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Black Chefs Matter

Rasheeda McCallum ’13 and Kayla Davis ’14, ’15 MBA Sustain Black Lives Matter Demonstrators

In May, when demonstrators took to the streets in New York City to protest the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others to name, Rasheeda McCallum ’13 felt an urge that so many people have experienced in 2020. “I just remember being at home, as a black woman, feeling helpless,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to help.”

Black Lives Matter Protest
Rasheeda McCallum ’13 protesting and serving free meals during the event

Photos by Jon Vachon

She knew that such huge gatherings would need a meal. She gathered friends and food and headed to Grand Army Plaza, at the edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, on the chance they could pitch in. There they found one of hundreds of demonstrations that staged there this spring and summer. As they distributed water and snacks, demonstrators volunteered to buy them more. “Once that happened,” she said, “we knew we were where we should be.”

With fellow Johnson & Wales grad Kayla Davis ’14, ’15 MBA, McCallum launched an initiative that has continued to feed Brooklyn since, under the banner of Black Chef Movement. Their goal: to supply the Black Lives Matter demonstrators with high-quality food. Now McCallum manages a roster of a hundred volunteers who work to source, prepare, deliver and distribute food to the thousands upon thousands of protesting New Yorkers.

Black Chef Movement Founders Rasheeda McCallum ’13 and Kayla Davis ’14, ’15 MBA
Rasheeda McCallum ’13 and Kayla Davis ’14, ’15 MBA, Co-Founders of Black Chef Movement

Photo by Jon Vachon

It’s an ideal time to recruit talented cooks and chefs in the city. The first month of COVID-19 lockdown saw some 80 percent of restaurant workers laid off or furloughed, and many restaurants have been slow to reopen and restaff. Now, when McCallum reaches out to protest organizers or vice-versa, her team works to prepare meals (their signature is vegan-friendly wraps filled with hummus and grilled veggies) for a small army. “We tag-team,” McCallum says. “If there’s an event expecting a thousand people, there might be five chefs making the wraps. We’re professionals. We know what to do to get the job done.”

As the number of protests dwindled over the months, McCallum began looking ahead to continue Black Chef Movement’s momentum. “We can be out there protesting,” she says. “But if we don’t make our way to election polls, a lot of the things we’re trying to change won’t happen.” She foresees setting up hot food and drink stations near polling places this fall, to ensure voters don’t have to choose between having a meal and casting a vote.

McCallum is also raising funds for a permanent location, likely in an underserved Brooklyn neighborhood. The organization’s GoFundMe page outlines a long-term vision of a combination food pantry, teaching kitchen, and community hub. For McCallum, who fell in love with food when she visited the Johnson & Wales campus in Providence, and who later studied abroad in Singapore and Thailand, the drive to support black and brown communities begins with nutrition and food knowledge. “Cooking was my escape when I was living in the inner cities in Brooklyn and the Bronx,” she says. “And we would love for that to be someone else’s, potentially.”

All photos in "Black Chefs Matter" were taken by Jon Vachon.

This pandemic has moved us back to where we were 10 years ago. I feel sad for the folks who are experiencing that, and want to figure out how we as a country can do better. Megan Bradley, RDN, ’07

The Pandemic Pantry

Megan Bradley, RDN, ’07, Helps Families Grow a Food Budget

Megan Bradley, RDN, ’07, spent a decade helping hungry people, only to see America lose the gains the country had made during her career. The USDA estimates this year that as many as 1 in 4 American kids may face food insecurity in 2020, up from 1 in 6 before COVID-19 struck. “This pandemic has moved us back to where we were 10 years ago,” Bradley says. “I feel sad for the folks who are experiencing that, and want to figure out how we as a country can do better.”

Megan Bradley ’07, RDN, teaching a nutrition and cooking basics class.

The pandemic has made Bradley’s work at once more necessary and more difficult. She fights hunger with Cooking Matters, a campaign by the nonprofit Share Our Strength that focuses on teaching people on limited budgets how to cook delicious, healthy meals on the cheap. In normal times their programs include in-person cooking lessons and grocery store tours for people on public assistance or for families whom schools and food pantries know to be in need.

Lessons include primers on the relative merits of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables, or a demonstration on how to concoct a stir-fry out of simple ingredients — vegetables, grains, protein, sauce — a family already knows and likes. People ask how to change up pasta. They want to know how to have a quick, healthy breakfast. And they want reassurance before trying out unfamiliar ingredients and recipes. What will it cost? How do you prepare it? Will the leftovers last? “It’s scary to introduce new foods,” Bradley says. “Concerns about getting it right are a real fear.”

The pandemic has pushed those programs online. A 30- or 60-minute video session might focus on helping a family elevate ingredients they already have on-hand. “We have a peanut noodle recipe,” she says. “The noodles are in pantries. Veggies, chicken or tofu, or any bean. And then it’s just a peanut sauce: peanuts and vinegar and a little bit of water and a little bit of soy sauce.” Boom. Dinner for four.

On calls with clients, Bradley says, she always hears kids in the background. Parents are stretched. She relates. Her own childhood was one in which her family moved around  Iowa, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado  and didn’t always have the budget for groceries. Those experiences with food insecurity colored her time in Providence at Johnson & Wales, where she marveled at the quantity and quality of food she encountered. She wondered why more people didn’t have access to great ingredients and the skills to make them into delicious meals.

Food is about nutrition and joy and comfort and community and culture. Megan Bradley, RDN, ’07

“Food is about nutrition and joy and comfort and community and culture,” she says. “How do we merge those during this time? We want to teach people how to stretch their food dollars. But we wouldn’t want anyone to feel shame for what’s going on in their lives.”

Critical Care

Physician Assistant Alysse Pazienza ’19 on Covid’s Frontline

In spring of 2019 Alysse Pazienza ’19 graduated with her master’s in Physician Assistant Studies, and by August had begun a six-month orientation at Hartford Hospital in which she paired with a more senior physician’s assistant. In February, as she was for the first time working autonomously in the intensive care unit, precautions began circulating about COVID-19. Months later, now all of 26 years old and still in her first job, she looks back at that moment as a battle-tested veteran. “I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have,” she says. “I didn’t understand the severity of it. My orientation period had just ended and then I was on my own, in the world of COVID.”

Physician Assistant Alysse Pazienza ’19 on the job.
Alysse Pazienza ’19

The cases began as a trickle, then became a flood. It was a new disease, and the treatments were changing rapidly. The physicians did everything possible to avoid intubating patients, because getting them off the breathing machines was so difficult. The worst cases, the sickest of the sick, had to go on the ventilator, and be sedated. Patients were flipped onto their bellies (“proned,” they say in the ICU) to help them breathe. If their bodies fought the ventilator and they fell out of rhythm with the breathing, they needed to be paralyzed to stop the struggle.

It was rough, draining work. Pazienza and her colleagues track bits of progress and watch patients backslide. They do their best to convey over the phone the severity of the illness to the families who can’t visit.

“It could take patients a month or two before they leave the hospital and go to rehab,” she says. “The families never saw the journey that they went through. A lot of times patients don’t remember the journey. In many ways we’re carrying them through it.”

For a first-year medical professional, the wear was real. Treating a patient requires donning an N95 mask, a surgical mask, a cap, a face shield, gloves and a gown, and might require a half-hour of hot work to place arterial lines. Pazienza lives alone. Before COVID she’d head home often to visit her family, but through the thick of the pandemic she has spent most of her downtime hanging with co-workers, hunkering. When her parents did come to visit, they sat outside and chatted through her patio door.

The families never saw the journey that they went through. A lot of times patients don’t remember the journey. In many ways we’re carrying them through it. Alysse Pazienza ’19

You know what workers like her do notice and appreciate, though? The little acts of kindness. The city fire and police departments threw a parade for the hospital. A farm donated flowers to healthcare workers. Families and other well-wishers sent cards and meals. “I went into critical care because I feel like I can make a huge impact in someone’s life when they’re critically ill,” Pazienza says. “I like taking care of sick patients and interacting with their families. No matter how many times we called them with bad news, they always thank you for doing what you do.”

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