On this episode, we talked with Charley Wang, the Co-Founder and CEO of Josephine, an up-and-coming food tech company. He explains how his version of the sharing economy can bolster home cooking, empower small-scale entrepreneurs, and combat gentrification. He believes that food tech can do more than simply provide a product in an ultra-convenient and commodified way, and that there's room for food justice and labor rights, too.
This is a sprawling and fascinating conversation about food justice, the tech world, empathy, and gentrification. We also drag Blue Apron and Soylent a bit. (A lot.)
LINKS DU JOUR
- Why One Startup Is Offering Meals Made By Home Cooks And Middle-Schoolers via NPR
The Real Soylent Sickness via The New Yorker
SOLEIL HO: Welcome to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. This is Soleil Ho.
ALAN MONTECILLO: And I'm Alan Montecillo filling in for Zahir Janmohamed who's out of town. On this episode, we talk with Charley Wang. He's the cofounder and CEO of Josephine, which is a food technology company where people buy home-cooked food from their neighbors.
SOLEIL: What really distinguishes Josephine for me is that so much of its purpose is centered around social justice.
ALAN: Right, it's a tech company that's focused on social justice. So, I think a lot of what we talk about are those intersections where he's standing at, like food justice and this sort of Silicon Valley tech scene. It's part of this broader trend, I think, as Silicon Valley kind of stretches farther and farther to every aspect of our lives, it's part of this thing called food tech, which might be familiar to some people. For me and possibly for you, I think we were still getting acquainted with what that means exactly. It's anything from making food more convenient, like whether it's faster delivery services or even applying engineering tools to nutrition. I mean, Soylent, I think, is probably the most prominent example, right?
SOLEIL: [chuckles] Yeah. And a lot of food tech, speaking of which, has kind of come into the news. So, Soylent, right. They're energy bars. I guess they're not energy bars; they're just food product bars are causing people to be violently ill. And then Blue Apron just got in the news for the factory conditions that are, I mean, they're rife with so many weird personnel problems, fights, threats. It's just a lot of conflict among the employees, and what they cite is that it's just growing too fast.
ALAN: Right, yeah. And Blue Apron is another element of that food tech trend where you order a monthly subscription service, and they deliver the ingredients for a recipe to your house. And you don't have to go shopping or anything like that. In fact, if you listen to any other podcasts, you might have heard something like, "Support for this podcast comes from Blue Apron."
SOLEIL: They're never gonna sponsor us now.
ALAN: No, maybe not.
SOLEIL: Yeah, so, their image is very distinct, right? It is a very nice, convenient, and it's a company that kind of allows you to perform culinary mastery at a very convenient way. So, that's cool. It's a great idea. And so, food tech isn't just delivery. It's also just enabling home cooking too. And so, what Josephine is doing is, I'm not sure, it's kind of a little of both. And what they do is Charley will walk us through it later, but you're looking for food. And you look on their app or whatever, and someone says like, "I'm cooking butter chicken today. It's $12." And then you say, "Yeah, I'm gonna order that." And then you have to go to that person's house and pick up the food. And so, that's so, as someone who works in restaurants, that's so different as a model.
ALAN: Well, what's striking to me--and Charley will get into this--is that maximum convenience isn't necessarily, in fact, it's not the end goal. 'Cause you can't actually get it delivered; you have to go to someone's house. You have to meet the cook.
SOLEIL: I mean, a lot of it is very much, there are a lot of implicit notions embedded in the premise of disruption, right? In the premise of innovation. And it's that convenience is important, that there should be no muss and no fuss, and you should just get your thing and walk away and not have to deal with anything else, right? It's all about the product or the delivery of the product.
So, it's a purely capitalistic kind of thing. It's so alienated, and you see this in restaurants too where the labor, you don't wanna see that, usually, you know? Before the celebrity chef, the chefs and the cooks were all just this mass, this seething mass in the kitchen, and you never saw them. And so, this is kind of flying in the face of that where you have to meet the cook who made your food.
ALAN: And we're talking about pushing back against a world where all that matters is the satisfaction of the customer.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
ALAN: Or all that matters is that the customer gets what they want as soon as possible.
SOLEIL: No matter what.
CHARLEY WANG: My name's Charley Wang. I'm the founder of an organization called Josephine, based out of Oakland, California. We work with folks who have been excluded from the professional food industry opportunities, helping them start their own micro-enterprises selling food out of their home kitchens. Basically, giving them a way to take those skillsets, cooking, and turn them into levers for economic empowerment.
SOLEIL: So, can you explain then what you mean by people who've been excluded from the food industry?
CHARLEY: Yeah. Easiest way to explain this, just like literally who they are, right? Our cooks are 95% women. 40% of them are immigrants. Almost half of them are people of color or multi-ethnic in background. Generally speaking, their annual household income is typically under 50K, most of our cooks. And that's statistically what they look like, but in reality, a lot of our cooks are they have to be at home looking after their kids or their grandkids. Maybe they are not able to do the manual labor of the food industry after having done it their entire lives. Or they're ESL, and they just moved here, and they don't have as much access to professional, "professional" opportunities because of their language skills or other sort of systemic barriers.
ALAN: I have to say, when you describe Josephine, I can't tell if it's a non-profit or a tech start-up.
CHARLEY: That's probably somewhat intentional. And you know, I think that the way that, the easiest way, a lot of times, the way that people wanna describe Josephine is like, "Oh, it's Airbnb for home cooked food." When we first started, there was a lot of me going around being like, "No! That's not what we're doing! That's not what we care about." But I get why people would draw that connection. And I think that over time, being a resident of Oakland and also just even looking at the history of Portland and looking at the history of how other tech companies have interacted with new markets, I just am very hesitant to say things like that because I would like to think that we can do things a little bit more thoughtfully or be a little bit more careful.
A lot of times, or not a lot of times, but historically, there's a lot of privilege that comes from the tech industry or Silicon Valley, if you will. And we've tried, as a team of activists and as a team trying to serve a need that we don't feel directly, we've tried to be very thoughtful about that.
SOLEIL: So, can you then walk us through the experience of using Josephine?
CHARLEY: Yeah. So, I immediately jump to experience from a cook perspective. So, our cooks apply to become Josephine cooks. Often, they hear about it through their next door communities or through their church groups or their PTA groups. We have folks who are kind of reaching out through pretty specific community channels. And after they apply, we do a video home tour with them. We get to see face to face and tour their home with them. They get their Oregon food handlers card, which we sponsor if they don't have it. There's a bit of a kitchen inspection that we put into place. And then, the pretty much get access to our software tools and our community. Once they do that, there's tons and tons of education, so online and offline curricula that they can go through to help them publish a meal, set up their brand, get the word out.
And typically, what's happening is they are reaching out to their trusted circles and communities. So, they're not advertising on Facebook, but they might be reaching out to all the PTA parents. And they might be reaching out to their neighborhood watch block group.
And those people will come, or sorry, they'll order online. And on the day of the meal, they go to that person's house, pick up their food, take it to go. A lot of our customers, most of our customers, are busy parents, and we have a lot of empty nesters as well, so folks whose kids have gone to college but who still are very engaged with their communities.
SOLEIL: So, when you're talking about impact then, right, that's the impact really is solidifying these community bonds. Using these existing community communication networks, really.
CHARLEY: Well, when I say impact, yes, that's a part of it. The biggest thing we're looking at is how can we help these cooks make money using these skills that are totally valuable and worthwhile but just don't have a professional market? But you're right. The other sort of result of that interaction is this interesting community impact around a behavior that can almost mitigate gentrification, right? We actually work really well in communities where, for example, I was talking to a cook, Lisa, on Sunday, and she was saying her and her family had been living there for 18 years, and they're starting to see a lot of houses go up for sale at prices that are really astronomical for them. And they're starting to see new faces on their streets, walking their dogs. And those new faces aren't necessarily saying hello, or they don't necessarily have a warm relationship right away. But what we can do is we can go in, we can work with people like Lisa, help them open up their doors and create a bridge or access point for new residents to come in and to meet the community that they're moving into. And also, hopefully, for the more affluent new residents to spend their dollars on the local communities that they're moving into, directly to the people who have built these communities into what they are today.
ALAN: Is it a concern for you that people might hear about Josephine through tech news, and how would that affect who you're trying to serve and work with?
CHARLEY: Yeah. It's something that we have to be very cognizant of as a business, also as individuals. For example, we had over 100 applications, cook applications before we even ever looked at Portland. And we looked through those applications and realized that there is a bias in who knows about Josephine and who doesn't know about Josephine. So, even though the inbound interest was a really great indicator of demand or interest, at the end of the day, a lot of those applications were not the folks who we had built this experience for, so the folks who really needed the money, who didn't have a lot of other options, and who had been cooking at home and raising their families on their home cooking for most of their lives. So, we actually had to come here.
And generally speaking, from a tech perspective, people are gonna know about us and hear about us from the tech world. And I think for us, it's not about pretending like that's not going to happen. But trying to be really deliberate in the type of conversations and dialogues we're having. So, I'll be speaking on a panel, and it's about if there's room for food justice in food tech. And it's interesting 'cause I get that the title is meant to pose a question so more people will come. But for me, it's almost like the personal feeling I have is there needs to be food justice in the conversation around food tech, and it's a glaring gap to me, a glaring gap. Especially when you go into the well-known food tech brands right now like Blue Apron, Plated, Soylent, Muncheries of the world, a lot of times there's a conversation around sustainability from an ecological perspective and diversity from a nutrition perspective. But those are very surface level compared to the real issues of race and socio-economic status in our food system. And so, that's something that Josephine very much leans into.
SOLEIL: So, why isn't there food justice in food tech?
CHARLEY: [heavy sigh]
SOLEIL: I mean, as it is now.
CHARLEY: The trope in the tech world is, "Solve your own problems." So, solve your own problems has led to a lot of companies being started to solve problems that a very small, privileged people have. How many more laundry delivery services do we need in San Francisco or in the Bay? Instead, I think for us, it was very much like the activist bent of saying, "OK, let's try and solve the biggest problem," which we don't feel because we come from a privileged background, and we come from the ability to start a company and to start an organization. And so, we spend a lot of time and effort, and we move a lot more slowly, trying to understand these other demographics.
I have now friends, so many friends, who are parents, older than my parents. And I've spent years developing those relationships, trying to understand what parents' lives are like and what they're fearful of and what they're stressed about. And to be honest, at the end of the day, even that's not good enough. Our real solution is we've hired parents, and we've grown our organization to be inclusive of folks with different experiential backgrounds so that we can problem solve more effectively.
ALAN: I also wanna more about your own relationship with food and your own--
SOLEIL: Speaking of parents.
ALAN: Right. Speaking of parents. Your connection to home cooking and what that's been like for you. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
CHARLEY: Yeah. Both my parents were born and raised in China, and so I grew up in a household very much eating 100% Chinese food, speaking Mandarin.
ALAN: Wait. Where was this?
CHARLEY: This is in New Jersey. Yeah. And as a kid, as a kid, I was very self-conscious and even embarrassed about Chinese food. I lived in an area that there weren't a lot of Asian kids, and my friends would come over, and I'd make sure that they left before dinner. Or I'd herd them out of the kitchen 'cause we'd have things being pickled in jars and whole fish and raw things everywhere, you know. But I think that as I got older, and especially in college, when I spent a semester in China and started accepting my heritage in a more meaningful way, it started to become something I very much, like, now I flaunt and am very proud of. Yeah.
My favorite thing is when we have Chinese cooks on Josephine. I get to go over and speak Chinese with them and take pictures and send them to my mom, and my mom gets jealous that I'm eating Chinese food cooked by someone other than her.
ALAN: Oh, goodness.
CHARLEY: Yeah, yeah.
ALAN: So, your mom did most of the cooking at home, then when you were growing up
CHARLEY: Almost every single meal. My mom gets anxiety if she can't cook for too long. We went on a all-inclusive cruise, and it had like a 24/7 buffet. And my mom, I walked into our tiny little cabin with bunk beds. My mom's like squatting in the corner with a hot plate making ramen noodles.
CHARLEY and SOLEIL: [laugh]
CHARLEY: And there's like a shrimp cocktail buffet right outside. I'm like, "Mom." She's like, "Oh, I just gotta do this."
ALAN: So, what's your family think when you started this business or got involved in this kind of work?
CHARLEY: You know, it's so funny 'cause to them, it feels so, "Oh, duh" you know? Oh, duh, we already do that. And that's the same case across a lot of different cultures and a lot of different minority cultures in the US specifically. My mom's on WeChat, and she's got WeChat groups where they're sharing recipes, they're sharing photos of what they're cooking, and they're selling food to each other. The same thing as in-- There's actually recently an article in the LA Times about these WeChat groups and pickups at the 99 Ranch.
ALAN: That's awesome.
CHARLEY: But I think to them, it makes a lot of sense from like, oh, yeah. Of course, this behavior's really normalized to them. And to add a technology layer makes sense as a progression.
But I think to millennials and to a lot of folks who are living in downtown cities and coming from more affluent backgrounds, it seems very unusual and very novel, the idea of the inconvenience of going to someone's house and picking up food from their home kitchen. The sort of anxiety around having food from someone who you might not know that well, or you weren't able to inspect and watch the entire process of food preparation. And so, for those folks, generally, we're not targeting them, you know? There's only so much culture change and system change we can do right now. And the whole goal is to focus on areas where this is needed and natural and welcomed.
[voice mail beep]
ZAHIR: Hi, this is Zahir Janmohamed. I'm traveling right now, and I'll be back in two weeks. I'm calling to tell you all that we're looking for sponsors for our show. Making this podcast costs money, and we want to expand our offering. And we can only do that with your help. So, if you know someone who wants to make food journalism more equitable and put people of color at the center of conversations about food and culture, please email us at email@example.com. Thanks, and thanks for listening.
CHARLEY: In capitalism, if you are a business that sells food products, and you want to grow your business, that means you have to do one of a few things. You either spend less money on ingredients, you spend less money on labor, or you invent a new technology that significantly reduces the cost of one of those. And you increase output. And so, I recently made a presentation where one of the slides says, "The food industry doesn't care about cooks." And it seems a little bit, it's like one of those--
ALAN: Provocative on purpose?
CHARLEY: Right. It seems like a provocative title, but in reality, the way that the equations are set up and the focus on consumers, it makes it really hard for folks to actually care about cooks or to put cooks first. We're seeing a huge rise of small-batch, artisanal, ethically-produced food products, and it's amazing. There's entrepreneurs. I know so many of them. Their hearts are really in the right places, but they are competing against an industry that doesn't have the ethical standard that they do and is able to produce products that are at a lower price point. And they can use the money that they're making to get more consumers and more eyeballs on what they're doing. It's just such an uphill battle.
SOLEIL: So, your statement, right, "the food industry doesn't care about cooks," there's so many reasons why. There's so many contours to that statement. So, how do you get the consumer, how do you get diners to care about cooks?
CHARLEY: I don't think that-- The reason I'm so excited to come on the show is 'cause I don't get to talk about this that often. We can't lead of with the political logic or even the emotional logic behind why we should care about cooks because consumers, and all people really, are naturally predisposed to be self-centered. And especially the consumers that we're going after, the parents and the people who are purchasing for their families, they have real needs, and they have real stresses. And so, we acknowledge and empathize with them by solving for those problems. But hopefully, through the experience and through the relationship that they're able to develop with a cook week over week, relying on someone to help them with something they're stressed about, they're able to see the value in more interpersonal relationships.
I think overall, on the high macro-macro scale, I think it's something that we're already, it's a trend that's already happening. We're not starting or catalyzing this movement. I call it the backlash to the industrial revolution where folks no longer want uniform, cheaply-made, commodified goods. They're looking for things that are unique, that are representative of relationships, and that are diverse in a very human way.
So, if you look at Etsy and Kickstarter and Patreon and just even hipsterism, all of these trends, in the food world, we're talking about artisanal, small-batch, ethically-made, organic, all of these are right around the corner from just saying "non-commercial, from a person, from a human."
ALAN: So, it's interesting because those examples you brought up, they all have their own different trends and their different flavors: Kickstarter, Patreon, Etsy. Etsy went public and is now worth a lot of money, although they've had some financial issues, I think, in the way I understand. Some of these organizations have become huge. So, how do you make sure that what you're talking about, wanting something that is born out of relationship and not artificial, how do you make sure that's not just good-looking paint or a regular capitalist [inaudible]?
CHARLEY: Yeah. How do we walk the walk?
CHARLEY: This is something that we've been tortured by since the starting of this business. 'Cause to a certain extent, there's a lot of talking that we have to start doing. But just recently, we were able to start making the first moves down the path of becoming a more value-sharing organization rather than an extractive platform.
ALAN: What do you mean by that? And what's an example of an extractive platform?
CHARLEY: Well, so, if you look at a company like Uber--not to jump on the anti-Uber train, but--their business is built off of their drivers, and their drivers don't really have agency, they don't have transparency, and they definitely don't have ownership of the company. And they're serving a commodity. So, they're serving something, a ride, that Uber has openly admitted that they're trying to replace with driverless cars, and that just creates a dangerous world where the drivers don't have some basic working rights, and they're going to continue being squeezed out of the business.
So, for us, the way that we took the first steps of addressing those issues, ownership. Starting in 2017, 20% of company is reserved for cooks. So, we're gonna have provider stock options. It'll be based on the engagement and the way they're using our platform. Agency: Cooks have always inherently had a lot of agency in the way that they run their business on our platform, but we actually created a cook council. So, now quarterly, there will be a cook council that then elects a person to sit on our Board of Directors. Which is, if you're familiar with business, is a pretty significant voice in our company. Right now, it's just three seats, and that means that they make all the big decisions alongside myself and my co-founder. And third was transparency, which means that--and we've already been doing this, but--we very much treat our cooks as partners and as a part of the business. So, when there are big decisions to be made, or we need feedback around certain products, product releases, we consult our cooks. And we're gonna continue to try and hold ourselves to a higher standard.
I think the goal is for us to eventually become a type of organization that is not simply for-profit or non-profit or even just the B corp, but something that can be really thoughtful about how it provides value to the different stakeholders and the different people involved.
SOLEIL: So, it seems though, the thing that comes along with that level of thoughtfulness and giving people agency and being transparent, the thing that comes along with it is it runs counter to rapid growth.
CHARLEY: Totally, totally. And I mean, that's why we've had to go--the reason we're not a cooperative today--we need to make sure that we have the ability to raise capital so that we can grow the business to a place where it's self-sufficient. We need to make sure that we have the agency to make decisions and iterate quickly without having to get buy-in from every single person. And so, I think that in the different phases of an organization, there are different sort of rollouts of how you can have a truly equitable organization. The goal will be one day to eliminate the need for there to be a CEO at this company. I know that sounds ridiculous to say, but I do think that there just are intermediate steps missing from our idea of full-on cooperatives and our shared value in where we are right now.
ALAN: What does that look like? I don't wanna get too far in the weeds of this. But we've touched on briefly that you're really at this interesting intersection where you're in the tech world, and you described all of these conversations you have with people in tech and some of the ways you're pushing back against particular trends. And you're also talking from a food justice angle. Do your investors say like, "What are you doing here?"
CHARLEY and SOLEIL: [chuckle]
CHARLEY: The investors call us Socialists.
CHARLEY: We get flak from all sides. From traditional tech folks, I think there's a lot of doubts and a lot of just questions about our ability. I think a lot of the start-up world is pattern matching. It's saying that this is what worked here, and this is how people did things. And your ability to pattern match or perform in that function represents how capable you are. And so--
ALAN: Sorry. I'm just not catching that. What do you mean my pattern matching?
CHARLEY: This whole idea of Uber for X.
ALAN: Oh, yeah.
CHARLEY: Or even just fundraising. There's a dance and a song you gotta go do to fundraise.
ALAN: Mmhmm, yeah.
CHARLEY: And a lot of times, to have someone go out and say, "No, I'm not doing that," or "Here's why that's wrong," can be abrasive. And so, we have to be very thoughtful and finesse and specific with who we're having conversations with. On the public side, we also get the, "Here's the evil tech corporation coming in. They're sending me emails, and they want me to put my credit card on their website. And they're gonna come in and displace people and take advantage of their workers." And I understand that. I totally get why people have predisposed notions about what Josephine could or couldn't be.
SOLEIL: OK, I wanna put this in the context when obviously, I have been a chef for a long time--I've been in the restaurant industry for a long time--and the question that's always on my mind and the minds of lot of cooks is what is the future of a restaurant? Or can a restaurant exist without exploitation? And it seems like Josephine is an attempt to make that happen or just make food move from Point A to Point B with as minimal exploitation as possible. So, is that model even applicable to restaurants? Can a restaurant exist? I mean, what do you think? It's a philosophical kinda question I guess.
CHARLEY: Yeah. That's so interesting. I think that we are, through technology, not just in food but in many, many aspects of our lives, we're reaching a fork where we have a version of food that is commodified, that's food for fuel. How are we gonna feed 10 billion people? And then we have a version of food that is like uniquely human, whether you wanna call it an experience or relationship, novelty, whatever. There's a fork in that road, and those things are gonna start to become very distinct from each other. So, restaurants, historically have played both of those roles. And I think more and more so what you're gonna see is a split. You're gonna have more and more organizations that are like, "OK, we're gonna automate production. We're gonna cut costs. We're gonna try and take all the savings and make higher quality, more accessible food products," versus restaurants where we're like, "We're gonna infuse more personality and more unique catered experiences for folks to go and have an emotional reaction to."
And I think that's gonna actually apply to a lot of other aspects. It's already happening in art. Our tastes are being shaped such that we value things that are unique or original, but if you think about music, right, imagine a world in the future where you have like, "Oh, I'm feeling in this mood, and I just wanna listen to these types of sounds," and it's like software-generated music. Versus artist-centric music where you wanna know about the person and their background and their lyrics, and it's very uniquely human. So, philosophically, I feel like that distinction isn't really front of mind for a lot of folks yet, but I think we're heading in that direction.
SOLEIL: A lot of the things you've been saying really contrast with other food tech, I think, when it comes down to labor transparency. And that is something that I've seen a lot in restaurants. The restaurant is almost built, traditionally, to hide labor.
CHARLEY: Hide people, yes.
SOLEIL: Yes. And that's why we have servers 'cause the servers are supposed to not sweat, not be tired looking. They're just supposed to present the food from a void. You eat the food. You don't know where it came from. But Josephine obviously, right, you meet the cook. You have to talk to them. You know their name. It's sad that that's radical.
CHARLEY: Right. Empathy is not easy, right? And so much industry has been built on convenience, which means at a certain point, what's easier is actually just hiding the other people from the experience. That's why we have so many delivery services. It's why we have so many restaurants now that are completely run by robots front of house.
ALAN: It sounds like a different world sometimes, I gotta say.
CHARLEY: Well, I mean, I'm actually thinking of even Tokyo, Japan, right? Like the sushi restaurants where it's just like whoosh, food right in front of you. [chuckles]
ALAN: Sure. Yeah, definitely.
CHARLEY: But yeah, the thing is like, being empathetic is not convenient in a world where there's a lot of pain and suffering, but it can be very fulfilling. And it can be very meaningful. And I think that's almost the shift that I think that's gonna happen as millennials start to have kids or grow older and turn to a different mindset. I think it's gonna be maybe the goal isn't to just be the happiest or to have the most happiness. Maybe there are other metrics that are more important.
SOLEIL: Right. 'Cause empathy [inaudible].
CHARLEY: Oh, totally. I mean, it's funny. I get a lotta flak for apologizing too much to our cooks in saying like, "I'm sorry. We're not living up to the standard that I have for what we should be doing for you." Because so much of like, outside of the product, outside of how we're educating our cooks, so much of our social role is to tell cooks, "Your food is amazing. You're amazing. You deserve to run a business. You deserve to make money. Don't underprice your food. Don't do things that don't make sense for your lifestyle. Stop undercompensating yourself or letting that happen," specifically with the demographics that we're working with. But there's guilt there in if we're not hitting that benchmark, which often we aren't, right? We're a start-up that's trying to figure things out. If we're not meeting that benchmark, we are partially continuing to support the inequity that's happening in those worlds. So, it's not all rainbows and butterflies. [laughs]
ALAN: Yeah. Yeah.
SOLEIL: Yeah. I mean, when you talk about mitigating gentrification, right, for a lot of people--a lot of millennials--a lot of us are gentrifiers because we don't have a lot of money. And so, you make choices about where to live, and that means you may be gentrifying. And a lot of my peers have angst about it, right? They don't know what to do 'cause it's such a big, systemic problem. It's not just on the individual really, but about redlining and about the whole real estate game and loans. But when it comes down to the individual and the guilt and all of that stuff, I've always thought that the solution, at least for that small, small problem, is to know your neighbors and not just wait for them to get priced out--
CHARLEY: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
SOLEIL: --so that people who you're comfortable talking to move in, in their place. I guess my question is, are there any stories or things that have come out of those interactions?
CHARLEY: Some of the first people that I met when I moved to Oakland were pillars in the Black urban ag community. These were, they call themselves Farmhers, really badass women. And I'd go over and sit and watch them interact with their communities, and they basically educated me on pretty much every justice issue that I've since become a proponent of or become like a champion for.
And one of the challenges, or one of the first lessons I remember having, was this woman, Wanda, who was actually a Josephine cook. And she was talking about this discomfort and this sense of guilt that I might have in those scenarios. And her perspective was sometimes the best thing you can do is lean into that discomfort and sit with it and understand that there's no easy solution, and there's no way that you can just put it in a box and fix it and ship it away. But to almost show solidarity in empathizing with the fact that a lot of folks are not feeling as good or as comfortable or as happy as you are. And to have that reminder be something that motivates your work and your long-term aim towards more equity or less suffering.
ALAN: So, you've mentioned--and actually, I was gonna get to this--some people that you've learned from along the way. And you'd said that since you started this business, and since you started Josephine, you've become more and more interested in food activism and food justice. I wanna hear in a bit more detail, who have you learned the most from during this time that maybe you feel like should be here talking to us as well?
CHARLEY: Oh, a million percent. I almost emailed you before coming, being like, "You should definitely talk to Wanda and Brandy and Kelly." They're specific folks who-- And a lot of them are heads of non-profits, and a lot of them are mothers, and a lot of them are farmers and cooks. But they're the faces of a truly grassroots movement. Wanda, for example, lives in a house in Berkeley that is essentially an urban farm. There's stuff growing all around her house, and her door is like a revolving door. There's always people coming in, walking away with herbs or homemade goods, food. And she's pretty much always in her kitchen just serving the community. And for her, a lot of it has been around specifically racial justice, teaching her Black community or healing the wounds the Black community has in relation to agriculture. So, Wanda always says, "How can we go and reclaim the gardens and reclaim the earth as a healing and powerful place for us?" And that's what she's dedicated her whole life to.
Watching folks like Wanda and the way that they interact was really the inspiration for how we wanted to build Josephine to support those people, to champion them. Wanda does the most important work. She's impacted people's lives in a deep and significant way. And she might not be famous, and she might not have like a million followers on her social media. But I think she deserves to be fulfilled for that.
Another person is this guy, Matt Tsang, who runs it's called Growing Leaders program at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. So, in 2014, this public school had a-- So, the public school's 65% students of color. Over half of their students are eligible for free, reduced-price lunch. They had a gardening and cooking program that had been started by this guy, Matt, over the course of 17 years. The funding for that was about to be cut by the government. 'Cause Berkeley was getting wealthier. Meanwhile, the students, the families that were going to the school, were not necessarily getting wealthier.
So, we were able to step in and offer Josephine as a solution to try and self-fund this program. We added an entrepreneurship elective for the 8th graders where they're managing the sales and fundraisers they're doing twice a month where they're selling the food that the 7th graders are cooking using produce that the 6th graders are growing in the gardens. And that program now, they're about to hit $100,000 in sales over three years. But Matt is the single person who created that program from front to end and allowed for every step of the way for it to exist. And I'm not gonna say it's a thankless job 'cause he's a hometown hero. But he's so dedicated to that program in a way that people often question. They're like, "Oh, why doesn't Matt do something else? Why doesn't he open up his restaurant or do things?" That's exactly what he wants to be doing, and I think that it's the most worthy cause, and we should be serving folks like that.
ALAN: Thank you so much for joining us. This was awesome.
CHARLEY: No, thank you all. I think it's so amazing that y'all are running this podcast and doing this program. It's not a conversation that I get the opportunity to dive into very frequently. You know, if I'm on a panel or depending on context, I have to be careful. And I think that this is the most important conversation. And so, I appreciate y'all creating space for it.
SOLEIL: So, where can we find you on the Internet?
CHARLEY: You can always visit at Josephine.com. But if you wanna follow our thoughts or what we're going through as an organization or as a team, I would say our blog is actually the best place. So, it's Blog.Josephine.com.
ALAN: Thanks for listening to Racist Sandwich. If you like the show, please tell your friends about it and send us any feedback you might have. We're on Facebook and Twitter @RaceAndFood and at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have an Instagram account.
SOLEIL: Yay! Yeah, I'm the only one who updates it, guys!
ALAN: I'm gonna get to it...eventually.
SOLEIL: [laughs] But it's got all sorts of weird stuff that I see and we see around about in Portland. And yeah, you can just kind of goggle at that stuff with us.
ALAN: Follow a different kind of food Instagram account @RaceAndFood.
SOLEIL: Our show is recorded at KBOO Community Radio in SE Portland and at XOXO Outpost. We're also produced by Alan Montecillo.
ALAN: That's me.
SOLEIL: Yeah, that's him. Jen Tam designed our logo. Our music comes from AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.
Our next episode, we're talking with Celeste Noche, a Pinay freelance food photographer, about aesthetics and about the food media and about kind of what it means to have politics applied to your food photography.
ALAN: We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks so much for listening.
Transcribed by StoryMinders