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How a meal at an arts festival can build cultural bridges among strangers

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Members of the band River Whyless prepare vegetables for the Bonnaroots dinner. Photo by Bob Ferguson/Oxfam America

A southern fusion menu brings together music and food lovers with immigrants and refugee farmers.

Emily Torgrimson is the  executive director and co-founder of Eat For Equity. Laura Sohn, is director of sustainability for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. They are both Oxfam Sisters on the Planet Ambassadors.*

The problems of the world will not be solved at one dinner, but eating dinner with a diverse group of humans can make the problems of the world seem more manageable.

Oxfam America and Eat for Equity teamed up at Bonnaroo Music Festival 2013 to produce three small pop-up dinners in the campgrounds. The meals were free, but whatever guests donated went to support Oxfam’s work. Bonnaroo loved the idea of strangers coming together for a shared meal and a common cause, and decided to incorporate the “Bonnaroots” dinners into the festival’s annual programming. This Bonnaroo marked the fourth year of these community feasts.

Imagine 150 people, eating together family style at one long shared table, next to a stage at one of the biggest music festivals in the country. A team of volunteers from across the country prepares and serves the four-course dinner out of a makeshift kitchen tent. The ingredients for the feast come from local farmers, including women producers and immigrant growers.

Thanks to support from Bonnaroo, 100 percent of the ticket sales from the dinner are distributed from the Bonnaroo Works Fund, directly to Oxfam and Eat for Equity. We have fed well over 1,500 people, logged 5,000 hours of volunteer hours to produce the meals, and raised tens of thousands of dollars to support Oxfam and Eat for Equity.

The purpose of the Bonnaroots dinners is to use food as a point of connection, camaraderie, and impact.

Since the first Bonnaroots dinner, we’ve sourced food from small, local growers. This allows us to feature the best produce around, invest in local businesses, and build a community around food equity. This was our second year sourcing produce from the Nashville Food Project, an organization working to provide food to underserved communities. One of its programs, Growing Together, supports new immigrants and refugees in growing food as a pathway to building community and economic sustainability. Many of their producers – from Burma, Nepal, and Rwanda – were farmers in their country of origin.

Southern fusion

This year’s Bonnaroots menu was a fusion Southern meal, highlighting flavors from immigrant populations in Tennessee. Tennessee has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the country – however,  immigrants still make up less than five percent of the state’s total population (much less than the national average of 13 percent), and come primarily from Mexico, India, and China.

Emily Torgrimson (left) with volunteer servers before the Bonnaroots dinner. Photo by Bob Ferguson/Oxfam America
Emily Torgrimson (left) with volunteer servers before the Bonnaroots dinner. Photo by Bob Ferguson/Oxfam America

For the “traditional” Southern menu, we pulled in flavors of tamarind, ginger, coriander, turmeric, fennel, cardamom, and sumac. For example, we incorporated Sea Island Peas, a heritage stand of beans that evolved off the Georgia coast, into a Burmese tomato and tamarind chutney recipe. We folded chai spices into a traditional Southern coconut cream pie. Turmeric and ginger flavored a classic pickle, and sumac gave a tangy kick to pulled pork.

When we share a meal, we share a part of ourselves. When we sit at a table with other people, it is an invitation to break bread together, build a bond and a cultural bridge. We see this happening at the Bonnaroots dinner as attendees sit at tables with farmers, Bonnaroo staff, artists, and activists. A shared table experience leads to shared stories. Shared stories lead to a stronger, healthier, and more welcoming community for everyone.

Once people have left the Bonnaroots dinner, we hope they are inspired to embrace the spirit of the dinners: To give what you can to support the kind of world you want to live in. Do what you know, whether it’s volunteering your time to causes you care about or using your purchasing power to make an impact either with local farmers or in local immigrant communities.

If one person walks away embracing that spirit, we’ve done our job at the Bonnaroots dinners.

*Sisters on the Planet ambassadors are a diverse group of American women who are leaders in everything from business, to politics to the arts, Sisters on the Planet ambassadors are united by a common goal: to use their influence to fight global poverty, hunger, and injustice, with a particular focus on empowering women and girls worldwide.

Want to get involved? Join Oxfam’s Community and help ensure that the United States remains a safe and welcoming home for all its citizens and for immigrants—regardless of gender, race, national origin, religion, or sexual orientation.

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