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20 Inspiring women who are changing the way we eat

Adriana Velez is Food Editor for SheKnows. She spent her formative years in Brooklyn, which pretty much explains everything about her. She now lives somewhere else and has discovered life after kale and kombucha. She's written for Civil ...

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20 Inspiring Women in Food

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#1/21:

20 Inspiring Women in Food

SheKnows combed through dozens of nominations to select our group of 20 (well, technically 22!) Inspiring Women in Food #SheKnows100.

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Danielle Nierenberg; Louisiana

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Danielle Nierenberg; Louisiana

Can we solve world hunger and protect the environment at the same time? Some say it’s impossible, but journalist and activist Danielle Nierenberg believes we can do both — and she should know. Nierenberg spent two years traveling through sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia, meeting farmers and documenting their efforts to grow food under difficult circumstances without harming their local ecosystems. She found that the key is by supporting food sovereignty: allowing people the right to grow food and feed themselves the way they best see fit.

Nierenberg is the founder of Food Tank, an organization focused on “building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.” Through Food Tank she draws attention to solutions people have created, and she helps global leaders, activists and organizations connect with each other so they can help support and enable these solutions. Her work is all about giving people the power to feed themselves and care for their environment, and she gives me hope that both are possible.

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Leanne Brown; New York

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Leanne Brown; New York

Open up one of those gorgeous, glossy food magazines celebrating wholesome, seasonal cooking and one thing becomes pretty clear: They’re mostly written for cooks with at least middle-income resources. But social scientist and cookbook writer Leanne Brown believes good food belongs to everyone. She created the blog and cookbook Good and Cheap specifically for lower-income families like the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition recipients she met working on her master’s degree at NYU Food Studies and Policy program. This is a cookbook born of compassion written to help struggling people nourish themselves.

Brown created Good and Cheap as a free, downloadable PDF to make it accessible to all. It’s been downloaded 900,000 times. She also created a Kickstarter campaign for a “get one, give one” print run. For every purchase of Good and Cheap a free copy would be given away. It became the most successful cookbook on the platform ever, raising $144,841 and won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Judge’s Choice Award. Next, came a second edition — this time professionally published by Workman Publishing, which continues to honor Brown’s get one, give one model (it’s now in its third printing). To date, over 770 organizations that work with low-income families and individuals have received and distributed Good and Cheap.  

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Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez; New York

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Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez; New York

Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez’s company Hot Bread Kitchen is so beloved by New Yorkers for its handmade, multi-ethnic breads it’s almost easy to forget its social mission. But knowing that the business supports two employer-driven workforce development and business incubation programs makes those corn tortillas, Armenian lavash crackers, Moroccan m’smen and stollen all the more delicious. Professionally Rodriguez came from an international social justice and public policy background and had just interviewed at Women’s World Banking when a trip of the tongue (Women’s World Baking) inspired visions of an international women’s baking collective.

It took a few years. Rodriguez earned a master baker certificate from The New School and worked as the first female baker at restaurant Daniel Bouloud before she launched HBK from her Brooklyn kitchen in 2007. In the early days, she made her own tortilla masa using a bicycle-run grinder. More remarkably, though, she invited immigrant women to share her vision, often producing breads inspired by recipes from their homelands. Rodriguez has won a Global Citizen Award from the Clinton Global Initiative, was named one of Crain’s 40 Under 40 and it wouldn’t be surprising if the new Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook (Clarkson Potter) won a few awards as well. But, her greatest achievement remains the many women now supporting their families thanks to her program.

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Karen Washington; New York

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Karen Washington; New York

She’s known as the queen for urban farming — the woman who started growing food in vacant lots long before it became fashionable. But, 30 years ago, Karen Washington was a single mom with two kids who had just bought a home in the Bronx. In her work as a physical therapist, she noticed her patients suffering the effects of nutrient-poor diets. Her own son was starting to suffer, too. And so, she taught herself how to garden by reading library books. Then, a neighbor began clearing trash from a lot across the street and together they created a community garden they called the Garden of Happiness. That was just the beginning for Washington.

Through a partnership with the New York Botanical Garden’s Green-Up program, Washington has been doing grassroots work mentoring a generation of urban gardeners who have turned vacant lots all over the city into community gardens where people grow their own fresh, healthy food. She also co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and most recently the cooperative Rise & Root Farm.

Washington’s efforts have won her a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award and in 2012 she was named one of Ebony’s 100 Most Influential African Americans. But for her, the rewards are the deliciousness of home grown food and the rewards of social justice. “To grow your own food gives you power and dignity,” she says. “You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family, and your community.”

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Sarah Wu; Illinois

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Sarah Wu; Illinois

For an entire school year, the provocative blog “Fed Up With Lunch” captivated parents of school-age kids with disheartening photos of lunches fed at a public school cafeteria — which she ate, by the way, or at least tried to eat. The author, known only as “Mrs. Q,” was anonymous. But she made it abundantly clear that she was horrified at the poor nutritional quality of those lunches, to say nothing of how unappetizing they were. Eventually the author unveiled herself as Sarah Wu, a school-based speech pathologist in the Chicago public school district.

Before long, Wu became a spokeswoman for the school lunch reform movement. In 2011, she published her book, Fed Up with Lunch, which chronicled the problem of food served at her school and at public schools around the U.S. It also offered resources for parents, administrators and policymakers who want to make effective changes. Wu has since taken a step back from her school food advocacy work, but her legacy remains. She made a big difference and helped accelerate the conversation about improving school food, even if we still have a long, long way to go to get there.

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Kirsten Saenz Tobey & Kristin Groos Richmond; California

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Kirsten Saenz Tobey & Kristin Groos Richmond; California

Two moms have taken an entrepreneurial approach to improving school lunches. Kirsten Saenz Tobey and Kristin Groos Richmond are co-founders of Revolution Foods, a Bay Area company that creates fresh, healthy, affordable lunches for school children. Their lunches meet USDA and Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requirements under the National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program guidelines. But, the point is actually to exceed these standards and provide meals that are truly nutritious, not just adequate. Revolution Foods serves over a million meals a day in 600 schools in cities all over the country.

But, Tobey and Richmond do more than serve lunch. The business also teaches nutrition programs in schools. And they’ve expanded to the retail market with packaged lunches and snacks made with whole grains and are free of preservatives. Fast Company called Revolution Foods one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies. With an expected revenue of $50 million in 2012. We have to say, women who make bank with good food are pretty darn inspiring.

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Kellee James; Maryland

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Kellee James; Maryland

It’s not especially sexy, but if we want organic and sustainable food to stick around we have to make sure the business end of it works — and well. That’s become the mission of Kellee James, founder and CEO of Mercaris. It’s a market data service and online trading platform for organic, non-GMO and other identity-preserved agricultural programs. In plain English: Mercaris provides producers and retailers market information that helps them make informed business decisions.

Mercaris almost didn’t happen, though. James’ first dream was to become the first African American equestrian to compete at the Olympics, but a back-breaking accident derailed that goal. She took that fierce determination and focus and earned an MBA and master’s in international development at American University. She then spent time working throughout Latin America, where she saw coffee farmers take their children out of school when coffee prices dropped. The experience made her want to find market solutions to environmental and social problems — and for James, sustainable food is key.

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Shauna James Ahern; Washington

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Shauna James Ahern; Washington

Long before going gluten-free became trendy, there were people with celiac disease who, for real, cannot eat gluten without getting horribly ill. Shauna James Ahern was diagnosed 10 years ago after years of suffering. She was relieved to have one very clear palliative to her condition: going gluten-free. This became the subject of her blog, Gluten-Free Girl.

Food became a major focus for James Ahern. But it’s not just about avoiding certain foods. For her, it’s about eating well to be well. As she rediscovered food, she began photographing what she ate. Four years later, she fell in love with Chef Daniel Ahern. They married and have a daughter now.

All the while, James Ahern has been writing. First, she penned a memoir, Gluten-Free Girl, a love story subtitled How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back... And How You Can Too. With her husband, she’s written cookbooks: Love Conquers All Including Food Allergies, Gluten-Free Girl Every Day and Gluten-Free Girl American Classics Reinvented. Both her memoir and her blog have given voice to the celiac community and helped countless people navigate their illness. And the recipes have helped people feed themselves to wellness.

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LaDonna Redmond; Illinois

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LaDonna Redmond; Illinois

LaDonna Redmond fought for fresh, healthy, organic food on the West Side of Chicago. When her son developed several food allergies at a young age, she knew she could help alleviate his suffering by feeding him pesticide-free, non-GMO, nutrient-dense food. But there wasn’t any in her west side Chicago neighborhood. So, she began growing it herself. Before long she had launched a mission to convert vacant lots in her community into gardens to help build a healthier food system. Then she got more political.

For communities like Redmond’s, the public health issue of violence is tied with the public issue of health. “I live in a community where I can get a semiautomatic weapon quicker than I can get a tomato,” she said in a TEDxManhattan talk. So she became a community organizer, founding the Campaign for Food Justice Now, a group that confronts the way racism, sexism and classicism affect the quality of food people have access to. As she puts it, “Food justice is not just about nutrition.” Redmond was named a Time Magazine Responsibility Pioneer in 2009 and is an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Fellow.

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Amanda Cohen; New York

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Amanda Cohen; New York

Amanda Cohen isn’t the first chef to consider the vegetable, but she sure did a lot to make veggies sexy. First with her award-winning vegetable restaurant, Dirt Candy, in New York City and then her comic book cookbook by the same name, Cohen has unlocked the flavors and versatility of vegetables and made them irresistible. Dirt Candy is the first vegetarian restaurant to earn two stars from The New York Times, and it’s received a nod from the Michelin Guide.

Cohen should also be credited for being among the first chefs to abandon the tipping system in favor of a 20 percent “administrative fee,” which she passes on to her entire staff, not just the servers, in the form of higher salaries. She’s been candid about the challenges of owning and running her own restaurant on her blog, and she’s an outspoken advocate for making female chefs more visible and recognized in the industry. Her advice for aspiring women is: “Do the work. There aren’t any shortcuts, there is no easy way, everything is twice as hard and takes twice as long as you thought it would, but that’s no excuse. Every day you buckle down and do the work.”

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Naomi Pomeroy; Oregon

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Naomi Pomeroy; Oregon

As a child Naomi Pomeroy helped her southern grandma, Vivian, garden and cook. She began her professional career with a catering company called Rip and an underground supper club called Family Supper with her partner (and later husband), Michael Hebb. That grew into a legit restaurant, along with two other acclaimed restaurants, Clarklewis and Gotham Building Tavern and Gotham Coffee Shop. Pomeroy and Hebb became the king and queen of the Portland food scene. They had a daughter together — and then it all crashed and burned. The acclaimed restaurants were losing money. Hebb walked and the couple eventually divorced. Their restaurants either closed or were sold.

That was just her first act, though. Pomeroy kept going by cooking. She became the chef at new restaurant, Beast, where she earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest 2014. With her husband, Kyle Linden Webster, she also opened a cocktail bar, Expatriate. And Pomeroy has competed in Top Chef and has been a guest judge on Knife Fight.

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Bree Miller; California

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Bree Miller; California

Bree Miller taught herself how to bake from YouTube videos. Now she owns her own cake company where she is head pastry chef. And she’s only 26 years old. Bree Miller started her cake business, Bree’s Cakes, as a side venture while working as pastry chef at Beverly Hills Japanese restaurant Katsuya. It quickly became successful enough to pursue full time. She managed to reel in celebrity clients (like Chrissy Teigen, Questlove and Miley Cyrus), thanks partly to her social media savvy — she has nearly 100,000 followers in Instagram.

Miller’s creativity seems nearly boundless. She can make a cake into just about anything: a sneaker, a Lamborghini — with doors that open. Her cakes come in flavors like cherry coke float. And she turns out other popular treats like mason jar cakes, cupcakes, cookies and pies. Recently, she made a cornbread cake with mashed potatoes “frosting,” macaroni and cheese and sweet potato “filling” and gravy glaze topped with fried chicken. And she made it look gorgeous.

Miller says the one thing that inspires her most in the food community is that “there aren’t many young, successful women in the food industry. I plan to break that stereotype.” She hopes to inspire other young women around the world to pursue their passion as she has. As a self-taught baker, she says the most important lesson she’s ever learned is to never give up. "Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to follow your dreams.“

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Maya Kaimal; New York

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Maya Kaimal; New York

Some of us can’t seem to get through the week without Maya Kaimal. That is, we rely on her refrigerated simmer sauces to feed our families something that takes zero effort but tastes homemade. Kaimal grew up learning to cook with her father, as he tried to recreate the flavors of his childhood in Kerala, India, and on visits to the motherland with her Auntie Kamala. While working as a photo editor, she wrote the cookbook Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India, which won the Julia Child Cookbook Award in the first cookbook category. Savoring the Spice Coast of India came next.

And then, in 2003, she left her career to launch a new venture with her husband, Guy Lawson: Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods. Kaimal uses quality, fresh ingredients to create her curries, inspired by her family recipes, and those sauces are sold nationwide. They are, hands down, a world apart from your average prepared food. I don’t know if she had exhausted working moms in mind when she started her business, but she certainly serves us well. Throw some chicken thighs and veggies into that sauce and dinner is ready in less than a half hour. Is Kaimal saving the world? Maybe not. But her curries save my family dinner night after night, and that means the world to me.

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Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs; New York

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Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs; New York

When The New York Times food editor Amanda Hesser left her job in 2008, she could have done just about anything. She had already written cookbooks and a memoir and won a James Beard award. So, she created an online community of cooks. Partnering with her also accomplished cookbook colleague, Merrill Stubbs, she founded Food52, where users could submit recipes for weekly contests. From the winning recipes, Food52 published the first-ever crowd-sourced cookbook through what has become a series in the Food52 imprint with Ten Speed Press.

Food52 has since evolved to include an online shop, a hotline for stumped cooks, columns and features. But what remains most impressive is the collaborative community spirit Hesser and Stubbs fostered with their website — one incredible feat for anyone familiar with the usual tenor of online communities. Above all else, Food52 wants you to cook to nurture yourself and your loved ones. It reminds us that we are not really alone in the kitchen, that anyone can become an expert and that we’re better cooks when we cook collaboratively.

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Ann Noble; California

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Ann Noble; California

A generation of women winemakers owe their start to University of California (Davis) Professor Emeritus of Viticulture and Enology Ann Noble. She taught the science of winemaking to thousands of students over her 28-year career. “I have always been fascinated by and easily distracted by aromas,” she confesses. Noble takes her science seriously and says she’s learned a lot by remaining willing to have her hypotheses proved wrong. Her advice for women in food is: “Be kind. Be flexible and willing to change.”

Noble is also known for her creation, the Wine Aroma Wheel, a tool that helps you observe more closely and describe more accurately the aromas of your wine. For those of us who usually find it pretentious and silly when guys jam their noses deep into a glass and claim to smell hints of quince and platypus musk, this is our decoder ring. “Showing people how easy it is to recognize and describe aromas provides an ah-hah experience,” she says. Ann Noble has empowered us ladies to speak authoritatively about wine, too.

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Nicole Taylor; New York

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Nicole Taylor; New York

Like so many ambitious women before her, Nicole Taylor left behind her small town to make it in New York City. But in Taylor’s case, the key to making it as a food writer and podcast host has been looking back — to her home in Athens, Georgia and to the traditions of African American cooking in the south. Taylor’s approach is to keep one eye on the future, documenting the next generation of home cooks and food entrepreneurs through her articles in publications like Cherry Bombe and through her podcast, Hot Grease. But she keeps herself rooted in history as well. In 2014, she produced a short documentary on the desegregation of an Athens drive-in restaurant. Her debut book, The Up South Cookbook, connects these two worlds in a deeply personal way. Taylor makes a conscious effort to promote women of color in food — both from the past and up-and-comers.

Taylor takes her inspiration from “unbought and unbossed” women like Malinda Russell, the first African American to publish a cookbook (1866). She’s inspired by their moxie. “Podcasting and writing a cookbook is 75 percent confidence and the rest execution,” she says. “Once you have an idea, nothing stands in your way except yourself.” She also credits her success to social media, which she says has “democratized the culinary world and continues to give one access to their tribe.” And then there’s the power of a boundless curiosity. “What I know is that nothing stays the same,” Taylor says. “Living well means constantly growing and re-trying that dish you hated as a kid.”

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Molly Wizenberg; Washington

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Molly Wizenberg; Washington

Ask an aspiring food writer who inspires her and she’s likely to include blogger and restaurateur Molly Wizenberg. She began her blog, Orangette in 2004, and it blew up. Since then, she’s married a man she met through her blog, opened two restaurants (Delancey and Essex) with her husband and written two memoir/cookbooks, A Homemade Life and Delancey. And she co-hosts a radio podcast called Spilled Milk with Matthew Amster-Burton.

Wizenberg’s writing and photos resonate with readers longing for something sophisticated but earthy, accessible but aspirational, reflective and sensuous. More than that, she dares to explore her struggles and lessons learned the hard way — from grappling with the death of her father to shaking the foundations of her new marriage by embarking on a gut renovation for a restaurant. No wonder Orangette won a James Beard Award for Individual Food Blog in 2015.

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Marciel Presilla; New Jersey

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Marciel Presilla; New Jersey

Cuban-born Chef and culinary historian Marciel Presilla has made herself the U.S. authority on Latin American food. She is the author of the most comprehensive book on Latin American cooking today, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. The book has won numerous awards, including the James Beard Cookbook of the year – an award she accepted just months after Hurricane Sandy flooded her two restaurants and her shop.

In addition to her accomplishments as an author, Presilla is chef and co-owner of Hoboken, New Jersey restaurants Cucharramama and Zafra, and co-owner of the shop Ultramarinos, all three of which she reopened after the flood. Just the year before she had been named James Beard Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic. And she been a guest chef at the White House -- por supesto! Clearly Presilla is an unstoppable force far stronger than any hurricane.

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Niki Nakayama; California

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Niki Nakayama; California

Los Angeles-based Niki Nakayama is known as the only female chef who prepares Kaiseki, a Japanese multi-course tasting meal that follows a formal structure around which the chef improvises. It stems from ancient Buddhist tradition and is practiced almost exclusively by male chefs. In fact, Nakayama works behind a partition so diners can’t see her — a male diner once spotted her in the kitchen and immediately turned heel and left. The food is exquisitely crafted using the finest seasonal ingredients.

Nakayama’s parents encouraged her to pursue a career as a chef, but they never imagined she would own her own restaurant. After studying at the Southern California School of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu of Culinary Arts), she worked as a sushi chef and the moved to Tokyo to work at her cousin’s ryokan (inn). It was there that she learned about kaiseki. It took 20 years before Nakayama realized her vision of creating her own kaiseki. In the meantime, she built a following at her own sushi restaurant, Azami, and a casual restaurant called Inaka.

Now at her restaurant n/naka, the chef may stop at your table after you finish eating. Diners are known to applaud her after their meal. Nakayama’s food is a contemporary take on the tradition, tailored for American fans of Japanese cuisine and emphasizing seasonality. In fact, she collaborates with a gardener to grow some of her own produce to exact specifications. She does it all with a certain quiet confidence in her unique vision.

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