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A Chat With: Joi Chevalier — Resilience, Access and Equity

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Joi Chevalier elevated her love of food and technology in order to help BIPOC entrepreneurs level up.

By Cy White, Photos by Chelsa King/Crowned Photography.

You could call Houston native Joi Chevalier a wonder woman. A graduate of UT Austin, she got her start in tech right out of her Ph.D. program when the internet was on the cusp becoming the all-encompassing global power that it is today. “I spent the next 18 years as a technologist running new products, building new products, connecting users, technology and process,” she says. “From that product management, product strategist, director of marketing and [I] ran a lot of very large global billion-dollar programs.”

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When it was time for her to move on to her next phase, she knew two things: One, she wanted to work in food; and two, she wanted to put her knowledge of product creation to good use. “I figured I could product manage myself and build my own company.” For almost nine months, she worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then attended classes at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts at 5 p.m., sometimes getting home well after midnight. She knew with her new culinary skills and her talent for product development she could do something great.

Having lived in Austin for 32 years, Chevalier has a keen sense of the economic and food disparities within its communities. She founded The Cook’s Nook in 2014 to not only address those disparities, but to put power back in the hands of the most underserved communities and the entrepreneurs who want to do something to spark change. Their food service group “makes high-quality meals for a reasonable cost that’s being used today to feed about 3000 a day across Travis County in schools and residences,” she says.

On January 27, the Cook’s Nook hosted its first Conference on Food Resilience, Access and Equity. The two-day virtual event featured Jason Mikell of KVUE as emcee, several keynotes and over 30 panels. It was a culmination of everything Chevalier has done within the Austin community.

What disparities did the pandemic expose in your eyes?

A few things. 1. The lack of ownership relative to our white counterparts. 2. The fact that products do get created in the Black community, but they tend to stay in the community. It’s this distrust of capitalism, or “cross-eyed 35” capitalism. That might stem from, 3: There’s this fear and lack of knowledge around financial literacy or the language of business. 4. There [are]not just systemic barriers. There [are]internal barriers as well. 5. There was no place where entrepreneurs and dollars could come together that was visible. There was no capital investment in a facility. You can find all these pitches or go to your local store and go, “What is this?” But when folks with money look for a place to invest, they look for a spot.

6. That leads to the fact that entrepreneurs didn’t have a place to do that either, to be in a place to share their tribal knowledge. You don’t go to school to learn how to make a product. You go to school to learn how to market and meet demands, but not the act of being an entrepreneur and making a product from scratch.

7. There were no capital investments that had been done. People will spend money on a building for alcohol and a distillery, but not food manufacturing. That’s not a sector in Austin. Mars M&M isn’t here. There’s no large doughnut facility, no large candy or confectionery here, nobody making food at that size. People will make a capital investment in alcohol. But if I said I wanted to make a capital investment in a new cookie or a haircare product or some vitamins, that’s not a thing here.

8. Our food is very narrow. It’s more narrow than we like to think here in Austin. The food culture in Houston dwarves the food culture diversity here. 

You had the idea for Keep Austin Together long before the pandemic hit. What was the first impetus to create it?

It’s one of those negatives, or one of those products, of being a strategist. My job is to be ahead. The first week of March, when even our own members who were on their way out to Anaheim for Expo West, caterers and those who make food who don’t go to that were losing contracts. They were shutting down. And the people at CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) literally get out to California, they were on planes already coming back home. I said, “What are you doing?” They said, “The show just got cancelled.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m not surprised.”

What Are You Gonna Do

So it became immediately, “What are you gonna do? What is CPG gonna do?” They had invested in a huge South By; they’d already spent the money. Okay, how are you gonna get it back? This isn’t “Fall over.” This is “How do I get it back?” or “How do I assure that my company survives?” 

For those who are caterers who had bought all this food and suddenly brand events [were over], for them it’s a little bit harder. It’s  like, “Okay, how are you going to pivot the business? Do you have something in your back pocket; what does that look like?” Then there are new opportunities that have come up. The thing that I saw was, “Oh, look at all this product that’s now gonna go to waste.” You got a whole bunch of people who are going to be hungry. They’re stuck at home; their kids are stuck at home. Transportation is down; there’s no Cap Metro. Transportation and food are inherently linked.

Food Insecurity

We always think about the people who are food insecure today, or tomorrow, or the next day. But what about those who didn’t realize they were five days from being food insecure? They didn’t know. Because you could always make it up. You had enough time. Well, time’s up, and you can’t even find anybody to come get you to get you there. And if you do get there, they don’t have any [food]because the supply chain’s broken. If they don’t have kids in AISD or in the school district, they won’t maybe see a meal. We know when kids are hungry, their parents are hungry. So what are we gonna do for them? Give them a prepared meal. Not a box of food they have to make, but a meal that’s already done.

Keep Austin Together & SEFAN

So I said, “Okay, as a product person, what’s the product I need to bring to market? What is the product that satisfies and helps this audience and uses what we have in our supply chain?” Because I know who has food that they can’t sell. Sure enough, I got them on the phone. I wrote it up and said, “We have the space and the capacity, and there are others like me.”

It became Keep Austin Together. It became SEFAN, the Supplementary Emergency Food Action Network. That was the fourth week of March. They were also trying to figure out how they were gonna feed the unhoused population. They were trying to figure out how the farmers are gonna get the products off their farms and put it someplace. Trying to figure out how they were going to make restaurants become a hub for something else. That must have been the 11th of April when this and two other programs were approved. We were preparing meals by the end of April.

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Can you talk about the first Conference on Food Resilience, Access and Equity?

That conference definitely [came]out of 2020. I didn’t know we’d be having a conference last February. Basically we have established and forged these new relationships between for-profits, nonprofits, government agencies in order to support our residents of Travis County and our neighbors. But whatever these new, innovative processes, activities and relationships are, we need to have them persist, we need to have resilience. We need to have a plan or an understanding of who to call, where to call and how to work for when this happens again. Because it will happen again. 

So how do we have this be a regular part of functioning? What does that look like? Nonprofits work in our communities, they work in our vulnerable populations. Do they need to be in the business of food production in an efficient and effective way? No. You gotta have the right tool for the right job. So this conference has come about as a direct result of that, to get together, have those lessons.

How do we create a template or playbook or understanding that can not only show the success, but how do you take that nationally? What other organizations and structures are under stress? One of the biggest hubs that people don’t realize in all of this is our school districts. Our school districts feed so many people every day, not just kids. They were already a hub. What does it mean when you have an overwhelmed food bank? We [had]another panel on what the federal government’s response is here If food is a national security issue, what does that look like for your biggest suppliers? If we’ve learned that, we’ve got to be able to share it.  We want to capitalize on that very quickly while we’re still in the middle of it.

How do you ultimately want to change/believe that food equity can change in the Austin community?

It’s the link in relationships between direct feeding. What are we missing in our supply chain? How do we have entrepreneurs who are making food and products so that the production is here? Get this sector to be valued so that people see it and pay attention? How do we support farms and farmers, and how does that fit in with our climate and climate change plans? It’s not one group; it’s several pieces. The dollars and economics have to move through each of those threads.

That climate, land, food conversation is the next conversation to have. How do you reclaim land? Right now 1% of food that comes from Travis County stays in Travis County. That’s crazy. It has to leave to make money, [but]it’s not put back into mechanisms back here. Things can still be expensive from our farms, but you have to have more of them to make that price go down. They’ve got to be able to produce in volume, which means you’ve got to get more land in use and agriculture in use. Get the yield up so it can be used.

What We Really Need

For instance, one of the things we don’t have in Travis County is entrepreneur-level cold storage. It’s the most expensive thing you can have in your building. How do you bring in produce and make it cheap and store it? If that farmer only makes one case of potatoes, that doesn’t help me. I need a whole bunch of them, which means I have to wait for the supply to come to me, which means I’ve got to have storage to put it in until there’s enough for me to use. That’s what people don’t get. That’s a chain. We keep having to hammer that in. If you’d give me cold storage, I could do what I need to do. But that’s not sexy. 

We need to have communities that are versed in food so they can make the [ask a demand]. That’s one of the reasons Eddie Hill is one of the people I’m going to interview. He’s with the Black Food Sovereignty [Coalition] out in Portland. That’s exactly what they did. They had to learn the language to go and tell the city, “Quit trying to give us programs. Here’s what we want so we can achieve some kind of sustainable structures here.” I can’t be the only person asking. Sometimes right now I think I am. Not from a restaurant perspective. The answer’s bigger than that. And that’s what I have to keep telling people.


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