Op-Ed: Cooking Up Social Change, One Soup at TimeBen Hall
September 27, 2017
We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. Our op-ed series allows voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from JBF Chefs Boot Camp alum Ben Hall. Hall is the chef/co-owner of Russell Street Deli in Detroit, a long-running Eastern Market eatery that has become a major player in the city’s food advocacy scene thanks to Hall and his partner Jason Murphy. Below, Hall recounts a low point in his fight for better school food, and how the experience helped to shape his strategy for achieving real change on the local and national level.
In 2015, I went to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNRA). When I returned home to Detroit I was more than a little blue: I was bummed.
I was blues-music and “pour-me-another-one” sad. Typically, after being on “the Hill,” I leave having done my little part, learned a ton, and been around some really smart, engaging folks. While my business partner and I are often seen as promoting social justice (which is flattering), I think it’s actually more that we both just took civics class seriously and want to be good citizens. That drive brings us to D.C. two or three times a year, and makes us try to be as involved as possible with our local food bank and soup kitchen.
Usually, visiting representatives, senators, and staffers alongside really smart chefs like Bill Telepan who care deeply about the food children eat in schools, fills me with hope and strengthens me.
But this trip, in 2015, brought me low due to a visit with an anti-everything-I-supported member of Congress. He was what we all think about when we think about back room deals in D.C. It was right after members of the Agriculture Committee, lobbyists, staff, and a group of chefs suffered through a “best and brightest” lunch buffet. The meal was structured as a reimagining of school lunch: I remember turkey meatballs, whole-wheat pasta, and the strong sense of ingesting sawdust. It tasted as unlike “food” as the processed food I remembered from my occasional dalliances in the lunch line but with the new signifiers “natural,” “healthy,” and “fresh.”
Growing up, I was wildly eligible for free lunch, but my mother thought of free lunch as welfare. We did without, and so on the rare occasions I got in the lunch line, it was a magical marketplace of steam-table delicacies (that, ultimately, always disappointed). I found it much the same in this new-wave lunch line: they may have changed the ingredients and reduced the sodium, but the vendors at that luncheon seemed to have disappointment encrypted in the ingredients list.
With the failure of that lunch to delight, I was not looking forward to meeting with this particular member. A physician, a smoker, and adamantly against the Affordable Care Act and the CNRA, only five percent of the bills he’d sponsored were for health, versus thirty-three percent for military spending. He was anti-food, anti-health and anti-kid (which he camouflaged as anti-government and anti-spending).
He leaned on “plate waste” as a reason behind his views. “Plate waste” is a sort of code for refusing to back increased support of any free lunch mandate or review of how we’re spending the money each program has. After 30 minutes of vocal support for processed food and the dismantling of pro-health programs he finally said, “You give a kid an apple and he throws it in the garbage. I’ve seen it. It’s everything that's wrong with government.”
I sputtered, “You gave a kid a fresh Michigan apple and he threw it in the garbage? What was wrong with it? Did you try it? Was it old? Was it mealy?” My chef brain was shrieking at the idea of wasting food.
He answered, “I don’t have to try it. It’s not about whether or not the food is good. It’s about whether we create programs for people that produce waste or that they abuse.”
I was stunned. But hey, kids don’t vote.
I returned to Detroit, and reported what had happened to my business partner, Jason Murphy. Jason, being the challenging dude he is, said, “Go talk to Betti Wiggins and fix it. Just figure it out.” He loves giving me quick, effortless mandates to solve unsolvable problems.
Luckily, I had a new partner, colleague, and co-conspirator in Betti, a woman who is fearless in developing best practices that have never existed before in America. Detroit is a city where the schools had suffered in so many ways, most recently with mass closures and a huge budget deficit. But during that exact same period of time, Betti managed to feed 55,000 kids for free within government guidelines. Former secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack called her “the patron saint of American school lunch.”
All I had to offer her was soup from our deli. But Betti, being Betti, said, “Are you going to make some soup for my babies or not? It’s got to be healthy and it’s got to be in the budget and I just don’t see how you can sell me the same soup you sell at Whole Foods for the same price.” Unsolvable mandate number two.
This year, Betti took a job with Houston Independent School District and moved down to Texas. But for us, after huge amounts of R&D, tastings, and tons of reading of legislative fine print, we’ve managed to become the first, local, independent vendor for the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), serving 44,000 students in Detroit and another 11,000 via charter schools. We serve vegan soup—black-eyed pea and collard greens—with the requisite protein and vegetable content that, for some kids, will be the best and/or only meal they have all day. It’s the exact same soup you get at our restaurant or buy retail at Whole Foods or any other Michigan independent grocer: no adulterants and no preservatives. Get it at Whole Foods for four dollars a serving or DPSCD for free. It’s a small thing in the scheme of things, but for me it’s also a slight reimagining of what a chef can be, and what role a restaurant can play in a community.
Over time, Jason and I have become increasingly aware of the fact that our restaurant is supposed to do to two things: feed people and provide a space to come together. That comes first, and everything else comes after that—profit, dishwashing, public relations or marketing—none of that can exist if we don’t take care of the first two metrics.
We’re still struggling with our identity, with moving away from being restaurateurs into something both more institutional and more holistic. I mentioned this challenge to JBF Award winner Mary Sue Milliken, a Michigander, and she gave me great some advice: “I like volume [of food]. It really lets you know where you’re at.” And fortunately for us, no eater is more adept at letting you know if your food isn’t great than a kid.
Ben Hall is the chef/co-owner of Russell Street Deli in Detroit, which, in addition to its retail business, provides 5,000 gallons of soup each week to speciality grocery stores, soup kitchens, and Detroit public schools. Learn more about Hall and Russell Street Deli at russellstreetdeli.com.
The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.