As part of our series Spotlight: Youth Food Leaders and COVID-19, Alexandra from TYFPC spoke with Rachel from The Abibiman Project about her initiative’s fundraising for the Afri-Can Foodbasket during COVID-19, how she’s using food to highlight different African cultures’ cuisine, and discussed about what food justice means to her.
You can view the interview on our Instagram (@toyouthfoodpolicy). Keep scrolling to view the transcript!
Alexandra: I’ll start with my first few questions. Just feel free to elaborate as much as you’d like. Can you introduce your organization and the work that you do?
Rachel: So I run a pop up shop, slash restaurant called The Abibiman Project. And what it is it is focused on African cuisine and using that as a tool to firstly celebrate culture across all of Africa, but also celebrate the people. And in doing that, all the money that is raised is going back towards the Black community in Toronto, all profits that we make from this pop up shop go towards the Afri-can Food Basket, which is an organ- sorry, an organization in the city, which is helping feed food insecure Black families in Toronto, and it’s something we’re very passionate about. And that’s why I decided to focus all of our aid there.
So the way that the concept works is that we sell spices and condiments. And we also added a tea blend, which is another thing, but they’re all very connected, so each thing is from spots like, a different location, a different culture, a different experience. And like what I do with people who come into the shop, I talk to them about what they can use the spices for, what the origin is, what the you know, the cultural ties are to where you can find restaurants in the city that would offer you those flavors with those palettes. And then the first weekend of every month, what we do is we have a full menu with like a hot item and then pastries. So the idea is that everybody gets to enjoy authentic food, depending on the region that we choose at that time. And then in between that time, we’re selling spices and condiments. So people can buy items, go home, and use that to explore the flavors and get more acquainted with it if they’re unfamiliar, because ideally, the goal is to further our agenda in African cuisine where we can give you more if you’re receptive of more. Because if I just throw everything at once people aren’t necessarily going to know what to do with it. So that’s kind of the idea that we’re trying to ease people into accepting it and show them like that it’s not just food, you know, show what it’s like, the foundation, which is why we’re selling spices, because that’s the base, right? And then working up from there.
Alexandra: How did you come up with this idea even to like, what was the connection there?
Rachel: So initially, back in June, when like, we were in the peak of, you know, protests and talks about, you know, rights for Black people in general, my, one of the owners at the shop, that I’m hosting the pop up at the Tempered Room in Parkdale, they contacted me asking me because they had seen that I was posting so many things and being so vocal about everything that was happening, and going to those walks and things of that sort. And they wanted to know if I wanted to do a fundraiser of some sorts to donate towards the Black community. And I was all for doing that. And initially, the plan was just to do, you know, one or two items, something simple, a grab and go, whatever, and just see how much we can make from that. And over the time of it being prolonged, I started sitting and thinking about what I could do more. And, for me, the idea that like, I see food as a connection to culture to social problems and things of that sort and that food is a great connector. And in my head, I think if you don’t respect somebody’s culture, you know, you can’t respect them as people either. And food is so tied into culture. So the whole concept is focused not only just on the food itself, but it’s – it’s an educational experience, where you learn about the connections through food, or how certain things that we eat here, you know, due to colonialism are traveling across the world, and different elements like that. And like understanding that, you know, Africa is not poverty stricken. And that this is a mentality that people continue to think that Black people are lesser and like, there’s many levels of this hierarchy of knowledge of how, you know, of how our community is treated. And especially in a pandemic, when we are suffering the most, people still have that mindset that we’re less than, and I want to use this as an experience to talk about that, and whether I don’t feel like everyone fully understands the concept, to be perfectly honest. So if somebody comes in, and you know, they just go and pick up something off the counter, they don’t understand that there’s a connection to it. So I’m ready to have that conversation and open that dialogue, and have that uncomfortable talk and be like, you know, in the middle of a pandemic, right now, you’re coming here, because you have the privilege to be purchasing this item, based on the cultures and traditions that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, from this land where all civilizations started, and you still maybe in the back of your mind have prejudices about Black people. So that’s the connection that I’ve made.
Alexandra: That was even a better answer than I could have hoped for and a perfect segue because like my next question was really like, how is the organization linked to like advancing food justice? But you’ve like, touched on a number of different issues like a number of like, I mean, I feel like food justice is such a broad thing. And you touched on an important aspect as well, regarding like the cultural appropriateness of food, but also the appreciation of food as well.
Rachel: Yeah, I mean, there’s elements like that I’ve discussed with talking to other people in the industry, with other people that are focused on similar concepts. And what I found is like, you know, I’ve heard like my friend’s old grandmother tell me that like when she moved to Canada she could get oxtail for free. And now it’s more and more expensive, because what happens is, like everything, unfortunately, our culture gets appropriated, and then sold back to us at a higher cost than we can afford. So that’s a perfect example of how food insecurity is so easily used as a tool to further discriminate us. Because if this one thing that I’ve been eating, my ancestors have been eating for generations is now inaccessible to me. And as somebody who is, you know, maybe raising three children and works three jobs and can only afford fast food, My children are not going to be healthy, they’re not going to have the greatest focus when they’re sitting in school, and then maybe they’ll be distracted, maybe they’ll be irritable. And then that further influences those ideas you have about black people, and like, food isn’t just sustenance, there’s so many elements to it. And, you know, especially when it’s so hard to get it now, when you have to wait in line for the grocery store for up to an hour on some days. If you have to run and go to your next job. You know, how do you do that? So it’s really a challenge for sure.
Alexandra: What would you, how do you imagine this project like evolving?
Rachel: In my head like this is very, honestly very unrealistic. For right now. I think I can feasibly do by myself because I am doing this alone, like It is a lot of work for one person. But you know, if further, further, further way further down the line, you know, I were to open a pan-African restaurant of some sort, and still, you know, commit to this giving back idea where it’s either just like a menu, an item on the menu is all you know, towards charity, or whether it’s the same first weekend of the month, all sales go towards charity, I don’t want to ever forget, you know, I don’t want to forget where I came from, I don’t want to forget who I’m doing this for what I’m doing this for. Because even, you know, one of the reasons why I wanted, to focus on African cuisine specifically, regardless of the fact that it’s, you know, I’m from my family’s from Ghana, it’s because I have cooked other cultures foods many times, and I’ve never had the opportunity to cook my own or anything close to it. And I don’t think that’s fair, that you can’t have the opportunity to cook your culturally specific food because it is seen as less than it is seen as you know, cheap or dirty, or whatever it may be. So, you know, if whatever it takes to further the conversation to further the engagement and to, you know, bring African cuisine into an equal playing field with the other cuisines of the world, I think that would be super important. But also, you know, it would help build community and when perhaps something like this hits again, hopefully not but if there’s a community established, right, then we can all support each other more efficiently, essentially. So if we make those connections, if we grow, we can make sure that we are helping ourselves and helping each other and like, that’s the ideal for me where we’re like entirely, you know, focused on food sovereignty in the Black community, because at this point, nobody else is looking out for our best interest when it comes to our food. So if we can establish that system, I really, really, I really think that we can be successful and like, get over one hurdle that is holding us back.
Alexandra: That’s a great point. And also a perfect segue to my next question, which is really about what, what does food justice mean to you? And I think you, you already put it into pretty clear words. But is there anything else you want to add to that?
Rachel: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I’ve said lots of things, I don’t even remember. For me, like, food justice is very multifaceted, like depending on who, whose perspective you’re looking at. Even myself, in my different hats that I wear, like, as a chef, you know, my view on food justice is, you know, trying to source like, local, organic, you know, helping the community farmers, implementing places like urban farms in the city, so that you can have access to good quality food and giving a voice to all different food cultures and things of that sort. Where, you know, as a woman, I’m looking further down the line, how can I make sure that I can feed my family and that I can stay healthy myself? I personally am a sufferer of chronic illness, food is essential for me to feel good and be healthy. And will I have access? You know, what are the hurdles that I need to face? And then as a Black woman, you know, if I wanted to, you know, something as going into a fine dining restaurant, how would I be treated in that, in that space? So it really it depends on the day, it depends on the environment, it depends on who, you know, I would be interacting with but like, at the baseline, I think that for food justice, you know, in my life, it really is a matter of control that each person has over their access to food over their quality of food, and what they can do with that food. For sure.,
Yeah, I guess my last question for now is really, how can people get involved with your work? I mean, you know, you mentioned you doing so many things alone. So how can we really support what like the project yeah, and be involved?
Rachel: Well, for me, I, at this point, like, I’m trying to build up, but at the same time, because I am one person, there’s a limitation, right, I can only do so much. And I only have so much time, I also work two jobs and run this. So I’m very, very busy. Um, but for me, I think the more demand that there is, then I can rationalize focusing more on the project. And then at that point, you know, I could get other people to help me, you know, if I got to a point where I would need to hire staff so that I can actually, you know, accommodate this at a larger scale, that would be ideal. And also, you know, I’m one person, it’s extremely hard to represent all of Africa, you know, my lens is, is based in Ghana, and then broadly West African. And then I have just done a lot of research, I’ve done research, I’ve spoken to people from other places, I’ve watched videos, I’ve read recipes, and I kind of would love for a conversation to be started with people from different places, I want to, not necessarily, like, mess something up entirely, but I would be completely happy if somebody came to me and said,”No, that’s not how you make this dish from this place. You make it like x, y, zed” because then it’s a learning experience for everybody. And it further, you know, promotes that whole educational experience. So, you know, if somebody wants to tell me how to do something, someone has a suggestion or recommendation, someone is looking, you know, for a dish that they had three years ago and the middle of the night and they want to me to recreate it, all of it is potential for me to grow this project. And as the project grows, you know, hopefully, the idea that it’s shedding light on also, you know, become implemented into our society as something that really needs to be discussed. But yeah, I see no limits at the moment. I’m very happy.