March is Women's History Month, and while it's a time for us to appreciate the rich history of women making waves and changing the world as we know it, it's also a time share our hopes for the future. That's why we talked to seven women who are well-established in a food-related field, from running restaurants to producing food television programs to protecting Native foodways, and asked them to take stock of their industry and share what they'd like to see in the days and years to come.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America
Feeding America is the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, providing billions of meals to millions of people every year in a country where one in eight people (and one in six children) face hunger.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, is a bit of a rarity. Just 41 women served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2021. "I find the low numbers of women in leadership positions disappointing but, sadly, not surprising," says Babineaux-Fontenot. But she goes on to point out a number of ways to tip the balance going forward, like diversifying the recruiting process and mentorship. "Just as our way was paved by the women who came before us, let’s seek out the promising women in the next generation and mentor them and support them on their leadership journey," she says.
Looking to the future of hunger relief, Babineaux-Fontenot is hopeful in the face of growing food insecurity. "My greatest hope for the future of hunger-relief organizations is that one day people will no longer need us," she says. "I believe that we can achieve an America where no one is hungry."
Cara Nicoletti, Founder of Seemore Meats & Veggies
Seemore Meats & Veggies just celebrated its second year in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space. The company was started by fourth-generation butcher Cara Nicoletti, and their colorful artisan sausages can be found nationwide at grocery stores like Whole Foods.
"When I started working in meat many years ago, there were very few women, but now I see so many women doing such cool things in the meat and agriculture spaces," says Nicoletti. "I feel like women are really dominating CPG food right now, and it's a beautiful thing to see." But even with the strides women have made in the industry, they're still under-funded. Nicoletti points out that a tiny percentage of venture capitalist money goes to women founders.
Going forward, Nicoletti wants more and better choices for consumers in the supermarket aisles. "My hope is that a wider variety of voices are given access to shelf space and capital so that we can continue to offer more choice and, in turn, create more change in the food system."
Luna Contreras, Restauranteur and Owner of Chelo
The pandemic has been hard on restaurants, and no one understands that better than restauranteur Luna Contreras. "Clearly independent restaurants have suffered greatly in the pandemic," says Contreras. "The disappointing thing is that a lot of women-owned, especially within the BIPOC or LGBTQIA community, are affected greatly due to already being part of a marginalized group."
"When the pandemic hit, well, it gave folks a sense of how toxic the industry can truly be," she says. While progress has been made on that front, she hopes things will continue to change. The chef has adapted to ever-changing COVID protocols by ramping up her Portland, Oregon pop-up, Chelo. She sees business models like her own becoming more of the norm, with shared kitchens and reduced overhead offering one way for small business restaurants to succeed.
Contreras also points to better wages and benefits for workers as key. She serves on the board of Family Meal, an Oregon non-profit assisting agriculture and food service workers. "This has allowed me to stay connected and have a community."
A-dae Romero-Briones, Director of Programs at First Nations Development Institute
Foodways combine agriculture, cooking, economy, and history to paint a colorful picture of a particular culture. "Native foodways give us a sense of the needs of the land and how to respond to those lands, how our relationship with land has been disrupted, and how to avoid practices and behavior that are damaging to our environments and communities," says A-dea Romero-Briones.
Romero-Briones oversees the Native Agriculture and Food Systems arm of the First Nations Development Institute, which supports Tribal-based and Native-led food-related projects with grants and technical support. She hopes that these foodways are amplified in the future, with space for Native food practitioners to share their own vision and tell their stories. "There are so many knowledgeable Indigenous people on all sorts of topics, so we need to start listening and listening well."
While working to support these foodways, Romero-Briones looks towards the future. "Our hope is that they continue and, three generations from now, our Indigenous children will remember us as the generation that fought and ensured that Native foodways existed for them and humanity overall."
Clara Park, Culinary Development Chef
After working at top restaurants around the world, co-writing a cookbook, and being crowned a Chopped champion on the popular Food Network show, Clara Park has dedicated the latest leg of her career to culinary education. "Cooking is a life skill that can actually improve your daily life. There is nothing more satisfying than feeding others," she says.
Park points out that, while cooking is often seen as a female task, the top chefs are often men. Having female and minority instructors made a big impression on her during culinary school, and she hopes the same will be true for her students. "Representation matters, and by having women, minorities, and lesser represented groups as culinary instructors, we can open the doors and present more opportunities for the future culinarians," says Park.
Park also sits on the advisory board for Drexel University's Food Lab and is head of the chef's council for the Philadelphia chapter of Careers through the Culinary Arts. C-CAP focuses on middle and high school students, and Park hopes her work will encourage more young people to cook. "I hope that culinary education becomes more widespread," she says.
Karen Washington, Farmer and Activist
Karen Washington has been a food activist for over 35 years. Through her work with the New York Botanical Gardens, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, New York City Community Garden Coalition, Familia Verde Garden Coalition, and so much more, Washington has worked tirelessly to make New York City a better place.
Whether it's turning vacant lots into gardens, supporting Black growers, or increasing access to quality fresh produce through Rise & Root Farm, Washington takes a holistic approach to food justice. The farming population in America is aging, mostly male, and largely white; a very small percentage are Black women. While there is still a long way to go, Washington has seen a shift thanks to tireless work like hers. "I have seen attitudes regarding farming shift from the slavery mentality to political power and resistant mentality," she says.
In the future, she hopes to see women and BIPOC folks be given the same opportunities in agriculture as white men. "Farming must embrace diversity and inclusion as assets," she says. "I still want my 40 acres and a mule for starts!"
Kori Frederick, TV Producer
Kori Frederick has worked on a long list of popular food shows, from "Chopped" and "Chopped Junior" to "Beat Bobby Flay." She loves telling stories about food because it's the great unifier. "Food is one of the few things that has this tremendous power to unite and bring people together," she says.
While women are better represented in food media than other genres of media, Frederick hopes women will be better represented across the board, especially in positions of power. "I would love to see more opportunities for women to create and tell stories, especially at an upper management level," she says. "Now that I am in a position of leadership, it's really important to me to mentor the women, and really everyone on my team, that are the next generation."
Frederick also hopes to see more stories about sustainability and food workers on television. "The people and faces behind the food are what make it special," she says.