On May 31st, peaceful protests in west Philadelphia spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minneapolis, ended with property damage and looting. West Philadelphia was hit particularly hard, forcing many grocery stores and drug stores to close to the public while they awaited repairs.
Chef Stephanie Willis saw the anger and frustration of the protestors, and also saw the people who live in west Philly suddenly without access to food and supplies. “Not a lot of people there have cars to get to other communities to get groceries,” she says. “I really had to sit down and ask, ‘what can we do?’” Willis, who works as a private chef and appeared on Master Chef season 9, could cook: On Instagram she tagged Cooks for the Culture, a group of Black Philly chefs, to brainstorm how they could help their community.
Less than three days later, the group held the first Everybody Eats event, a lunchbox and essentials drive complete with a dj and enough sandwiches, produce, dry goods, feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, paper towels, toothbrushes and more to help 600 west Philly residents. Willis was joined by chefs Elijah Milligan, Kurt Evans, and Aziza Young, a private chef born in west Philly who has been feeding senior citizens and non-binary folks since the COVID-19 crisis started in March. “I love our network because it’s not about us, it’s always been about the people,” says Young.
West Philly is a tight knit community that was 40.8% Black in the 2010 census, and all of these chefs have family here. “Nobody really understands what we’re going through but us,” Willis says. Having put together the event so quickly, the chefs didn’t know what to expect, but they were bowled over by the amount of support they received from restaurants in Philadelphia that donated produce, and even residents who dropped off cash donations. Community members and senior citizens were happy to see their own offering support, Young says. “Seeing the community come together and talking to people there, hearing from the OGs, hearing their stories, seeing their smiles, them saying thank you, you know you’re doing good by your ancestors and you’re doing good by family,” she adds. “It melts your heart.”
And while they’re helping in the aftermath, they’re not demonizing the anger and frustration that led to the looting, although they don’t “condone violence” of any kind. “We’ve been oppressed for 400 years, we’ve been slaves and we’ve literally watched Black men, Black women and Black children die year after year on camera,” Willis says, holding back tears. Watching the country react to the realities of being Black here has been emotional, and shown how far we still have to go to see true equity in society. “I’m not sitting back and taking nothing. I can’t. We can’t. We have to be the change,” Willis adds. Evans points to the three day riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968 as evidence anger and frustration can lead to positive change.
In the meantime, the chefs are planning their next drive in north Philly on June 19th, or Juneteenth, a historic Black holiday celebrating word of emancipation reaching Texas. They’re planning a fish fry and cookout celebrating Black foodways as a way to bring the community together and provide a bit of communion in a difficult time. “I know we have a long way to go and that it’s going to take time, but in the meantime hopefully what people see is us helping our community,” Young says.
For Willis, the day will be in lieu of any Independence Day festivities. “I’m not doing July 4th anymore,” she says. “It’s different now.”