by Carolyn Bick
Clad in protective gear, South Seattle-based chef Ariel Bangs and her team worked to prepare boxes of food in the small kitchen of the temporarily shuttered Cafe Red. Like other South End chefs, Bangs is trying to fill pockets of need within the community. But the Healthy Creations chef is also going a step further: she plans to include soil and seeds in future food boxes.
Even before Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-home order to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Bangs and her fellow area chefs saw a storm brewing for both small, locally owned food companies and the South Seattle community. Just a couple weeks before the order, when schools began to close, Bangs met with Jimaine Miller and Tarik Abdullah, two area chefs who were already starting up a food service for those in need. She wanted to pick their brains about their efforts, she said, and expand on it to help people beyond the immediate crisis.
“I have always been a person who believes that if you help people understand how to eat healthy, regardless of what the time is, then they will do that,” Bangs said in a phone interview. “I ended up deciding that, hey, this prepared food they are doing is really great, but I think [this] would be even more beneficial, just knowing what’s going to happen with the virus.”
So, with donations of food from several local organizations and businesses, including Bangs’ own Healthy Creations, PCC, Seattle Vegan Life, Cafe Red, Food Not Bombs, and Hip Hop is Green, as well as seeds from Garden Hotline and Healthy Creations, Bangs set about creating the boxes. Though the seeds and soil aren’t yet available, until she can secure soil donations, Bangs said they will start receiving fresh produce from local farmers on April 13, as well as herbs from local herbalists.
People roll to a stop behind Cafe Red throughout the late morning and early afternoon of April 6, the day of the first box pick-up. They’ve already filled out an online form, so Bangs knows roughly when they plan to arrive in the two-hour timeframe. People wait in their cars, until Bangs texts them that their box is ready for pickup. Bangs and her team put the boxes out on a table to ensure a no-contact pickup.
Most of the people grabbing-and-going are people of color, and have come for a family box. One woman waiting for a family box says she made the decision to pull them from school two weeks before the state’s schools shut down, and for good reason: she has a young baby, and doesn’t want to put the child in harm’s way.
Still, being cooped up together all the time takes its toll, and the trip is a welcome relief for her three kids, who tussle and play in the back of the car, while they wait.
“They are excited to go anywhere, even to come here. … We can go for walks and stuff, but we need to go out and play in the dirt!” she says with a laugh.
Bangs had anticipated this, and it’s another good reason to include seeds and soil, she said. Kids will be testing each others’ and their guardians’ very last nerve. What better way to find some peace and reestablish a little unity than with a little hands-on urban agricultural education?
“I thought, ‘Hey … here’s another option, as well: we add seeds and soil to these boxes. … This is before the quarantine even happened. When this first happened, I was thinking, ‘Oh, people need to learn how to grow their own food,’” Bangs said. “This is an activity that can happen regularly that can give people peace of mind, be a stress reliever, be therapy, and just keep the peace in the home.”
There are a few single-person boxes, too, solo pickups that speak to sometimes-lonely nights of an umpteenth Netflix binge-watch or lying awake for hours in a dark apartment, anxious about an unknown future, with no one around to help combat these thoughts.
Bangs wants to help fight this. She grew up in a household where food meant love, and doesn’t believe healthy eating should be a privilege or a concept that just stops at the physical digestive level. Most of her memories revolve around the kitchen, where she learned to cook with her mother and auntie in their home on Beacon Hill. Bangs did her homework at the kitchen table, while the women cooked around her, often including the young Bangs in the process.
This warm belonging, the thought that someone cares –– this is what Bangs wants to instill in everyone who takes home her boxes.
“Ever since I was little … my mom always allowed kids into the home, whether we had enough food or not. She would try to make it last,” Bangs said. “It’s always been second-nature for me to figure out, ‘How can I help somebody else in this particular situation, and show love?’ Because we live in a world that is not very loving, especially right now. We are living in a world that is really, really hurtful, right now.”
But these boxes also mean more than just belonging and comfort, Bangs said. She sees that there are so many people suffering, and not only from the isolation the current viral threat brings on its own. The South End has always been shorted of resources and economic development, she said, and these inequities are now being brought to the fore. She worries about those who had almost nothing to begin with, and now have even less. She worries about those with inadequate access to healthcare suddenly being almost entirely cut off from what little help they had. She worries, too, about those who are being abused in silence.
So, yes, she said: these boxes are about helping people eat. They are about making sure children and families have more activities to do together. They are about a sense of security and love, even. But these boxes are also Bangs’ vision of the community about which she so deeply cares.
“People are having some really hard times. Through these food boxes, we are able to combat that, in a sense. … Yes, this food is free, yes, it may be hard for people to ask for help, but this is about community,” Bangs said. “This is how we come together. This is how we help each other, and how we show each other love.”
Those interested in supporting Healthy Creations’ food box initiative may make cash donations via Venmo (@chefariella). Bangs also encouraged the community to support the initiative and local businesses by buying Healthy Creations’ “Seattle Love” care packages, as well as Cafe Red by buying gift cards online.
To sign up for food boxes, contact Bangs or keep an eye on her Facebook page for a Google form. Boxes are distributed every Monday from 11:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. at Cafe Red, 7148 Martin Luther King Jr Way S, Seattle, WA 98118.
There are other chefs also working to support the community. Soulful Dishes is currently operating as a community kitchen, as is Musang Seattle, and the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective, comprised of Musang Seattle, The Brown Girl Cooks!, Feed the People (out of Soulful Dishes), and Guerilla Pizza Kitchen (out of Musang Seattle).
- Those interested in supporting Musang Seattle’s community kitchen can make cash donations via Venmo (@Melmir) or Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org). Musang Seattle accepts food donations daily from 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. at 2524 Beacon Ave S. Seattle, WA 98144. If you need food, contact the restaurant via phone at 206-708-6871, email at email@example.com, or direct message to @musangseattle on Facebook or Instagram.
- Those interested in supporting Soulful Dishes’ community kitchen can make cash donations via Venmo (@Tarik-Abdullah) and food donations in-person at Soulful Dishes, 1800 E. Yesler Way, Seattle, WA 98122. If you need food, breakfasts and dinners can be picked up every day at Soulful Dishes. Breakfast pickup runs from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., and dinner pickup runs from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
- Those interested in supporting the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective can make cash donations via Venmo (@Tarik-Abdullah). Food is available for pickup at varying locations, depending on the day. See this Instagram post for more information.
Featured image: Ariel Bangs sorts through produce to fill boxes at Cafe Red in Seattle, Washington, on April 6, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle-based journalist and photographer. You can reach them here.