Within three days, chef Stephanie Willis’s decision to help out the community during the Black Lives Matter protests turned into a West Philly food drive called Everybody Eats that gave out 600 meals, along with essentials like diapers and toothbrushes. The June 5 drive was so successful that Willis and her fellow organizers are doing it all over again, with plans to feed up to 900 people, on Friday, June 19, a.k.a. Juneteenth.
Plans include an event in West Philly in the morning and a cookout in North Philly later that day. “There’s not much that one person can do. But collectively, if we come together as a community, we can help a lot of people,” Willis says.
Willis is a private chef for a Philadelphia 76ers player and part of Cooking for the Culture, a Philly collective that highlights the work of Black chefs. On Tuesday, June 2, after a weekend of protests and marches alongside looting and property damage in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Willis was looking for a way to do something positive amid the turmoil and frustration. Kurt Evans, a chef and activist who co-founded Cooking for the Culture with chef Elijah Milligan, was working on the same thing. They decided to join forces, bringing in Milligan and fellow chefs Aziza Young, Gregory Headen, and Malik Ali.
News of an upcoming food drive, with the hashtag “everybodyeats,” went out on the Cooking for the Culture Instagram account. Right away, restaurants started asking how they could help. Ellen Yin offered to donate meals from Fork and High Street on Market. Helm, River Twice, Mike’s BBQ, chef Jason Cichonski, and many more prepared food, gave money, or lent their space as drop-off points for donations, collecting food, toiletries, and household items to bring to Everybody Eats.
No one expected it to take off the way it did. “After the weekend of riots and protests, I wanted to help in some way,” Milligan says. “Originally it was just going to be some friends getting together and putting together some bagged lunches for West Philly. But the restaurant community wanted to support and it became so much bigger.”
By Thursday, June 4, a street team was in West Philly handing out fliers. Yes, word was out online, says Evans, but the people who follow chefs on social media aren’t necessarily the same people who would come out to a community event at 52nd and Girard.
The chefs chose that section of West Philly for the first Everybody Eats because they all have strong ties to the neighborhood — Milligan’s family owns a restaurant near the spot they set up — and because it was hit hard during the looting, and then had to grapple with a military presence when the National Guard was called in. (It also made sense as a way to get attention beyond the city, since West Philly is synonymous with Philadelphia, Evans adds, jumping into the Fresh Prince theme song: “In West Philadelphia born and raised….”)
Many stores, including the local ShopRite, which is one of several Philadelphia ShopRites established in areas that don’t otherwise have easy access to groceries, were severely damaged and forced to temporarily close.
“All of these things that happened were necessary — they proceeded the change we’re getting now,” says Evans, pointing to pledged police reforms in Philly and beyond. “But with the ShopRite being down, people didn’t have access to necessities. To food, baby wipes, feminine products. When we did the drive, we wound up giving out over 200 cases of water. Necessities.”
Willis says her goal was to make sure people in the community know they’re cared about. “People are frustrated. The people in the community are hurting. So we wanted to make sure they feel the love and support,” she says.
On Friday, June 5, the Everybody Eats crew started setting up in the morning. By 1 p.m., when the event was scheduled to start, people began “coming in droves,” Willis says. “Restaurants donated prepared sandwiches, and we had a team in a tiny kitchen around the corner making meals, dropping off 150 at a time. Every time I thought we were going to run out of food, another group of chefs came to bring us more. It was a beautiful thing to see.” High-profile chefs like Mike Solomonov showed up with items to donate. Vogue magazine interviewed Willis and Aziza Young. The organizers knew they had to take that momentum and keep going.
Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., seemed like a natural choice for the next Everybody Eats, which is a two-parter this Friday. During the day, it’s a similar setup to the first one with boxed lunches and essentials, this time at the Universal Daroff Charter School parking lot at 5630 Vine Street.
In the late afternoon, it moves to the Hank Gathers Recreation Center at 25th and Diamond. (Every basketball player who’s come out of Philly has played there, Willis says.) The North Philly event is more of a traditional Juneteenth celebration with a community fish fry and cookout, with social distancing caveats. Attendees at both events are asked to come with masks; Willis’s friend also donated masks so the team has some to give out for those who need.
Vernick Food & Drink, the Cheu/Bing Bing/Nunu group, and Redcrest Fried Chicken are among the restaurants making food. Walnut Street Cafe is letting the Everybody Eats crew use its kitchen to prep.
“Juneteenth is the day that we became free. The day that Black people were not slaves any longer. So for our communities it’s a celebration,” Willis says. “With everything going on right now, it’s hard to get in the mood to be excited. So we want to bring back the camaraderie around food. Food is a universal language: Regardless of country, of cuisine, people always congregate around food.”
Evans, along with Omar Tate, is in Bon Appetit’s June edition talking about Juneteenth, and two years ago he participated in a Juneteenth dinner at the James Beard House in New York. This Saturday, June 20, Evans, Tate, and Rob Toland are cooking a Juneteenth takeout dinner at Res Ipsa Cafe. But the chef says he didn’t really have a full understanding of the holiday and what it means to African Americans until a few years ago.
“It started off in Texas, the last unemancipated state, with families who were separated coming together — former slaves reconnecting with their families,” Evans says. “I realized that when you see family reunions and cookouts, when people with the same last name come from all over to get together, these are the offspring traditions of Juneteenth.”
The Everybody Eats Juneteenth event won’t be the end of this effort. The group already filed paperwork to get nonprofit status. Evans says he’s picturing something along the lines of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, which provides food to those in need after disasters — “some of them natural, and some man-made,” reads WCK’s mission statement.
“I already talked to a business owner in D.C. about doing something there. This is just the beginning — it’s almost scary to think of the potential. I want to take it everywhere,” Willis says. “We just want to help our communities. We just want to make sure everybody eats.”