I’ve gotten a lot of things delivered since the beginning of COVID-19; things that I could never have gotten delivered before. Boxes of baked goods, frozen dumplings and frozen pizza. But one of my favorite things was a bag filled with fresh tomatillos, a jar of bourbon-salted caramel sauce, pesto alla trapanese, a bag of coffee and more.
Billed as a CSA-style bag, this assortment of goodies came from Cooks for Black Lives Matter, a project started by local chefs Jude Watson and Max Goldstein in May 2020. The duo tapped their friends in the industry for donations to go in the first bag, filling it with braising greens from Oxbow Farm; bread from The Cottage; crackers from The London Plane; salsa from Jonathan Ragsdale, co-founder of the pop-up Pancita; and hot sauce from Cornelly chef Mark Galambos.
For Watson, the project came about as a way to call upon their network to move money toward social change. “I think the most salient thing about the project to me is, as a white person, I think it’s my responsibility to help be a part of redistributing wealth to communities of color. Even though as line cooks we don’t make a lot of money compared to others, as a white person, I have a lot of resources I can call upon,” they said.
Unlike traditional CSA (community supported agriculture) models, which normally feature a box of ingredients from a single farm or even farm collective, Cooks for BLM is unique in that it harnesses the power of community (one that started with Watson and Goldstein’s network) to bring different people in the food space — cooks, of course, but also farmers and food producers, bakers, coffee roasters and local restaurants — together with a goal of supporting Black-led organizing. It is 100% volunteer run. The contents of the CSA bags are almost all donated, and volunteers coordinate the effort and deliver the bags. Only 15% of funds raised each month go toward operating costs.
The first bag was such a success, Watson and Goldstein kept it going, further dialing things in. They started with 50 bags and increased the price from $60 for eight items to $105 for 10 so they could up the funds donated. They worked their networks more to bring in contributors and volunteers and, after roughly $9,000 in donations going to BLM Seattle-King County, switched the beneficiary to King County Equity Now (KCEN).
Bags were still selling out every month, and in January 2021 Watson posted an ad on the Cooks for BLM Instagram page announcing they were expanding the project and forming a leadership board. Robyn Nielsen, Rebecca Jacobs, Adrienne Greenberg and Renee Soliman saw and answered the call, forming the first leadership board in February along with Watson and Goldstein.
The founding duo has since ceded control to the leadership board. Watson left to attend grad school in Berkeley, California, shortly after the new board convened, while Goldstein stayed until the end of this summer, leaving operations due to work. Carolina No, who acts as culinary lead, joined just before he departed.
“Jude and Max trained us on the whole process, it was honestly mind-boggling that they did it themselves, we’ve come to learn,” said Nielsen, who acts as marketing and community liaison for the group.
Jacobs works as the volunteer and community outreach lead, heading up a loose collection of roughly 75 volunteers. Soliman is the sales and accounting lead, while Greenberg is the whiz behind the spreadsheets and mapping the routes the group gives to volunteer drivers each month.
Some of the women work in the food space — Nielsen is the marketing director for Mioposto Pizzerias, No works at Petite Soif and Jacobs is the communications director for Sur La Table — and they all share a love for the mission.
“We’re here not because we love spreadsheets, although I do, we’re here because we want to support [KCEN’s] work,” Greenberg says.
“Social justice is something that needs to be at the forefront of our day-to-day lives and if you have a skill or a passion that you can contribute to making the world better for people, you should definitely be doing that,” Nielsen adds.
The ad had listed these volunteer jobs as a 12- to 15-hour commitment per month, but Nielsen says it’s more around 25 to 30 hours.
“We have a Slack channel and it’s daily communication. The most work happens in the beginning of the month and the end, it really is a constant project … it takes up a lot of time, but it doesn’t feel like a job,” Nielsen says.
For all the volunteers, it’s a labor of love.
My CSA bag was hand-delivered by volunteers Kathryn Grubbs, her partner Morgan Stine and their adorable pit bull Molly Moon — just one of 14 (a personal record for them) bags they delivered one Sunday in August.
Grubbs has been involved since the beginning of the project, and her route is one of a handful that disperse monthly, with volunteers driving all over Seattle and Bellevue delivering the goods.
“My partner drives so I get to do the navigating. It feels doable and manageable. We’ve turned it into a family activity,” Grubbs says.
In the time the Cooks for BLM leadership board has been working together, they’ve upped the number of CSA bags from 50 to 70 per month. Each bag contains 10 gourmet food items sourced from the local food community, a balance of sweet and savory items, baked goods and produce that No works hard to strike each month. Many of the items are donated, and there’s at least one food item sourced from a Black chef, farmer or producer who is paid for their contribution.
So far the group has raised $69,800, the majority of which has gone to KCEN.
“Cooks for BLM are great. They leverage cooking, food and a community-based model to raise funds for local Black organizing. Their monthly support has helped sustain our racial equity work towards bringing about thriving Black communities and eliminating the racial wealth divide in Washington state,” KCEN president Isaac Joy wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times.
Over the past 16 months, Cooks for BLM has occasionally taken a few months off to regroup and reorganize. It can be a lot to continually ask the restaurant community for support, but No says it hasn’t been that difficult to get donors.
Sarah Monson, a cook at Rupee Bar and Manolin, has donated to the CSA bags on three separate occasions.
It was an easy yes for her, mainly because of the group’s commitment to KCEN. “I just really wanted to support Black-led organizers. I researched where [the money] was going and what they were going to do with it, and wanted to support those initiatives,” Monson says.
Farmer Sheila Calhoun of Dear Produce provided tomatillos and pole beans for the August box. She farms on an ⅛ acre in North Seattle and sells direct to restaurants. She knows Jacobs, who initially reached out to her to ask if she would contribute to the CSA bags, but Calhoun says she would’ve been interested in donating even without the connection.
“I was so excited about what they were doing. I’ve worked in many restaurants in Seattle and hadn’t felt that sense of community of that much support as a Black woman,” Calhoun says.
As a part of Cooks for BLM’s commitment to paying Black food producers for their contributions, Calhoun was paid for her produce.
“I had seen Cooks for BLM on Instagram and it was a thrill when [Jacobs] reached out. I was not expecting to be compensated, which was also really exciting,” Calhoun says.
Each donor provides 72 items for the bags — this number includes a few extra in case of spills or damage — and the items are either picked up or dropped off the day before volunteers pack the bags. The leadership board meets at Salumi at 10 a.m. on one of the last Sundays of each month to pack up bags. There are vegetarian and gluten-free options available and, by noon, drivers like Grubbs and Stine are streaming in to pick up their route details and bags. Deliveries all across Seattle and Bellevue are made within a few hours, and then it’s time to do it all over again.
The contents of November’s box will be announced Oct. 31. The lineup so far includes items from Mezza Notte, Ben’s Bread and Lenox, a pop-up led by Jhonny Reyes.
No says she’s already getting donations lined up for December. They’ll take January off, and then February’s box will feature all Black-owned businesses, meaning they’ll pay each contributor while also raising funds for KCEN.
As they look ahead at goals for Cooks for BLM and 2022, Jacobs mentions she’d love to see more Black-owned businesses in the bags as a whole, while No chimes in that she’d like to see more from “the whole BIPOC community.” (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.)
“There’s so many restaurants. We did a call for donations not too long ago and there were so many listed that I hadn’t even heard of before. It’s really cool to see what’s out there and what we can possibly do,” No says.
For Nielsen, the goal is to ultimately reach that $100,000 mark in donations. “That’s the carrot in front of the cart for me.”