Expanding the meaning of Access

Chef Sebastian (foreground) and his assistant Chef Isaiah help the children explore fennel
Assistant Chef Isaiah carefully supervises the first fry of the tostones

Recently I visited The Evolved Network in action, as they ran a program for the Chicago Jesuit Academy. (Both are grantees of the Christopher Family Foundation, The Evolved Network through the Austin Fresh funder collaborative.) As I arrived Chef Sebastian and his new assistants Sherlon and Isaiah were setting up the project table in the CJA cafeteria for a 3:30-4:30 enrichment program. CJA cycles students through different options in the last hour of their school day and two classes are currently in a food system segment, with The Evolved Network providing lessons on Wednesday afternoons.

Chef Sebastian has a natural ability to teach children about food and cooking. He reviewed the ingredients he would be using, and let students taste them one by one (fennel frond? kumquat?). The kids were rapt and curious. Knife skills were built under careful supervision, and eventually a salad of pea shoots, shaved fennel, raw asparagus, kumquats and a few others things was dressed in a chili-lime vinaigrette and plated with a fresh tostone on top as a crouton. That it was delicious I can personally attest. It also seemed to me to be challenging food for the young folks assembled (would have been for me at that age), but I saw nothing but cleaned plates.

This is what strikes me as special about The Evolved Network. When they talk about access to healthy food they mean even more than availability of fresh produce in the neighborhood, or a new grocery store. They mean the kind of tactile experience that makes children curious about a wide range of the foods of the world from the Black diaspora to French Haute Cuisine, and not just curious but participatory. Because the whole thing belongs to them as much as anyone. Knowledge, comfort, familiarity. The vision of The Evolved Network includes raising up young folks who are adept in the kitchen, and who expect healthy, seasonal ingredients. It also includes comfort in restaurants, while traveling, and as a citizen of the world.

As Sebastian puts it: “The curiosity, openness, and connection we are trying to create through food translates beyond just that experience, but I believe is lived out in other areas of their lives. We are truly trying to use food to build the whole child: mind body and soul.”

Contributed by Clare Butterfield, Executive Director