Chicago chef Matthias Merges of Yusho and A10 was already volunteering in his daughters’ schools when he traveled with a group of chefs to Washington, D.C. to hear more about Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move, Chefs Move to Schools” campaign.
“When we returned to Chicago, several of us chefs had a meeting and realized there wasn’t anything coming out of Washington that helped us access schools in the way we wanted to—there was no game plan that we could really use,” he says. “I turned to Paul [Kahan] and said, ‘let’s do something on our own, and let’s not just teach kids how to cook. Let’s teach kids about food.”
In 2010, he made good on his desire, teaming up with Kahan, who owns Blackbird and Avec , and Jason Hammel of Lula Café to launch Pilot Light —an organization bent on empowering children to make healthy food and lifestyle choices everyday. They do this by meeting kids where they’re at: in school, a location that Merges finds to be particularly efficient.
“What’s great about using curriculum as our vehicle is that it becomes an everyday learning experience, whereas when education is limited to the kitchen, it becomes something that children in underprivileged society can never access,” he says. “When food is part of the everyday experience for children, it becomes engrained in their lives.”
Pilot Light’s network encompasses about 60 hospitality professionals who develop food-related lessons that can be incorporated into everyday subjects like English, math, social studies, and science, while also helping educators to deliver these lessons in the classroom. To date, more than 3,000 grade school students have experienced the program, and high school students are next.
The organization is largely sustained by corporate and foundation supporters and propelled forward by the chefs’ shared desire to give back to their communities.
“We know that change is necessary and urgent for so many reasons—child obesity, food deserts, and school lunch programs are just a few of them,” says Merges. “We’re trying to help kids with critical thinking.”
Pilot Light is just one example of the ways chefs are beginning to step outside of the kitchen and into the cities around them to tackle food-related challenges. In New Orleans, chef John Besh created his own foundation as a way of strengthening the town’s food community.
“Chef Besh felt that after Hurricane Katrina, there was a big need for us to continue to keep New Orleans’ culinary history alive,” says executive director Caroline Nabors Rosen. The foundation focuses on two initiatives: The Chefs Move ! scholarship program, which offers minority residents of the Greater New Orleans area the opportunity to attend a one-year culinary program in New York or San Francisco, and Milk Money , a program that provides microloans and sustainable business solutions to support local farms.
Chefs are also pitching in on a nationwide scale. Mario Batali debuted his nonprofit in 2008 in order to tackle the three causes he felt most passionate about: children’s literacy efforts, children’s disease research, and hunger relief. For Batali, a chef highly in-demand for charitable causes, it seemed like a natural move.
“I was getting close to 20 letters a week asking myself or the restaurants to help support various charities by donating either food or a meal or my time, and while I’d love to help out every organization, it was becoming too difficult to handle and track,” he says. “I knew I wanted to support the causes that were close to my heart, and I realized that starting a charity was the best way to allocate these funds.”
For Tom Colicchio, it was important to direct his time and efforts towards the root of the problem, so he headed to Capitol Hill. His organization Food Policy Action launched in 2012 to raise awareness among members of congress about food policy and to change the conversation from the status quo—a broken food system—to one that could promote policies supporting improved food access and affordability, farmer workers’ rights, and the humane treatment of farm animals.
That kind of big picture change is a concern shared by Pilot Light, as well.
“The ultimate goal for us is when a person turns 18 and becomes of voting age, that they’re really empowered to make some systemic change within national health or places of poverty,” says Merges. “Ideally these individuals are becoming advocates for themselves and their own health and well-being, but also for their families and communities.”
Still, Merges acknowledges that, like everything else, big change starts in small ways—and, many times, with one voice.
“We were teaching a lesson plan on poetry and food experiences on Chicago’s south side, and there was one young girl there who came from a broken home of abuse and had never spoken in class — not once,” says Merges. “But she read her poem aloud, for the first time ever, and in that moment we knew this was something impactful for these children. It was magical.”