Stories / Beard House, Impact

Earlene Cruz Wants to Build a Better Future at the Dinner Table

The Kitchen Connection Team

October 18, 2022


Earlene Cruz didn’t want a career in food. A child of restaurateurs, she spent her afternoons swapping stories with regular customers, exchanging refills for homework help, and dreaming about a life outside the food industry. That’s not to say she didn’t love parts of it—sharing meals with strangers sewed a deep appreciation for food as a vessel of culture and tool for connection—but she had other plans. 

As a fresh university graduate with a budding human rights career, Cruz was in Ghana when fate intervened. After losing her wallet in Accra, she was taken in by a local family who offered her a place to stay and a piping hot bowl of Red Red Stew, a comforting black-eyed pea dish cooked with fresh tomatoes. She credits the Benneh family for feeding her literally and figuratively, sparking her journey of “coming home” to food. “As we ate Red Red, I thought about my childhood evenings of meals with strangers-turned-friends,” Cruz says. “I slowed down and savored, but it wasn’t enough. I was overcome with the desire to recreate this meal, find these ingredients, and share this experience.” When she returned to the U.S., she traded her law school plans for a Masters in Food Studies and Social Entrepreneurship. 

Since becoming a James Beard Foundation scholar while studying at New York University (where she now teaches at the School of Global Public Health), Cruz has been scaling up Kitchen Connection. As founder and director, she focuses on connecting global audiences through food. Offering virtual cooking classes with families like the Bennehs long before the Zoom Boom, Kitchen Connection gave curious foodies a glimpse into local home cooking styles around the world from the comfort of their own kitchens. 

In 2021, her homegrown organization became the Kitchen Connection Alliance, incorporating support from the EAT and Rockefeller Foundations, the government of the Netherlands, the UN Secretariat (New York) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome). KCA is expanding its reach and projects to include cookbooks, youth programs, and policy initiatives. 

The Cookbook in Support of the United Nations: For People and Planet (November 2022) explores the fragility of global and local food systems. Alongside recipes from 75 chefs, farmers, and indigenous peoples groups (including chefs José Andres, Manal Al Alem, Massimo Bottura, Rosalia Chay Chuc, Grace Ramirez, Pierre Thiam, Virgilio Martinez, and Andrew Zimmern), the book discusses biodiversity, deforestation, food waste, and climate change. Carbon calculations for each recipe star alongside full-page photographs printed on paper from sustainable sources, and sketches of each contributor. Kimbal Musk’s introduction urges readers to act as global citizens in pursuit of “gastrodiplomacy,” the interaction of storytelling, advocacy, peacekeeping, and culture. 

KCA is also a member of the School Meals Coalition, an initiative of over 60 governments improving school feeding and nutrition education initiatives, and organizes Table Talks, informal virtual gatherings of global youth over coffee or tea “around the table.” Table Talk topics are voted on by attendees, and resulting food policy priorities are shared with government leaders. Kitchen Connection has a history of advising on planet-conscious policies, including the development of the congressional Soil Health Restoration Bill, the Earth Bill, and the UN Food Systems Summit’s 2021 Food Systems Declaration. Cruz served on the Youth Steering Committee of the United Nations’ Department of Global Communications for four years, where she supported the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda—including championing the Youth Climate Compact that was developed at the UN Civil Society Conference in 2019 and shared at the UN General Assembly with all UN Member State Governments. 

Cruz’s passion for bringing people together through food culture to transcend conflict and protect the planet seems to grow by the day. Conversations with her meander from her favorite restaurants in New York City to her dream of in-school curricula and food-focused exchange programs. But the most striking thing about her is her unquenchable belief that stronger food systems are possible. “Food is the public and planetary health issue of our time,” Cruz says. “It is humanity’s shared North Star, and our job is to protect and promote it while respecting local cultures.” 

To stay informed on Kitchen Connection initiatives that contribute to building a better food system, follow @kitchenconnection on Instagram or visit

The Cookbook in Support of the United Nations: For People and Planet is available for preorder now.