Feast aims to improve Chicago's food deserts through community-focused music and arts
Ciera McKissick is a self-described foodie.
At events she hosts through her lifestyle brand and collaborative gallery space, AMFM, there’s plenty to nosh on (think vegan soul food to neighborhood cuisine like tacos and paletas) in addition to myriad live performances and art exhibits.
If she wasn’t with AMFM, McKissick jokes, she’d be “cheffing it up somewhere” or in culinary school.
Her latest venture, Feast, is a marriage of sharing an immersive creative experience and breaking bread, a means to starting conversation and build up communities. Describing Feast as an art, music and food festival “where everybody eats,” the young entrepreneur was quick to make it clear that’s meant figuratively and literally.
“Everyone should have a seat at the table,” McKissick says. “Young artists and musicians should have a seat at the table as far as having a platform and network to grow and be seen, and the hungry and those in need in our communities should absolutely have a seat at the table.”
The festival is split into three activations: The Appetizer, happening this Saturday in Franklin Park in partnership with Latinx monthly dance series Pachanga; The First Course, a communitywide potluck with the Black & Brown Babes collective taking place in Homan Square Park on Aug. 11; and the final Feast taking over Douglas Park on Sept. 8.
The Appetizer and First Course will act as “adjunct events,” according to McKissick, formulated to raise awareness of Feast’s overall mission of providing access to healthy, fresh produce and sustainable food education.
For Saturday’s inaugural event, attendees are asked to bring a nonperishable food donation for the Marillac House Social Center to obtain entry, while those looking to attend the Aug. 11 Black & Brown Babes potluck are encouraged to bring a dish to share, in order to encourage a deeper sense of community. She also hopes the events will aid in establishing AMFM and its partners’ presence in these neighborhoods — help the community and patrons know she and her team are available to help.
The road to Feast actually started two years ago. McKissick had scheduled a meeting for Nov. 9, 2016, to pitch her idea of putting on a festival in collaboration with different curators and creatives — not expecting Donald Trump would be elected president. While the morning after the election was a bleak realization for many Americans, those who attended McKissick’s pitch meeting were brought together by an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
McKissick got her feet wet after striking a partnership with the Chicago Park District’s “Night Out in the Parks” program. There, she honed her vision for how to execute larger-scale events in outdoor spaces. With a focus on the city’s West Side, she also began “Westside Wednesdays” with the School of the Art Institute at Homan Square — an open mic and performance series for young artists on the west side to engage with SAIC’s programming while strengthening the ties between community and school.
The events often included free food. It was while on the hunt for groceries for a “Westside Wednesdays” cookout that McKissick really began to notice the community was a “food desert,” one of 22 such areas in Chicago. Food deserts are defined by the USDA as “an area with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent and where at least a third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”
“It made me think about where I came from,” McKissick says. “I grew up in the hood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There’s corner stores and all that kind of stuff, but fresh food isn’t always readily available. In Homan, we were looking for a grocery store to partner with to feed the neighborhood people through this weekly event and there was only one grocery store (Leamington Foods, 3240 Roosevelt Rd.) to serve the area.”
At Feast’s main event, McKissick hopes to be able to feed at least 1,000 people. She’s currently working to set up a system of meal vouchers — based on organizations or corporations interested in supporting the effort buying blocks of meals from various partner food trucks — which can then be redeemed by the hungry and homeless in Douglas Park on Sept. 8.
She’s also looking to partner with A Safe Haven Foundation as a means of outreach and ensuring the meals get into the hands of those most in need. By her calculations, the average food truck meal costs $5 to $10 per person, meaning a $100 donation from a local organization looking to participate in Feast’s mission can feed 10 hungry members of the community.
A 2011 report on Chicago’s food deserts from Illinois Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights highlighted the disproportional health and wellness effects this lack of access continues to have on communities of color, particularly black Chicagoans.
Citing an earlier study from the Gallagher Group within the report, findings showed that “the majority African American communities in Chicago have the lowest access to 1) chain grocery stores, 2) independent and smaller grocery stores, and 3) all grocery stores;” however, the same study also concluded that African-American communities have “roughly equal access to fast food restaurants compared to other racial groupings.”
A progress report on Chicago’s food desert population conducted by the Gallagher Group the same year showed over 380,000 of the city’s residents living in food deserts — about 70 percent African-American and 30 percent Latino and mixed race. Over 100,000 residents making up the food desert population qualified as children.
In 2017, a story published by the now-defunct DNAInfo showed just how bad things got in North Lawndale when Showtime series “The Chi” set up a fake grocery store promising eggs, milk and acceptance of Link cards for filming. After shooting, producers took it down, throwing everything away instead of donating what remained unused to the community, causing some residents to dumpster-dive to bring food and household wares back to their families.
Vendors on hand in Franklin Park on Saturday will include Belli’s, an affordable health food market and juice bar in Pilsen, and Make Weekdays Great — “an experience curation collective with foodie inclinations focused on enriching every day of the week” that operates out of artist Theaster Gates’ Currency Exchange Cafe in Washington Park.
Founded by budding chef and DJ Selah Say and yoga instructor, event producer and fellow foodie Imani Bonne, “Weekdays” aims to make healthy eating, including vegetarian and more restrictive diets, and food knowledge more inclusive and approachable for the folks residing in these underserved, under-resourced areas.
The duo plans to bring both meat and meatless options to Saturday’s Appetizer, including kabobs using South Indian spices with a dipping sauce, as well as information aiming to bridge the gap between abstract concepts around healthier options and how to incorporate those on a budget — especially for families.
“We want people to look at food as an opportunity to enrich yourself with everything you put in your mouth, that that’s available for you,” Say explains. “Historically, that hasn’t always been the case for some people. Food should be more commonplace; it’s not just in the house or the kitchen. You can use food to build community around.”
McKissick would love for Feast to one day be on par with a festival like North Coast while keeping sustainable food practices its main focus, hoping to get more local farmers and community gardens involved in future iterations.
“We want it (to occur) more than once,” she says. “If people see you out on the street, talking with people and know you’re invested in something, they’ll believe in the cause. It’s becoming a larger, wider initiative for us.
“Collectively, we’re responsible for taking care of one another,” she adds. “Break bread and break boundaries.”