On Empathy, Good Food, and the Obama Legacy

by Jason Hammel


At the beginning of the Obamas’ first term in office a group of Chicago chefs found ourselves around a long table at a friend’s restaurant after-hours.  A few of us had recently been invited to the White House Lawn where the new First Lady captivatingly called upon us to get involved in her program “Chef’s Move to Schools.”   She asked that we return to our cities and towns and throw ourselves into changing kids’ relationships to food, by cooking and teaching in local public schools.  So here we were, some of Chicago’s top chefs, doing exactly that.  And thinking big.

Around that table we created the group Pilot Light Chefs.  We weren’t the only ones making these kinds of plans.  The first lady’s initiative spawned many such programs on nutrition, physical and cultural education, such as the Sande Youth Project and the Partnership for a Healthier America, inspiring many kitchen and gardens to be built nationwide, and fighting problems such as childhood obesity and food insecurity.  Chefs all over the country lent a hand, spawning innovative school lunch reform programs and culinary education projects like the Vetri Foundation’s Eatiquette and Chef Daniel Giusti’s Brigiade.  All of us, now seven years in, find ourselves on the precipice of change.  We can’t go back now.

Today, Pilot Light works with hundreds of kids in various Chicago Public Schools across the city.  We have developed a new approach to food education by connecting common subjects like math and social studies to things like chocolate, spring peas, and succotash.  We’ve mapped food deserts and held debates on whether or not access to food should be considered a civil right.  We’ve cooked eggs in order to understand how temperature change might affect mass (climate change anyone?).  We’ve created a training institute for teachers to help them understand how the leverage food education in their classrooms.  And we’ve extended this work to the lunchroom by developing recipes that connect to lessons learned earlier in the day.  At a Pilot Light school a taco al pastor isn’t just a quick meal: it’s a way to think about culture, to tell a little-known story about Lebanese migration to Mexico, about spice trade routes and the economics of the colonial past.  It’s a way to understand how the foods we eat make up who we are.

But our latest findings suggest something greater is at stake than stimulating young curiosity with food.  Yes, kids in our program will choose to treat their bodies with respect, will learn to ask questions about the source of their food, will challenge their parents and their school leaders to provide healthier options, but they will also care about each other more.  This is because food brings us around a communal table.  It connects.  It makes us understand that we are, even in our differences, bound inextricably to the earth and its fragile bounty and our need to survive.   And what we see is that kids learn to care.  They learn to empathize.

In this light our chefs and teachers read with interest Amanda Hess’s piece in the Times, “Is Empathy Really What this Nation Needs?”  Ms. Hess sees a dark side of empathy, in which she finds a self-serving motivation in the act of reaching outside of one’s self and feeling what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. “These days, (empathy) often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.”  Yes, true, the idea that empathy may be a self-serving ploy seems to sully the whole moral mandate.  But is it really wrong to empathize in order to get something you want, if that something will truly help the person?  For us, we support creating spaces of empathy because we want kids to get to know each other, to get to know their bodies, and then, yes, so that they will make better choices about how to treat themselves.  Better choices.  As adults we believe we know what those better choices are (more vegetables! Less corn!).  It may be manipulative, but it’s honest and caring.  And it brings kids together, too.

It’s really only teachers who understand how divided our kids are inside a single classroom.  There are kids from supportive homes and kids who have to fend for themselves; there are kids with different reading abilities, kids with different class-, cultural -or racial backgrounds; there are kids who don’t understand each other’s religious beliefs and traditions.   Plus, think about it, in any one class there are no two physical bodies alike.  But when food becomes a common element in a child’s education these differences become something over which we can bond, connect, and learn.  A child who might not have the strongest reading aptitude can understand a topic with which she might have otherwise struggled.  And a child who shies from expressing his family’s cultural background can feel proud to claim her food history as her own.  We all have interesting food memories to share.  And sharing makes us better listeners.

We have the Obama administration to thank for this focus on food-as-common ground.   If the table is the core symbol, anchored by the beautiful new table in the Obama’s garden, literally too heavy to move, it’s not because food was “#trending” or because the Obamas employed that cool chef from Chicago (hey Sam!) but because as leaders the Obamas have a unique ability to see the potential for empathy in our everyday lives.

This is a legacy that we must call upon the next administration to assume.  Today, obviously, we need empathy and compassion more than anything.  We chefs see this in our restaurants’ dining rooms.  The day after the election in Chicago we saw friends coming together over food.  As our dining rooms filled, we watched folks search each other out, whether to commiserate or to plan, joining figural hands over a literal table.  This power of the table to create a space of empathy, more than anything else in our chefs’ lives, is what makes meaning and purpose in a challenging world.

We named our group Pilot Light because we want to start a small flame and ignite a larger glowing fire: of compassion, care, empathy, and, ultimately, happiness in our kids.  And in ourselves.  In the waning months of this administration let’s understand that in order for us to find common ground we need to literally break some bread with the youngest citizens around whatever table we can find.

Let’s keep moving.



Co-Founder, Pilot Light

Chef and Owner, Lula Café


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