Chiditarod: America’s coolest food drive / shopping cart race?

At Idealist, the sporting world is not our usual beat. The Olympic Games, however, hit us where we live as an inspiring, international gathering of outstanding individuals and teams (not unlike our own new network!). So we’re taking this opportunity to pay homage to excellent athletes, winter beauty, fun games, and a host of other concepts we could tie (even tenuously) to Sochi. Welcome to Olympics Week on Idealists in Action.

If you’re like me, you’ve been looking for most of your life for a combination charity food drive, beauty pageant, costumed shopping cart race, pub crawl, talent show, nonprofit fundraiser, and (most importantly?) chaos generator.

Luckily, the Chiditarod is here to answer our call.

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Chiditarod competitors get down in 2013
(image via Chiditarod Facebook)

In the grand traditions of the original Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska—and the urban genre-founding San Francisco Urban Iditarod and New York City Idiotarod—Chicago (get it? Chi-ditarod?) started their own race in 2006 and has since become a strong presence on the now-nationwide annual urban Iditarod scene.

How do they stay so strong?

  • A winning premise. At its heart, the Chiditarod is a costumed shopping cart race through two Chicago neighborhoods, scheduled to coincide with the kickoff of the actual Iditarod. Teams of (human) participants roll decorated carts filled with 60-plus pounds of food for donation through the streets for up to five miles—rain or shine—and encounter checkpoints, contests, bribe-happy judges, and sometimes friendly sabotage attempts along the way.
  • Some great add-ons. The Chiditarod tradition has grown to include such additional highlights as a t-shirt, patch, and poster design contest; companion bowling fundraiser event called the ChiditaBowl; and a summertime Kiditarod for the little ones.
  • A very worthy cause. By encouraging its community to donate food and cash beyond the outlays required to participate in the race, the Chiditarod (itself a nonprofit organization) has donated over 80,000 pounds of food to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and $40,000 to organizations that provide immediate hunger relief or work for food justice.

This year’s Chiditarod is on March 1. Ladies and gentlemen, start your carts.

Chiditarod registration closes this Saturday, February 15. If you’re in the Chi-Town area and want to sign up, or if you just want to read more about the event’s history and gawk at some funny photos, hit up their website.

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Food justice leader Nikki Henderson on talking about food, health, and race

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

Nikki Henderson—Executive Director of People’s Grocery in Oakland, which supports community-driven solutions to food insecurity—was raised by health-conscious community activists in a household with seven older foster brothers. Her whole life has been shaped by the marriage of social justice and healthy eating.

“I can’t detangle them. I’ve never been able to detangle them,” she says. “It lives very presently because Trayvon Martin was going to the liquor store to get Skittles and iced tea. That’s what he was doing when he was out late at night. That’s what many of our kids do.”

 

Her advice to people interested in getting involved in food justice in their community?

Be a translator who can reach out to people different from you. Don’t be afraid to start conversations about the messy overlap between health, poverty, power, and race.

“If you have the opportunity to be a bridge, be a bridge.”

Watch the video for how to do just that.

Tell us about a time you were a bridge in conversation about a charged issue.

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Try this! Open a “pay-what-you-can” café and nourish your neighbors

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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One Acre Cafe is just weeks away from their grand opening.
(photo via OAC Facebook)

When Jan Orchard read stories to her first-grade students, they seemed fidgety—even for seven-year-olds. On mornings when she brought in blueberry muffins, though, they paid much more attention to her.

“They were hungry,” she says.

That’s when she started to understand just how much food insecurity was affecting her community in Johnson City, Tennessee—and decided to do something about it. Last year, she quit her teaching job to open One Acre Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant that’s just a few weeks away from turning on its ovens.

For Jan, the most exciting part about One Acre Café is how the community has come together over the past year to help open its doors. Its existence is owed to the culmination of over 1,000 volunteer hours and $80,000 worth of donated equipment, building materials, and labor.

“Someone donated a $15,000 granite countertop, the plumbing company donated a toilet, a tile company donated all the tile for the bathrooms, and a furniture company donated couches for our lounge,” she says.

Even though all these donations are going towards a charitable café, it’s not going to be a “free” restaurant.

“The idea behind the café is that everyone can contribute something. People are asked to invest in a resource for their community in exchange for their time, and for that, they’ll be fed,” she says.

Payment for a meal comes in the form either of a cash donation ($4, $6, or $8 depending on portion size) or as one hour of volunteer time doing something like rolling silverware, serving food, or greeting patrons.

Beyond being a great place to go and eat, Jan dreams of making One Acre Café a gathering place in the community where people can have interesting conversations and connect with one another.

“What happens when people lose their jobs is that they get deeper and deeper in debt and they become ashamed to go out into the community,” she says. “The idea behind the café is that there should be a neighborhood place where everyone is welcome to come and enjoy a nice meal and have a good conversation without feeling uncomfortable or ashamed about whether or not they have a lot of money.”

How you can replicate it

1. Use a model

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The site of One Acre Café is a former bar and vacant building in downtown Johnson City which has been a real “fixer-upper.”
(photo via OAC Facebook)

Early in the planning stages for One Acre Café, Jan reached out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation (OWEE), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food insecurity by helping people start pay-what-you-can restaurants.

They offer best practices, mentorship, and “start-up” kits (basically a ‘paint by numbers’ on how to start a community restaurant) to people who are interested in starting one in their community.

2. Ask other community restaurants for advice

Part of the OWEE model is that once you’re up and running, you should be there to mentor other people who also want to start a community restaurant. One Acre Café had a lot of guidance from the F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, Tennessee.

“What makes these cafés different from other restaurants is that they’re not in competition with one another, they’re trying to help one another,” Jan says.

3. Follow up with people who offer help

Jan’s benefited greatly from believing that when people want to help out, you should let them.

A year ago when she was first getting started, she held a community meeting and silent auction to help get the word out about her plans. At the meeting, she put out some volunteer forms.

Jan was able to grow OAC’s strong volunteer base by calling up everybody who filled out a form.

One of their volunteers, a construction worker named Ernest, has put in a lot of time helping with renovations and monitoring construction permits. But you can tell he’s getting excited about opening day because he has more on his mind than the construction projects. He stopped Jan a few weeks ago with an important question:

“A bunch of the guys here wanted me to make sure you were gonna serve some nice hearty soups and stews with good bread.”

Jan assured him, yes, they’d make sure to have some on the menu.

Are you interested in setting up a community restaurant in your area? Reach out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation at community@oneworldeverybodyeats.org.

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A shore thing: How soup is rebuilding community in the Rockaways

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Robyn set up a hot food station on a street corner a few days after Hurricane Sandy devastated her neighborhood.

Almost exactly a year ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Robyn Hillman-­Harrigan’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood in Queens, New York.

“Nothing was where you expected it to be,” Robyn says. “It felt like our beach town had turned into a war zone over night.”

At that time, Robyn wasn’t thinking about founding a nonprofit and opening a community restaurant. She was thinking about how she could help her neighbors.

On the first day after the storm, she started by bringing batches of hot cocoa, tea, and coffee to the people around her. The next day, she and her friends set up her propane camping stove outside on a makeshift table made from driftwood. They cooked batches of soup and warmed up donated food. A line formed down the block as people came out to eat a hot meal and find comfort in community.

A few days into the disaster, Robyn took a step back and thought about how she could increase her impact beyond that one street corner. She realized she needed better communication, a bigger kitchen, and a system that would help her reach the maximum number of people.

So she formed a Facebook group and asked her network for specific donations. The response was overwhelming. A friend lent space in his restaurant’s kitchen. Another worked with farms upstate to donate produce. A number of people volunteered to help cook and deliver the soup.

Thus, the Rockaway Rescue Alliance Shore Soup Project was born.

Since then, Robyn has centered the project around her two passions—providing access to healthy food options, and building community around food.

So far, the Alliance has founded a community garden, hosted workshops on nutrition, and continued to cook and deliver organic soups to homebound residents. They also recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a summer food truck that provides healthy pay-­as­-you­-can meals to the residents of the Rockaways, who are still living in a food desert.

They’re now more determined than ever to be a resource in their community for a long time to come. Currently, they’re raising seed capital to open SHORE, a pay-­as­-you­-can restaurant that will double as a community center.

Robyn is excited to move into this next phase, though she knows it will continue to be hard work.

“Throughout this process there’s been a lot of red tape and struggle. And we’ve learned that things change and new needs arise,” she says. “This process requires continuous readjustment and the ability to shift and adapt.”

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Robyn delivering meals to the residents of Rockaway, Queens.

Lessons learned

1. Follow your passion and you will find your path.

Robyn has always cared about increasing access to healthy food and community building, and directly after Sandy, she found ways to use her passion to help.

“We just launched right into it. We were so excited and determined,” she says. “We didn’t think about a year from now. We didn’t think about worst case scenarios.”

2. Word of mouth can build momentum and make it real.

In the days following the storm, Robyn realized that people in other parts of the city didn’t know about the devastation in her neighborhood. But she figured that if they did, they would want to help.

That led her to creating a Facebook page, where she posted photos of the devastation and of her efforts to provide warm meals and a feeling of community. And people did pick up on it; just through word of mouth, she was able to get donations and volunteers. It also forced her to name the project, making it more official and sustainable.

3. Talking to people helps you gain wisdom and build a network of supporters.

Before jumping into growing the organization, Robyn took time to talk to people to get their feedback and advice. She started by reaching out to members in her community, then found other organizations who were doing similar work. These informational interviews provided insightful advice and also helped her to build a strong network of supporters.

Along with the residents, these supporters have helped the Shore Soup Project grow from a relief effort into a real, forward-thinking organization—something Robyn never could have imagined before the storm.

“We all have the power and ability to do things. If we choose to harness that power, we can do so much. But if we let our doubts stand in the way, we will never start,” she says. “The storm was the catalyst that helped me overcome those doubts and take the first step.”

The Shore Soup Project is hosting a benefit event to raise seed funds for their SHORE restaurant this Wednesday, October 23, in New York City. If you like delicious food, local booze, and great art for auction, check out their event page on Idealist for ticket details and to RSVP. If you attend, you may be featured in an upcoming Idealist video!

Shore Soup Project is also looking for volunteers to help them cook and deliver soup, as well as to fill a part-time position as their Head Chef and Kitchen Manager

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