Power Through Food

Power Through Food: Women Entrepreneurs Saving Communities is a research, collecting, and programming initiative that focuses on the critical importance of food-related enterprises among women migrants and refugees for creating sustainable livelihoods and strengthening communities.

As conflict and political unrest, economic uncertainty, and devastating natural disasters force millions of people worldwide to migrate, innovative food-related businesses and programs in the United States are helping migrants build and use culinary talents to help themselves, their families, and their communities. The Food History Team at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is reaching out to organizations and communities to identify potential people and mission-oriented groups whose experiences and stories will shed light on this vital but largely unknown aspect of the contemporary food landscape. The team will partner with organizations and individuals to create a public archive of interviews, stories, recipes, images, and objects.

The Food History Team, in collaboration with these culinary innovators, is creating interactive and multifaceted public programs for the 2019 Food History Weekend. From November 7 to 9, museum visitors can engage with various individuals and organizations devoted to food enterprises and refugee populations to explore the theme of power through food.

Chef Iman, featured in the photo above, arrived in the United States from Syria as a widow, without family accompanying her. As a member of the Mera Kitchen Collective, she prepares dishes from Syria for sale at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market. Photo by Car

Chef Iman, featured in the photo above, arrived in the United States from Syria as a widow, without family accompanying her. As a member of the Mera Kitchen Collective, she prepares dishes from Syria for sale at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

“I think it’s really unique though … all the women speak different languages and you see how they learn each other’s languages.”
– Aishah, Mera Kitchen Collective

“I would show up at the kitchen … everybody’s so happy, having fun, even though there’s seven languages going on.”
—Emily, Mera Kitchen Collective

Mera Kitchen Collective

The Food History Team kicked off the project with a visit to Baltimore’s Mera Kitchen Collective, a worker-owned, community- and food-based cooperative made up of women immigrant and refugee chefs. Mera Kitchen cultivates the chefs’ culinary skills and helps them overcome barriers to resources and opportunities through pop-up events and catering services featuring the chefs’ stories and cuisines. Ultimately, Mera Kitchen strives to support chefs in reestablishing their livelihoods in the United States through equity in the collective and their culinary skills.

“[A]ll of us deal with challenges every day, but the goal behind [it] is to show our clients that success is in our reach … and to show … the enormous contribution[s] of the immigrant community.”
—Paty Funegra, La Cocina VA

La Cocina VA

The team also visited La Cocina VA, a Northern Virginia-based bilingual culinary training program led by founder and CEO Paty Funegra. In addition to vocational and technical education, La Cocina VA targets food insecurity by providing nutritious meals to local homeless shelters, nonprofits, and families. As La Cocina VA aims to triple its capacity in 2020, it strives to maintain a sustainable model by incorporating revenue streams through catering services and a community café. Its new Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center will also provide kitchen incubator space for budding small food businesses and accessible financial support through microloans.

“One of my friends … he said, ‘You can’t hate someone who feeds you.’”
—Noobtsaa Philip Vang, Foodhini


The team also met with staff members from Foodhini to discuss its online restaurant and food delivery service. Foodhini began with founder and CEO Noobtsaa Philip Vang’s craving for his mom’s home cooking in graduate school and personal experiences as a Hmong refugee’s son. Foodhini connects migrant and refugee chefs with D.C.-area diners interested in experiencing the vibrant and varied food culture of the United States. Its mission is to empower chefs to overcome numerous barriers and support their dreams of opening a food business. A shared revenue model ensures chefs receive compensation for their culinary talents, with the goal to provide living wages. Diners select from a menu organized by each chef and their specialty cuisine, choose from special dietary preference menus, or sign up for a weekly “Taste the World” subscription featuring a curated meal by one of the Foodhini chefs. Of the five chefs currently cooking at Foodhini, three are women, hailing from Eritrea, Iran, and Laos. Recently, Foodhini expanded its offerings with a pop-up food stand, in partnership with Whole Foods, featuring the Syrian cuisine of one of its chefs, Majed.

Ongoing Research

The Food History Team’s research began locally and will soon expand to include communities beyond the mid-Atlantic region. Since beginning the project, the team has reached out to many organizations around the country and has determined to extend the project well into 2020.

The Food History team will be on the road heading to New York City and Lincoln, Nebraska. Follow #SmithsonianFood on Twitter for bite-sized updates on their research!


This project received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.

From Our Blog

Jessica Govea

As a little girl, Jessica Govea had become accustomed to rising early and making her way to the fields with her family. During the cotton season, you could find her family dragging sacks of cotton along the long rows of fields in Kern County, California.

Chef Lena Richard and others filming a television segment
Lena Richard was an African American chef who built a culinary empire in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era. She reshaped public understanding of New Orleans’ cuisine, but her story has never been given its proper due.
See more blog posts