Editor’s note: After this story was published, Graham House resigned from the Roots Cafe.
When Matt Parris, CEO and founder of Roots Hummus, launched the Roots Foundation, he wanted to make the world a better place.
To be sure, companies with a forward-thinking sustainable ethos tend to draw in younger consumers, a demographic that helps drive Roots’ growth.
But this is no platitude, and a portion of the company’s hummus sales benefits the Roots Foundation and its work to support what Parris called “food-focused, project-based experiential education.”
In an effort to intertwine gardens, project-based learning and education, the foundation has supported the building of an outdoor classroom at Vance Elementary, a half-acre permaculture playground at Verner Early Learning Center in Swannanoa and gardens and outdoor classrooms at Montford North Star Academy.
“But this year, because of the pandemic, things are a bit strange,” said Jennifer MacDonald, who has scaled down her own job teaching Arabic to serve as the executive director of the nonprofit foundation.
Schools have in many cases moved indoors and online. “So one of the things we wanted to do was keep the conversation moving forward, keep the momentum going and the idea that growing things and being outside can be an integral part of the learning process,” she said.
To keep the conversation going and to honor teachers whose jobs now are more complicated than ever, the foundation created the Roots Teachers’ Lounge, a complimentary vegetable-centric happy hour set up in the hummus-makers’ $3 million, 27,000 square-foot production facility in East Asheville.
The lounge is open to teachers at private, public and charter schools, as well as homeschoolers. Farmers and anyone else in the food community are also invited to the table.
The dinners are held thrice-weekly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 4-6 p.m. There, teachers can collaborate while cross-pollinating with experts in outdoor education, urban farming and other topics pertinent to creating outdoor educational spaces.
In essence, the effort is to help make the process of creating outdoor learning spaces easier for teachers who already have their hands full.
The foundation even has an app under development to connect teachers to builders, volunteers and each other in a mission to help children learn through growing food.
“Food is central to what the foundation is about, and it’s central to the lounge as well,” MacDonald said.
Who’s behind the food?
In the Lounge, teachers are treated to seasonal dishes from executive chef Graham House, also of the newly opened Citizen Vinyl and the former Sovereign Remedies chef. Brett Suess, chef de cuisine, is the former Sovereign Remedies sous chef.
House left Charlie Hodge’s Sovereign Remedies in March with the intention of opening his own wood-fired restaurant concept Wild Child.
House had funding and a space secured in the River Arts District building where Roots Hummus once had a home base, just a few blocks away from what’s now New Belgium Brewing.
And then the world fell apart.
“My funding got cold feet, and I had to pivot and figure out what I was doing,” House said.
He connected with Parris and secured a gig working at Roots Hummus headquarters, creating a functioning cafe where he and Suess now cook meals for Roots staff. They’ve hosted the Teacher’s Lounge since May in the building, which shares a property with Highland Brewing Company.
Eventually, the lounge will move to Roots’ former home at 166 Haywood St., where Parris plans to open a cafe, market and deli. House still plans to find a home for Wild Child.
For now, House is managing food operations both for the Roots factory and the soon-to-open Citizen Vinyl, where he and Susannah Gebhart operate a restaurant and cafe called Session. Three nights a week, House returns to Roots to cook for teachers.
It’s a lot of work, but he remains passionate about giving educators free access to the vegetable-centric cuisine he said is similar to the inventive plates he turned out at Sovereign.
“My mom was a teacher, and I saw how much she worked before and after school,” House said.
He believes teachers and farmers are similarly underappreciated in work that, when brought together, has the power to change schools and more broadly the future of food sovereignty.
“You can teach anything through food, whether it’s counting seeds, measuring how far apart the plants are and cooking,” House said.
COVID and connections with food
Throughout COVID, people have become more connected with food and who grows it, if only to avoid the grocery store. Still, the time might be ripe for a curriculum change.
“The pandemic has made it blatantly clear how important this type of community-based effort is,” MacDonald said.
Food security and environmental sustainability have never been more important, she said.
“Feeling you have some sort of stake in your life. Nothing gives you that more than growing your own food source and getting the rest of what you need from farmers and the community, not from Amazon,” MacDonald said.
Schools are natural community hubs, and many have plenty of land. They seem like the perfect place to grow gardens, and with community investment, even larger scale food-growing operations are possible.
The pandemic has laid bare a multitude of things, including the fact that the food supply can be shaken and swayed, though it has not broken.
“We believe Roots can help be a channel for reconnecting and healing through food, and the channel that we’ve taken is through the schools,” Parris said. “Food has the power to pivot our society and our culture in a way that I don’t think anything else does.”
Parris said the ultimate vision is of local schools as food-focused centers where people with certain skill sets can contribute resources and connect to the community at large.
“The whole idea with this lounge is we provide space where teachers can be nourished and, in the process, share resources to help us pivot into food-focused learning,” Parris said.
He believes that the regular school curriculum, from science to math and beyond, can be taught through the lens of the garden rather than under fluorescent lights.
Wholesome and nourishing food has the ability to empower children, he said. But asking teachers to take that on alone is impossible.
“Being a teacher is very time consuming,” MacDonald said. “It takes up everything you have, and it’s the rare teacher who has the extra time to do a lot of investigation and planning.”
Public school teachers, she said, are particularly stretched to the limits, particularly in this weird new world.
“We take and take from our teachers and ask more and more and give them less, and we don’t have much of a mechanism in our society by which we take care of our teachers,” Parris said.
That’s why the Lounge was created; it’s meant to support teachers through food while connecting them to the right kind of help should they want it.
“The broader intention is that we can really localize food systems in a hurry if we’re focusing on schools as food-focused community centers,” Parris said.
Is shifting school curriculums to outdoor food based learning a bit on the radical side? Parris thinks so.
“In the true spirit of that word, it is,” he said.
The word radical is derived from the Latin word for “root,” and came to suggest changes at the very root of a system. Parris thinks it’s time for a radical change to education.
“We’ve got to pivot,” he said, using surely the biggest buzzword of 2020. “But not too hard. We just have to take care of each other and the planet and we’re going to figure out how — it’s an easy pivot, teaching through food, and it changes people’s lives when they have that connection.”
Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
Reach me: [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: To help classroom garden effort, Roots Hummus hires star chefs to feed teachers for free