Can soup save the city?

CINCINNATI (AP) — The month of cauliflower was weird. Like, ‘What do we do with all this cauliflower?’ weird. They made soup.

Then, there were the radishes. So. Many. Radishes. They turned them into soup.

Chef Suzy DeYoung and her “Bucket Brigade” of local chefs are on a mission: Use donated produce to make soup. Use soup to save the city.

Sort of.

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” said DeYoung, 57. “So if we start with food — the basic necessity of food — the schools have a better chance of doing their job.”

It’s called La Soupe (that’s “süp,” not “sü-PAY”) and here is how it works: Stores such as Kroger and Jungle Jim’s donate produce they would otherwise throw away, and DeYoung and a team of volunteer chefs turn it into soup. Then, they give that soup — or, sometimes, stew or gumbo or casserole — to people who are hungry.

It’s shameful, DeYoung said, how much food gets thrown away while so many go hungry. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted — more than 20 pounds per person per month.

Globally, one of every four calories never gets eaten.

DeYoung does what she can. La Soupe collects about 4,000 pounds of produce a month. There are more than 60 volunteers who haul soup and produce to and fro, from stores to chefs to hungry mouths.

Soup is delivered to five schools every Friday and to another six or seven schools and churches during the week. DeYoung also hosts cooking classes at Oyler School, DePaul Cristo Rey High School and John P. Parker School. Soon, she’s launching another class at Child Focus in Mount Washington.

La Soupe started about three years ago, and it’s a model that’s learning as it grows. Where are the best schools to host classes? What recipes are good to share, easy for young students to recreate with what they have at home? What is the best way to bring onboard more chefs, get more donations, attract more volunteers?

Education is priority No. 1, DeYoung said; it’s the best shot at a better life for Cincinnati’s children. “But if you can’t learn because you’re not eating, the answer has to be in the food.”

DeYoung uses words like “rescued” and “saved” when she talks about produce. Fire and police stations are safe houses for babies, she said; La Soupe is the safe house for fruits and vegetables.

“We’re the last stop,” she said. “If it hits us and it’s usable, we use it.”

If it’s not usable, DeYoung passes it on to pig farmers down the road. She doesn’t want to preach, but she does want change — she wants people to see food how she sees it.

“I never looked at it as disposable,” she says.

DeYoung grew up in Mount Lookout. Her father, Pierre Adrian, was head chef at the Maisonette in Cincinnati, and her grandparents were chefs in New York. DeYoung and her sister co-ran La Petite Pierre in Madeira until DeYoung split off to focus on La Soupe.

She was born to be a chef. And she’s still a chef, but now, she’s a teacher, transportation manager and beggar, too. She hates asking for money — “It’s so uncomfortable,” she said — but she hates even more the thought of doing nothing. And to change how a generation eats? That’s expensive.

Cincinnati is speckled with food deserts on the United States Department of Agriculture’s map. USDA defines a food desert as an area where residents are low-income and have little access to healthy food. There are dozens of deserts in the I-275 loop.

For its population, Cincinnati needs 10 more grocery stores to catch up with the national average, said Renee Mahaffey Harris, chief operating officer of the Avondale-based Center for Closing the Health Gap. Without a nearby grocer — and without a car to get to one farther away — people turn to convenience stores, where options are limited and less-healthy.

Good food is but one in a long list of necessities, Harris said, but it truly is life and death. In 2010, Cincinnati had 1,400 diet-related deaths, she said — deaths from diseases attributable, at least in part, to food. That includes diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

“That does tell you, we have a lot of work to do,” Harris said, “because what you eat does affect your overall health.”

“Hello, everyone! I’m Suzy.”

DeYoung is standing in the cafeteria at John P. Parker elementary in Madisonville. It’s evening. Class let out hours ago, but the building is still bustling. Students race around the gym playing basketball. In the cafeteria, parents huddle around tables with their young children, taste-testing soup and listening to DeYoung.

She shares the “secret” to seasoning food. She teaches the children how to chop and peel vegetables, then she lets them practice on piles of produce.

On one corner of the stage, there’s a stack of new slow-cooker Crock-Pots that will be given away. That practice started after DeYoung realized how many families are lacking basic cooking resources.

John P. Parker is a relatively small school — 263 students at last count. It’s about 95 percent economically disadvantaged, a measure that looks at how many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. It’s the sort of school, said 38-year-old Be Madison, a parent volunteer, where a free meal on Fridays can make a big difference.

It’s a “sigh of relief” for parents, Madison said, “to know they’re not going to have to worry about dinner.”

Madison is trying to change how she shops and cooks, she said. It’s a learning process. And she’s learning a lot from La Soupe. It turns out it’s pretty easy to stick to a budget, she said — “once you eliminate hot Cheetos and Kool-Aid.”

“You can’t do something you’ve never been taught,” she said. “. If we can teach parents how to feed the kids, then the kids will know how to feed their children.”

As the tri-state emerges from the recession and more people land jobs, one side effect is they get kicked out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, said Freestore Foodbank President/CEO Kurt Reiber. In the past, the freestore would serve roughly 8 million meals a year, Reiber said. This year, it’s on track for 23 million.

The goal is to get people to self-sufficiency, Reiber said, where they can shop, cook and eat well on their own. He’s glad programs like La Soupe are drawing attention to the issue and fighting for change.

DeYoung’s father died in middle age, and she started her first restaurant, in part, to carry on his legacy. He was a great chef who didn’t get to cook long enough, she said.

With La Soupe, though, she started it because she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t help it. She couldn’t stop thinking about how much food gets thrown away.

And while there are a lot of programs that focus on food, she likes her model because it leans on chefs.

The challenge, said Orchids at Palm Court Executive Chef Todd Kelly, is using vegetables — “icky” vegetables — to make food kids will like. La Soupe drops off produce once a week at Orchids, Kelly said, and it’s like a puzzle figuring out what to create.

Once, it was about 50 pounds of potatoes and a dozen stalks of celery, Kelly said. Another week, it was artichokes and cardoons. Those fiber-heavy thistles are great, Kelly said; “I absolutely love them. . But it’s not exactly a fan favorite, where kids are going, ‘Woo! Cardoons!.'”

Kelly committed to La Soupe about six or eights months ago. Orchids included, the Bucket Brigade is now 19 members strong.

“It’s not going to solve world hunger,” Kelly said, “but it’s definitely going to help do a dent.”

La Soupe has a café location on Round Bottom Road near Newtown. It’s French, but it’s on a rural street in eastern Cincinnati. The next street over is dubbed “Heroin Alley” for the number of overdose victims it sees. La Soupe’s slogan is “A French Roadside Soup Shack,” words not often stuck together.

It’s closed on Mondays. But, frankly, La Soupe is not very good at being closed. Shortly before noon one Monday, an order came in for seven croque monsieur sandwiches and as many soups. OK. Then, it was a steady line of customers — some regulars stopping by to chat; a hungry couple out for a walk with their horse-sized dog; a girl, weary of sandwiches for lunch, who heard about La Soupe through a friend.

It’s always like that, DeYoung said. Always busy. Always running. Always brainstorming the next big idea.

In Lower Price Hill one day, she and a few La Soupe volunteers are teaching some Oyler High School students how to make cookies. Several are perplexed by the mixer. They’ve never seen one before.

That’s the reality, DeYoung said. A lot of the students she meets don’t have an oven at home. One girl said her family doesn’t have a fridge.

The Oyler cooking class was DeYoung’s first, and it meets every Monday after school. Each student has a Crock-Pot now, and when DeYoung teaches a recipe, she sends everyone home with enough ingredients to replicate it for six people. That way, they can go home and cook for their families.

One Monday, they learned how to make Crock-Pot lasagna. Another, it was chicken cacciatore. Junior Chris Lewis was there. He loves the cooking class because it gives him a reason to show up for school.

“You know how Mondays are,” he said.

Lewis, 18, wants to be a chef once he graduates, and in fact, he’s starting an apprenticeship this summer with Cincinnati chef Jean-Robert de Cavel. That’s the result of connections Lewis made through DeYoung and La Soupe.

DeYoung loves Lewis’ story, because chefs are always bellyaching about how they can’t find quality employees. Well, here’s the answer, she said: They can volunteer with La Soupe, teach cooking classes, and find and train their own future chefs.

Problem(s) solved.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,

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