Thinking About...A Great Food Scene

Last night I attended a Public Square event hosted by the Richmond Times Dispatch. It featured a presentation of recent survey results focused on Millennials and specifically what it takes for a city like Richmond to attract and retain the coveted young professional demographic. Several members of the City Church community were key leaders of the survey process, analysis, and presentation. I was impressed by their work, their thoughtful recommendations, and by the engagement of the gathered crowd. I’ve been thinking about some of their findings, especially the focus on a great food scene. Every Week is Restaurant Week Michael Philips, a reporter from the Times Dispatch, delivered what may have been the soundbite (pun, partially intended) of the night when he said: “Richmond, where every week is restaurant week.” He (and others) touted Richmond’s food scene for offering a diversity of food at a variety of price points, often served in fun and eclectic venues. This food scene, the presenting team insisted, should be celebrated, expanded, and leveraged to help make Richmond a great place for young professionals.

I realize that the Public Square was merely reporting results from a young professional survey. They were sharing ‘what is’ according to those surveyed, more than ‘what ought to be.’ The presenters conducted the survey; they didn’t control the results.* Also, as much as the next guy, I love to eat. I look forward to trying new restaurants when they open. I spend hours each summer in my own ‘urban garden’. I even pickle. But I’m left feeling that building Richmond’s identity around a dynamic food scene (for, let’s face it, largely white, middle to upper class professionals) is an under-nourished vision.

The Food Insecure As I listened to the findings about Richmond’s young professional desire for great food, I couldn’t help but think about the emails I’ve been getting the past six weeks about the shuttering of Freedom House--an organization focused on ending hunger and homelessness in Richmond which also operated the Conrad Center. The Conrad Center--located on Oliver Hill Way across from the City Jail and (intentionally?) far removed from the buzzing foodie scene--served daily meals to Richmond’s food insecure. Since its inception, City Church has served a monthly Sunday lunch at the Conrad Center.

As we seek to be a “community for the common good”** we must account for all of Richmond’s citizens. Fostering gourmet farm-to-table experiences for those with disposable income has its place, but so must providing food for the city’s hungry. What if Richmond (led by its Millennials) weren’t only known as a great food scene because of trendy restaurants, but because all have access to healthy and satisfying food?

A Great Food Scene Food matters. It really does. The world’s ancient wisdom tells us as much. We know that community coalesces around shared meals, broken bread, and poured wine.*** Jesus taught and embodied as much. Here’s Jesus’ description of a great food scene in Luke 14: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Food matters. Not just what we eat, but the who we eat with.

Richmond could start to become a great food scene for all by: continuing regular meal service at the Conrad Center (or another location like the Grace Street Salvation Army), lobbying for access to affordable neighborhood grocery stores for every citizen (not just premium chains like Trader Joe's for some), by extending the reach of community gardens, and furthering the efforts of preventative public health through education towards healthy eating and living.

*Although it would be fair to critically assess the parameters of the study to determine how representative it is of the Richmond area as a whole. ** Language used by the presentation team that I really like. *** Evidenced last night by the ‘after party’ event at Pasture.