Stirring Committee

P eople go hungry in New Haven every day. One study puts the number of food-insecure residents at 22%.

That weighs on members of the New Haven Food Policy Council. A volunteer-run advisory board for the city, the council describes itself as “a collaborative group working to address local and regional food issues and the impacts on individuals, communities, businesses, the environment and local government.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of hunger in New Haven and parts of Hamden,” says Mark Firla, a member of the council. “A huge part of [addressing that] is just making sure that people know what’s available and where it is.” As we speak, Firla is busy chopping scallions on a wood cutting board in the kitchen at Whitneyville Cultural Commons. Surrounding us are about 25 colleagues, friends and neighbors who have come for the council’s popular Stir the Pot series, a combined cooking demo/potluck/book club/speaker series hosted by Nadine Nelson, chair of the council’s Cooking and Food Education working group. Firla is here as the evening’s featured speaker, talking about free summer meals available to New Haven children.

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This is just one food-related topic that Stir the Pot has addressed. Others have included “practical activism” and what people are willing to give up “to make the food system more equitable and sustainable.” The idea behind Stir the Pot gatherings, Nelson says, is to “experience the richness in New Haven’s food culture and look at it in different ways.”

On the menu for this evening are three communally cooked items: spinach and pork dumplings, pan-fried samosas and Korean chicken dumplings. Crowded around the kitchen work tables and stove, participants chop and stir fillings and stuff, seal, steam and pan-fry dumplings to be shared along with the dishes they’ve brought. Cooking helps bring people together, Nelson says. Barriers of language, education and geography fall away. “You just concentrate on the cooking.”

Among the evening’s amateur cooks is Austin Bryniarski, chair of the Food Policy Council. At its best, he says, the council can be a space where New Haven’s many food-related organizations can share information but also “compel each other to get into formation” rather than “just reporting at each other.” Together, he says, “We can think about how we can truly… work cohesively and build power to compel [food] systems change.” The council has also been thinking about how to make its meetings “more accessible to the very folks who are on the front lines of experiencing the violence of our food system.”

After 40 minutes or so in the kitchen, the crowd moves out to share a meal while Firla talks about what the public schools, the council and food-based organizations are doing to feed hungry New Haven children when school is out. Kids under 18 can get free meals at more than a dozen sites citywide, no questions asked, no paperwork needed. The Connecticut Food Bank’s mobile pantry goes to some of those sites to provide groceries for families. An outreach “blitz” in mid-June involving local residents and police on the beat will help inform New Haveners what’s available in their neighborhood.

In addition to helping coordinate increased participation in this summer program, the Food Policy Council has also successfully advocated for a full-time Food Systems and Policy Director for the city and a new Board of Education group to look at school meal issues. Its Cooking and Food Education working group, which hosts Stir the Pot, is one of four, along with Urban Farms and Gardens, Policy Advocacy and Food Access working groups. It also coordinates monthly with food policy councils in Hartford, Bridgeport and New London. In a recent report, “The State of Hunger in New Haven,” the council laid out three goals: mitigating hunger for children and other vulnerable populations; streamlining the emergency food system; and protecting food system workers from wage theft and other abuses.

Bellies full, April’s Stir the Pot participants discussed an excerpt from the book Feed the Resistance by Julia Turshen. Nelson always hopes that the end of the evening will be a beginning as well. “It’s all about trying to create whatever you’re into—to just be able to talk to people, find like-minded people and hopefully find a place to be able to position your passion in a way that is beneficial to everyone,” she explains. “Food is just a catalyst to bring you together.”

New Haven Food Policy Council
Website | City Website | Stir the Pot Schedule

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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