Fathers in Food Justice: Catching Up with Sam Polk

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Happy Father’s Day!

At Change Food Fest 2016, we actually had a lot of dads speaking. These guys are the greatest – Really, can you imagine hanging out with Tony Hillery every day? That guy is the coolest; he’s “not even a farmer” and each year, grows thousands of pounds of produce with kids and community members in Harlem. And Steve Ritz? A bottomless pit of facts and enthusiasm – every kid’s dream (before the teenage years, anyway). We also heard from some new fathers: Viraj Puri of Gotham Greens, for example, and the star of today’s blog, Sam Polk.

Sam celebrates this Father’s Day with a son who’s not yet one and a three-year-old daughter. As any good father knows, two kids under the age of four might as well be two booming companies, with all the management tasks involved. And yet, Sam still finds time to care for two brainchildren: Groceryships and Everytable.

How Groceryships Builds Bridges

You’ll remember from the Fest that Groceryships is a non-profit led by community members to address the intersection of poverty and food-related health issues. In its humble beginnings, Groceryships consisted of meetings between Sam and seven neighborhood mothers (what are great dads without great moms?!); two hours, once a week, for six months they discussed healthy cooking skills and left each meeting with $30 worth of fresh produce to test out their new knowledge.

During the first few meetings, the drop of a pin might have sounded like a wrecking ball in the ensuing silence after Sam allowed time for more personal conversations. But soon, the floodgates opened and Groceryships sailed into uncharted territory, addressing those food-related issues often swept under a non-profit’s rug: stress, depression, emotional eating, addiction, childhood trauma, family belief systems.

For each individual, the act of sharing and listening to all of the complex ills that our food system cultivates created a supportive environment – one in which Groceryships still flourishes. This type of space is remarkably important and endangered in areas like South LA, where Groceryships launched.

“We have this legacy as a society of oppression and economic subjugation, building our wealth off the uncompensated labor of other groups. It’s been executed by the oppressive forces of our culture. This idea of reparations… It’s something I am personally in favor of. Really trying not just to equal the playing field, but to make recompense.”

What Food Justice Means for Fathers & Daughters

Sam Polk founded community-led non-profit Groceryships.

Now that he is a father, this notion of reparations strikes a very personal chord. Particularly because his dear friend and colleague at Everytable, Ricky Porter, has a daughter very close in age and in friendship to Sam’s. The two girls even share similar names. But because Sam’s upbringing awarded him resources unavailable to Ricky, who only just aged out 20 different foster homes, Sam says, “Statistically, my daughter will live 10 years longer than [Ricky’s daughter].” Those numbers and the systematic inequality they reveal provide the fuel for Sam’s work.

“We live in a deeply segregated society. There are a lot of people who are not in favor of [segregation], and even for these well-meaning folks there’s a nervousness,” Sam says, of getting involved in underserved communities. “Groceryships created a wellspring of support behind us for the process.”

Here, Sam speaks to one of our core missions at Change Food: before you can help drive positive change in a community beyond your own, “You need contacts, exposure and an understanding.”

The Most Affordable “Expensive Food” Out There

Everytable makes healthy food affordable for all using a central kitchen & distribution center and variable pricing model.

In addition to Groceryships, Sam Polk is the Founder and CEO of Everytable. Knowing what we know about his history as a competitive Columbia University wrestler and hugely successful hedge-fund trader, we weren’t shocked to learn that when Sam stepped away from Wall Street at 30, it wouldn’t be his final for-profit rendezvous.

But before you despair and start wagging your “Those rich banker guys are all the same!” finger, know this: Everytable is a social enterprise making healthy food affordable for everyone. From Sam’s viewpoint, “Profit is a mechanism through which we can execute our mission, instead of being the mission itself.” So Everytable uses a variable pricing model in which low-income communities pay less for the same quality meals as consumers in affluent areas.

We realize this provokes a lot of eye-narrowing questions. It seems a little too good to be true, doesn’t it? How can business thrive off $4 meals (culturally conscious, nutritious, freshly prepared meals, nonetheless)?! Do profits from the affluent communities null losses in the underserved? If not, why don’t any other quality restaurants charge reasonable prices? Do specialty chains really make that much money from upcharging each sale?

Not exactly, Sam explains: “Everytable is disrupting the traditional restaurant structure.” Where going out to eat was once a rare, expensive luxury, today’s consumers are spending less time eating at home. This shift put immense pressure on the old structure and ultimately produced the fast-casual dining model we know and love. But it’s still expensive for producers (and therefore consumers), Sam says, because each restaurant pay salaries and rent for a space large enough to fit a kitchen, chefs, staff and customers.

So what Everytable does is slash production costs. “A single kitchen supports 4 stores, maybe 20 stores, maybe eventually 50 stores. This central kitchen [and distribution center] allows us to get $4 or $5 meals in underserved areas.” And because meals still only cost $6 or $7 in affluent areas, “It really speaks to healthy, affordable food for all,” Sam says. Rich folks want to keep their money, too, right?

Actually, that’s one interesting piece about Everytable. As it turns out, wealthy folks might sort of like to give money away. From Sam’s viewpoint, “I think what people see in Everytable’s model is an organization with the heart of a non-profit and a clearly profitable, scalable business model. It’s a way for consumers to participate and to do the good that they want to do… And they love it.” Plus, it can’t hurt that there’s great food involved.

A Hunger for Human Rights

So, the content of this whole conversation has revolved around the belief that Healthy Food is a Human Right; Its manifestation is what Change Food works for, and you’ll find those 6 powerful words in bold on Everytable’s Mission statement. But embedded in the very fact that we have to say so is an understanding that, for a staggering number of individuals, it isn’t.

“We live in this capitalist system where resources are funneled to a certain group of society and all these businesses are focused on building the needs of these people. A lot less focus is given to folks who haven’t already accumulated those resources.”

So we need these spaces, such as Groceryships and Everytable, where resources are redistributed.  We need to eradicate discrimination within the food system, because as Sam knows firsthand, “Nobody wins in that scenario. For sure, the folks who’ve accumulated the resources are doing better, and we know, we know [that it’s unjust]. I think people are hungry for this. Hungry for solutions to these problems. Nobody’s in favor of inequality.”

Based on the continuing growth of his companies, Sam is right. People are hungry for change. The type of change that occurs when, for the first time, people realize that it might just be possible for healthy food to be an accessible resource for all.

“Tavis Smiley once told me in what I thought was a casual conversation,” Sam recalls, “To him, justice is wanting for everyone else’s kids what you want for your own.” In that case, we’re lucky. It’s clear Sam Polk wants a brighter future for his kids and fortunately, he has the humility, intelligence and drive to make it happen. Change Food Dads rock!

Carly Brand studies Sustainable Urban Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Global Nutrition & Health at Metropol in Copenhagen. She looks to Change Food for future generations and loves to hear your perspectives at carlybrand11@gmail.com.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.