Partner Profile: Three Sisters Kitchen
In this month's partner profile, we hear from Anzia Bennet of Three Sisters Kitchen, a non-profit community food space in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and learn about the ways they have pivoted to deliver food boxes, connect with their community, and support local producers, artists, and cooks in the COVID era.
Three Sisters Kitchen uses the power and love of local food to create economic opportunity, improve community health, and bring our diverse communities together around the table.
Give us your elevator pitch!
Three Sisters Kitchen was born out of community conversations held from 2015-2017 with 2,000+ neighbors, farmers, ranchers, community-based organizations, social service agencies, and business owners who dreamed up a vision of a community food space that celebrates and supports existing and aspiring local producers, increases healthy food access, builds community through the sharing of food traditions, and offers meaningful opportunities to engage in, build, and benefit from a healthy local food system. We opened our doors in 2018 with a Community Classroom for hands-on food business, culinary, and health education; a Commercial Test Kitchen for manufactured foods exploration and processing; and a Local Foods Shop & Café to celebrate the bounty of New Mexico.
What is one thing that makes your organization stand out?
There are two guiding rules for our Community Classroom: 1) In exploring new or familiar foods, and the role of food in our lives, we focus on what is possible, what makes us feel connected to our food, to our families, to the land. Instead of making arbitrary rules about good or bad foods, we think together about how different foods make our bodies feel – what gives us energy, what brings comfort, what helps us feel strong. This simple shift in framing helps us think about what healthy relationships to food look and feel like, and about our roles in building a healthy local food system; and 2) All activities must feature at least one local ingredient – a simple way to learn about and celebrate the bounty of NM, and support local producers with our dollars.
Systems Leadership Approach
How does Three Sisters Kitchen partner with others to catalyze systems change?
We are committed to – and have learned so much from leaders fighting nationally for - high road industry practices: paying a living wage, providing benefits for employees, investing in professional development and training, and prioritizing local sourcing, in hopes that we can identify models and strategies that allow small food businesses in our state to lead with their values. We know that most small food businesses don’t have the benefit of grant funding, and we try to do all that we can to take risks that others aren’t able to, and share what we learn – both what works and what doesn’t – more broadly, so that we can contribute productively to the systems change we hope to see. We also believe that creating opportunities for learning, research, development, risk-taking, and lending for food entrepreneurs without financial capital, is meaningful and important.
How has COVID-19 impacted your community and how has Three Sisters Kitchen responded?
During this public health crisis, we have seen incredible job loss, fear, stress, and food insecurity in our community. In mid-March, we closed our Local Foods Shop and Café, shifted in-person workshops and trainings on-line, and pivoted from an in-person fruit and vegetable voucher program for 50 neighborhood households to an expanded food delivery program serving 150+ households – a program that would not be possible without local partners like MoGro Mobile Grocery and an incredible network of local growers and producers. Similarly, we shifted our Home Health Aide and Food Business Training Programs online and have been developing cooking classes with lots of new and existing partners. We have worked to redesign our commercial kitchen layout to safely accommodate the production needs of our Food Business Training Program graduates, and we are expanding our own product lines to generate revenue, and as a way to cross-train our restaurant staff. Lastly, we continue to find creative ways to celebrate food traditions and share food stories while staying home – our Cooking For Generations video workshops will now focus on audio production and podcasts as a powerful storytelling tool, and we are excited to share a Youth Cookbook and an Artist Recipe Exchange Cookbook online in the coming months. Each of these projects allows us to utilize grant funding to keep our staff employed, buy local food from local producers, and share resources with the artists, cooks, growers, and producers who keep our communities inspired, healthy and fed.
The pandemic has caused many regulations to be loosened and new partnerships to be formed. Of the changes you have seen and made, which would you like to maintain moving forward? Are you seeing steps that food systems leaders can take to ensure lasting change?
While everything feels so challenging and uncertain right now, we have been heartened by so many creative partnerships emerging. Internally, members of our staff who never had the chance to work and learn together are building new programs and getting to know each other in new ways. The shift to online workshops, while not fully accessible (limited wi-fi access, our limited language and interpretation capacity, and so many other barriers are real) has made it possible to connect with so many new people and partners, and creates a whole new type of community building and co-learning. It has been exciting to see small growers partner and build out multi-farm CSA’s and creative new distribution strategies, and to see more community members really value the local food system, get excited about growing their own food, and confront fundamental questions about who has access to land and water, who has access to capital, and how racism is imbedded in every facet of the food system. There seems to be a deeper understanding and appreciation for the essential work of growing and producing food, and of the failures of our national food system, and I hope that informs policy change moving forward. I also appreciate the concrete ways we are able to take care of each other in this moment – even simply wearing a mask is a way to show how we value community.
Over the past few weeks, the country has seen ongoing protests around systemic anti-Black racism. Systemic racism is not new, but there are more conversations happening around dismantling racism at the local, regional and national levels. How does Three Sisters Kitchen work to create a more equitable and explicitly anti-racist food system?
At Three Sisters Kitchen we believe that there is no food justice without racial justice. Our commitment to racial justice and equity informs our work, and is also always a work in progress. We center questions about where our food comes from, where we put our resources, who we partner with, who has access to our (physical and virtual) space, who feels welcome in our space, how and who we hire, who sits on our Board, whose expertise and experiences are centered in our programs, how we plan for new leadership, and how to think and learn together about the history and present realities of food injustice, anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and the realities of settler colonialism in our state.
Given what you know now, what is one thing you wish you’d done differently as the organization developed?
I wish I had more deeply understood that it is okay to move slowly when you are creating something. The most successful and fulfilling projects are those that we take our time with – investing in relationship building, allowing ourselves to step away and return fresh with new perspectives and ideas and the ability to see our own gaps and assumptions, spending time really listening to people. Even as an organization that prioritizes community-engaged planning, we still get swept up in what our Board Co-Chair Roberto Chene calls time oppression – pressure coming from funders and from ourselves to produce, produce, produce - as opposed to focusing intentionally on a process that has integrity, and trusting that it will take the time that it takes.
What is one of Three Sisters Kitchen’s proudest achievements?
We are celebrating our second birthday this August, and the community that we have built at Three Sisters Kitchen makes me so proud and appreciative every day. We welcomed over 500 people for our grand opening, and even more for our first birthday celebration. This year we plan to celebrate while staying at home, and reaching out to our partners to thank them for what we have built together has been really wonderful. I am especially proud of our team who has been so collaborative, and open, and creative in this current moment – their hard work has made it possible for us to get bi-weekly food boxes out to 150 households, continue purchasing beautiful local food from small producers, and think creatively about our future as an organization that centers justice and community.
What is one challenge you’re facing right now? Anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with?
Like most food business and non-profit organizations, we are facing an uncertain future. We have transitioned a 50-person fruit and vegetable voucher program to a 150+ food delivery program and are very aware of how much we have to learn in that realm. Similarly, we have closed our Local Foods Shop and Café and are focusing on the expansion of our value-added product line and the expansion of our program graduates’ manufactured lines. Working to redesign a sustainable business model that meets the needs of our community, keeps everyone safe, and keeps us afloat is pretty daunting, but we are trying to stay hopeful. I look forward to learning from FSLN members.
Have you created any useful processes/resources that you’re particularly excited about? If so, please share!
Our team has developed thorough safety plans for reopening to get our shared production spaces up and running safely in this challenging time – we are in the midst of figuring out what works, but we are happy to share our progress as a starting point for anyone interested. In addition, we continue to refine our food business and home health care training curricula and look forward to sharing them in the near future. We have a number of community cookbooks and food stories (audio and video) coming out this year that will be available on our website www.threesisterskitchen.org.
Any quotes or words of wisdom that you'd like to share with fellow FSLN members?
We continue to be inspired by all the good work, creativity, and openness to change across the Food Systems Leadership Network, and we hope to connect with more people committed to healthy, just food systems. We would love to learn with and from you, and are happy to share lessons learned at Three Sisters Kitchen! Find us at email@example.com, www.threesisterskitchen.org, or @ThreeSistersKitchenNM.
Photo Credits- Extended Play Photography and Three Sisters Kitchen