Eat for Equity dinner brings FEED Kitchens a little closer to fruition

Ricketts far left, Bilyeu far right, Photo credit: Jessica LevineRicketts far left, Bilyeu far right, Photo credit: Jessica LevineTwelve courses that took two days to prepare fed a full house – literally -- for the sixth Eat for Equity benefit dinner. On Saturday, Jan. 26, Rebecca and Marti Ryan opened their home to more than 80 diners to raise money for the FEED Kitchens, a Northside Planning Council project.

Rebecca welcomed the guests with a little humor from a balcony overlooking the spacious kitchen.

“We are so glad you’re here,” she said. “We hope you go through our cabinets and check out everything the house has. Absolutely make yourselves at home.”

Founder of Eat for Equity’s Madison chapter, Stephanie Ricketts, knew Marti Ryan from the Willy Street Co-op, where Ryan serves as president of the board and Ricketts works as board liaison. Ryan also had connections to the FEED project, as a member of the Northside Planning Council.

When Marti came to Ricketts with the idea to hold a dinner for the FEED Kitchens, Ricketts loved the idea.

“It was just such a perfect alignment with what our organization does,” she said. “We said yes immediately.”

The Food Enterprise and Economic Development (FEED) Kitchens will include five commercial kitchens available for rent by the hour by food business entrepreneurs and community members, among others.

Since current health codes require the use of a certified commercial kitchen when processing food intended for sale, entrepreneurs and hobbyists often face costs they can’t afford.

“Local food system development is really important,” Ricketts said. “And FEED Kitchens fills this incredible need in our community.”

FEED has raised about $1.2 million, including loans, but it needs around $125,000 more, said Ellen Barnard, FEED’s project chair. This Eat for Equity dinner helped knock off nearly $1,600 from their fundraising goal.

The kitchens are set to open sometime between mid-August and September 1 at its location at NorthGate Shopping Center. If the financial goals aren’t met, they will still open as planned but possibly without all of the equipment installed, said Barnard in an email. 

 “I’m just really excited at the potential for more people in Madison to use locally grown products, especially at the end of the season,” Ricketts said. “You’ve got a million tomatoes, what are you going to do with them? You can’t make sauce, you can’t freeze them currently and sell them. But now [with the FEED Kitchens] you could. And that’s really exciting.”

Gardeners with abundant produce won’t be the only ones to benefit. One of Barnard’s favorite proposals for FEED Kitchens consists of a team of people who will be processing fresh produce to stock salad bars in every Madison public school.

The kitchens will also assist those who are considering going into the food business, but aren’t sure about the decision yet, Barnard said. Food Business 101, which will be open to anyone, will be designed to help potential food entrepreneurs decide “whether or not they have the temperament” for it and in what capacity.

Since Eat for Equity lacks a commercially licensed kitchen, they had to make the FEED the World dinner a private event. But invitations were easy to get from their Facebook page.

Past Eat for Equity events have consisted of sit-down meals, but this one featured 12 dishes passed around to the mingling guests. Every course was a traditional street cart dish from a different country, including empanadas from Mexico, spring rolls from Thailand, and samosas from India.

The idea for the theme came from one of Eat for Equity’s co-organizers, Casey Bilyeu. She, Ricketts, and the third co-organizer, Johnny Knight, make up the core group of cooks, all of whom are volunteers.

“We figured out how to make everything as we did it,” Bilyeu said, since she had never made any of the dishes before. “It’s professional, but if something doesn’t work, it [is] a learning experience. And I think people are okay with that.”

They try to use mostly organic and locally grown food. Because of limited access to local produce during the winter months, Ricketts held a dinner every other month since last September rather than every month. She plans to switch back to monthly events May through September.

The next dinner is scheduled for March and will raise money for Operation Fresh Start to start a youth farm.

At the FEED the World event, guests expressed appreciation for both the cause and the hosts. Doug Bilyeu, who came to support his daughter Casey without knowing about FEED Kitchens, said he could see organizations like Eat for Equity spreading to places outside of Madison. “The people are outstanding,” he said.

“Eat for Equity is starting to grow in its volunteer base which is really fun,” Ricketts said. “Anyone can volunteer – you don’t need to know how to cook, you don’t need to know anything, just want to do some fun work in the Madison community, and we’re down. We’ll take you.”