June 17 for a conversation about what role food writing plays in understanding racial justice with Tunde Wey and John T. Edge, moderated by Jamila Robinson. Register now.
Clare Reichenbach is chief executive officer at the James Beard Foundation.