Although Pride Month concludes on June 30th, celebrating and advocating for the queer community is a year-round job. And from rooftops in Brooklyn to farms in the Midwest, the Queer Food Foundation (QFF) is rolling up its sleeves to build a better future for queer individuals in food. Founded in 2020 by Mavis-Jay Sanders, Vanessa Parish, Gabrielle Lenart, and Jona Beliu, QFF has since expanded to 15+ board and advisory members nationwide. The organization works to develop year-round support infrastructure for queer folks across the food industry, and hosts a range of programming, from community mutual aid to panels in partnership with the James Beard Foundation.
I had the privilege of sitting down with QFF’s founders to discuss how the organization’s work impacts the future of food, and what it takes to create space for everyone.
When the four of you started QFF, what impact did you hope it would have on the future of food?
Gabrielle Lenart: I worked for the James Beard Foundation, and I saw what they were doing. I was like, wow, we should do this with queer folks in food. We should provide them grants, provide them resources; we should connect them to each other. We should do events, we should have awards. We deserve this, and it should be all for a queer folks in food.
So I literally set up one-on-one calls with everybody I knew to ask them if they were interested in creating an organization, or a collective, or some type of group, that supported individuals at the intersection of queerness and the food system.
And we just had conversations about what we thought this would look like, what we thought this would do to support people in this community. And once I reached out to Vanessa and Mavis-Jay and Jona, it just went crazy from there, because they had so many good ideas and the experience that we needed.
Vanessa Parish: I do want to note that it wasn't just the four of us—there were a few other people in the collective that were part of the genesis. We wanted everyone to have an opportunity to feel like someone was advocating for them in the food world, no matter their intersection or background.
But even at the beginning, we wanted to make sure our foundation was as intentional as possible. For myself, I want to be part of an actual structural change that's happening, not just, “Hey, we're gonna pump out flyers and promote gay people.”
What structural change needs to happen for the food industry to be less hostile and more hospitable to queer folks?
Vanessa Parish: To make things a more hospitable environment, there needs to be a full accountability process. You need to be able to call people in: when you’re collaborating, in every meeting, in every conversation. The majority of us are women, the majority of us are people of color. When you add those intersections into hostile spaces, it damages our other communities as well—which is why accountability is so important. There's not just a [singular] queer community that gets impacted when these things happen.
Mavis-Jay Sanders: We also need to have spaces for us with the same considerations and resources: off the cuff here, let’s talk about hair. Hair's a big thing in the Black community, right. So most of the time when cooks go into a food space, and they give you a hair covering, it's going to be a baseball cap. Or if you go into a fine-dining space, it'd be a toque. Most Black people don't have hair that's supposed to go into either one of those things. And so it's incumbent upon us to change ourselves to fit to somebody else's mold. You have to perm your hair to be able to tie it back—or straighten your hair to get it up in there, or cut off your dreads, or whatever else it is—in order to fit into the space. As opposed to a space that says, "Ooh, you know what, instead of having baseball caps, we're gonna have durags". That's a completely different thing, right?
Or, to sit down at dinner and be like, I'm gluten-free, what can't I have on the menu? It's a different experience than when walking into a space knowing everything is gluten-free. Or if you're vegan, being able to walk into a restaurant and actually not have to worry that everything is vegan.
So we’re starting to see spaces built in consideration of specific needs, but nobody ever thinks about that for like a gay body or queer body. What does that look like? When the whole world is made for you, you don't have to worry about those kinds of things.
So what does it look like to design a space that truly is made for all of us?
Mavis-Jay Sanders: When we come together and create space, we get to create it the way that we want to. It’s being created by queer people who already have all of these experiences in mind. So you don't ever have to worry about coming into our space, and somebody saying something that's so derogatory towards who you are.
Jona Beliu: We all have different identities and backgrounds within the queer community. So I think inherently all of the members of QFF— if it's okay to speak for all of us—understand that we have our own limits and knowledge of other identities. I want to go in thinking about the mistakes we're gonna make. Not because I'm thinking of it as glass half full or half empty, but because I want to make sure that we know how to respond appropriately. Because so often people aren’t, when told “you're not doing enough” or “you're doing this wrong.”
Gabrielle Lenart: What I was going to say, which flows so nicely into what Jona had to say, is that we’re constantly redefining what professionalism looks like. Because there have been times in the past two years that we've had to call each other in. I'm really appreciative of those situations, and I'm really glad we can have difficult conversations. And it's so refreshing to be able to just show up as yourself and go from there.
Vanessa Parish: There's many queer spaces, particularly white male spaces, that are uncomfortable. And I think as intersectional people, we're constantly uncomfortable, constantly feeling out of place. And the last place that we need to have that is in the spaces that we're creating for each other. There should be at least one space of fresh air you're allowed to occupy. That's the least we can do for each other.
Jona Beliu: Oh, this group was never going to be just gay white men, ever. And it never will be that.
I think that that was a very intentional call on our part. There are endless career choices within the food industry; there's so many different people within those options. We wanted people involved [with QFF] to actually be from the Midwest. From the South. From New York. From different immigration statuses.
As QFF continues to grow, what about the future excites you?
Jona Beliu: 40% of Gen Z self identifies as queer. Queerness is not the outlier: queerness is becoming the norm. I'm excited for the future of my little sibling being queer AF.
And also just being part of the other civil rights movements that are going on right now. It's not about just the food industry. Like, the food industry is an immigration issue. The food industry is a socioeconomic issue. The food industry is a racial issue. So the interconnectedness of it all, I'm hoping to see that come together again.
Vanessa Parish: Gabrielle likes to say, when people ask her where you see her in 10 years, that we would like to see ourselves not exist. Because we don't need to if that support is embedded in the foundations of the food world. We don't have to advocate for ourselves anymore.
So hopefully, in the future, we'll be a part of that structural shift that Jona's talking about. Because those Gen Z-ers are gonna do it kicking and screaming, and they don't care. We want to support that. We're building things now so that they can continue what's being started.