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Emily's Feasts: Eating well and doing good with Eat for Equity

On a recent fall evening in St. Paul, more than 130 people are gathered at Listening House, a drop-in homeless shelter. Gathered all over the large space, they are feasting on plates heaped with coconut sweet potatoes, shepherd's pie, homemade mashed potatoes, and Brussels-sprout slaw, while they sip cups of Driftless Brewing beer. Standing in the kitchen, mildly supervising the mayhem, is a young woman wearing a red paisley apron with “Emily” embroidered in the corner. She is Emily Torgrimson, age 28, native of Lanesboro, MN and founder of a multi-city nonprofit that she started in a college kitchen five years ago.

Back in her undergraduate days at Boston University, Torgrimson wanted to do something to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief. She made a big pot of jambalaya, invited friends over, and asked for contributions. From that initial dinner, Eat for Equity (E4E), a community-driven, participatory benefit-dinner organization, has continued to spring up in other cities around the country, and is planning a major expansion this spring. Torgrimson, who used to work for Minnesota Public Radio, went back to school for a master’s degree in public health at the University of Minnesota, and now works full-time as the organization’s director.

From Twelve People to the Today Show

Monthly dinners in the Twin Cities, where the first E4E event drew 12 people, now attract up to 200. Media attention has been increasing, including a 2011 Thanksgiving Day segment on the Today show. The meals are held in donated space, and attendees are asked for a donation. “It’s all pretty simple,” Torgrimson says. “We bring people together around good food to raise money for the greater good. In coming together and eating together, we manage to provide a small benefit for the community larger than ourselves, with proceeds going to designated organizations that address inequities.”

She estimates that since its inception, more than 5,000 people have participated in E4E events, generating more than $55,000 in donations. Charities that have received donations include the Aliveness Project, Birds and the Bees Project, Circle of Discipline, Inc., Nafula Foundation, Science Museum of Minnesota, Sisters’ Camelot, and Urban Boatbuilders.

To get the most out of each donation dollar, E4E relies on local farmers, smart shopping, and the use of as much organic food as possible, managing to keep dinner costs to about $3 per person. Everything served is made from scratch, prepared by volunteer cooks who range in skill level from college students who don’t know how to cook rice, to experienced pastry chefs who whip up enough apple pies to serve 200 people in record time.

Eating for Sierra Leone

One recent donation designee was Rural Health Care Initiative (RHCI), a project of the Sierra Leone Community of Minnesota, which works with maternal and child health in a region of Sierra Leone. That dinner generated $2,000, which will go toward purchase of land for a clinic building, a birth waiting home, and staff quarters. RHCI co-founder and director Catherine Osborne says, “We met so many amazing people to help us expand our local resources. One new contact is a fisheries expert with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who is willing to help us explore fish farming in our community. Another is a pediatric resident, interested in doing global health work, who may be able to travel and volunteer with us. The night was a great way to strengthen the connections between the Minnesota and Sierra Leonean community--there were so many people, so much energy and enthusiasm for the cause.”

The Basic Need to Give

Torgrimson says that E4E offers something more meaningful, challenging, and rewarding than dressing up in black tie and writing a check at a gala dinner, and something more accessible to younger people, who often have more free time than disposable income. “The reason we’ve grown as an organization is because we’ve tapped into our basic natures as humans to give back and help others,” she says.

The group uses volunteers for all event duties, including the donation of tangibles like food and space, as well as time and effort. About 25 people help at each event as hosts, cooks, dishwashers, cleanup crew, artists, home brewers and more. “Showing up and working feeds our volunteers in many ways,” she says, adding, “people are craving an opportunity to give back in fun and meaningful ways, so we’re filling an important niche for them, as well as for the organizations receiving donations.”

One long-time cook volunteer is Ashley Lyle, a Linden Hills resident whose day job is Program Funding Specialist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. “I can't believe I have found a volunteer gig that is so much fun,” she says, adding, “The first time I prepped with E4E, I did nothing but chop garlic for two hours. The second time, it was onions. Still, I had tons of fun doing it, because everyone was laughing and having a good time. Cooking for such a large group is always an exercise in creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Even though our equipment is a rag-tag assortment of pots and pans and utensils, we always make it work,” Lyle says.

Each event includes a Friday evening prep session at the designated location. Then, early on Saturday afternoon, volunteers reconvene to get dinner ready. Around 6 o’clock in the evening, the pace begins to quicken.

“People are making signs with menus, volunteer names, and information about the organization; the kitchen is bustling with final details, plates are getting set up, and then around 7 p.m., people start to arrive. The crowd has a lot of 20- and 30-somethings, but there are always people of all ages, and usually a few kids running around, too. People sip homebrew from our reusable green cups and sneak peeks in the kitchen. Everyone is always offering to help.

“Around 8 o’clock, the food is ready, and people serve themselves, then find a spot to enjoy their supper. They sit on the floor, head outside when the weather's nice, or just lean against the wall. Later in the evening, there is a presentation from the designated charity, and everyone is really good about listening quietly. Then it's time for dessert. All evening long, people are in the kitchen helping with dishes--and sometimes we have so many guests that plates have to get used twice in an evening. It always feels like a miracle that everything gets done each month, but somehow it does,” Lyle says.

A Great Saturday Night

The events themselves have become legendary in the Twin Cities for drawing an eclectic mix of attendees. “There are so many things that make us unique--that our events are recurring, participatory and very welcoming is just the start. It’s also that something really special happens when you invite people into a home to share a meal for a good cause, and people are really drawn to that, month after month,” Torgrimson says.

This past summer, E4E teamed up with Gorilla Yogis, the group that holds periodic yoga “happenings” to benefit local charities (Read The Line's coverage here.). “We met through the small town/big city that is Minneapolis,” says Gorilla Yogi “troop leader” Nan Arundel. “Our missions---pop-up event bringing people together and donating to charity--are so aligned, that it seemed natural to create something together.”

The event on which they collaborated benefitted Minnesota Reading Corps. Despite a chilly, rainy May afternoon, about 100 people took part in the yoga event, and another 50 arrived afterwards for dinner. Arundel was impressed by the professionalism of the all-volunteer group.“I host a lot of dinner parties, so I know how much work goes into prepping, planning, and executing a delicious dinner for a group of people. E4E does it so efficiently and seamlessly. When we arrived at the space, they had volunteers already set up, chopping and chatting, and everyone was calm.

“I met so many new people that night, and had wonderful conversations with folks I might not ordinarily meet....Our conversations kept circling back to how awesome it was to bring community together--how this is the best part of humanity. Going to an E4E event fills me up and makes me feel part of something larger than myself. And then I’m doubly glad to live in a city where things like this exist,” Arundel concludes.

Growing the Brand, Hitting the Road

Torgrimson has been careful to manage growth and protect the equity of her organization’s increasing brand recognition. To become an official branch, organizers need to host three events and then commit to having at least four events per year. So far, there are branches in Boston, Portland, and the Ozarks. Emerging branches, defined as those that have hosted at least one event and have indicated that they wish to become official, are in the Bay Area, Chicago, Madison, Phoenix, Santa Cruz, Seattle, Stamford, CT, and Washington, D.C.

There are big plans in the works for the year ahead. “We bought a Sun-Lite trailer from a family-run dealership, Dennison Sales, and are in the process of retrofitting it, with the help of volunteers and a pro-bono general contractor, Lynn Tienter, and designer Matt Sand from the design/build firm Rogue Arc. We’re fixing it up to be a training and living space for a cross-country training tour that will cover 20 cities in nine months,” she says. (The organization is still seeking the donation of a truck to pull the trailer.) The tour will stop in all E4E branch cities, along with visits to Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, ME and Sonoma, CA. The purpose of the tour is to train more than 100 organizers to build successful, sustainable E4E branches.

At each stop, the group hopes to serve plates of fresh, local food and raise money for local causes. The fundraising goal is $20,000 toward causes that address inequities in health, environment, education, and opportunity, through short-term relief and long-term sustainable development. “The tour will be helpful in building community, by establishing branches in each of these cities, and setting them up for continued fundraising and community-building efforts,” Torgrimson says.

From Lanesboro to Asia, and Home Again

Torgrimson is a Minnesota girl who made some major detours into the big, wide world, which might explain the unique qualities of E4E--homespun and simple, but with a deeply global perspective. “I was born in Lanesboro, but when I was three, my family moved to the Philippines, where we lived in a refugee camp while my parents were social workers for Vietnamese refugees. After a couple years there, we moved to Hong Kong for five years. When I was 10, we moved from Hong Kong--population 7 million--to a hobby farm outside of Lanesboro, population 700. I went to middle school and high school in the area, at Fillmore Central,” she says.

She understood the power of food as a community builder when she was living in a co-operative house that served as her campus housing at Boston University. “We had to agree to cook three meals for 30 people three times each semester,” she says, “and people got really creative with it--it was a point of pride. I remember someone making Baked Alaska, and I did a whole Midwestern theme with hot dish and Jell-O salad. I realized then that food was a good creative outlet for me,” she says.

Standing in the kitchen at Listening House, she looks around at the crowd, which is happily chatting and savoring the last bites of pumpkin cheesecake. “I suppose that one of the biggest reasons we’re making such an impact is because our approach is so simple--‘come as you are, give what you can.’”

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a look at small nonprofits aiding Africa, in our October 31, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Emily Torgrimson at home


Announcing the E4E event at Listening House

The Listening House crowd

Mixing Brussels-sprout slaw

Serving E4E fare

Portraits of Emily Torgrimson by Bill Kelley; other images courtesy Eat for Equity
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