Mainstream wellness culture, she says, hasn’t been paying enough attention.
As the youngest child, Francesca Chaney reveled in the hours spent in the kitchen, attached at the hip to her grandmother, helping to prepare meals for her family. In their household, packing each plate with an array of vegetables was always a priority. “My mom started her plant-based journey when I was 4 years old, and around the time that I was 14 or 15, I started to transition to being vegan,” says Chaney (who is no relation to this story’s author). Now, as the 25-year-old restaurateur behind Sol Sips, a plant-based cafe in Bushwick, Brooklyn, she uses her love of food to reclaim the plant-based ingredients she says have been a part of Black culture for generations.
“Black people working with the land to grow food and grow vegetables has always been something that we've done,” she says. But “now,” she counters, “the plant-based wellness industry is [trendy].” For Chaney, who grew up immersed in food traditions from Central America and the American South, plant-based eating is not a new phenomenon, especially not within the Black community. According to the young entrepreneur, mainstream wellness culture just hasn’t paid enough attention.
For years, the perception of “wellness” culture, and particularly veganism, has been centered around a white and often upper-middle-class experience. But data indicates veganism and vegetarianism are more popular among Black Americans than the general U.S. population: According to surveys from the Vegetarian Resource Group and the Pew Research Center, 8% of Black Americans are strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just 3% of the general population. That’s the community Chaney aspires to serve, and then some: In 2018, Chaney, then a 22-year-old college student, opened Sol Sips, a quaint 300-square-foot cafe on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn. Each meal on the Sol Sips menu is one you may have grown up loving, with a healthier twist: The cafe’s mac and cheese, for instance, is a gluten-free dish made from coconut cheese and garbanzo bean pasta.
It’s important that our food reaches everyone.
“The thing that I'm concerned about is that the [mainstream wellness movement] is repackaging things that we've already done and selling it back to us,” she says. On social media, vegan influencers post color-coordinated images of freshly cut fruit and turmeric elixirs, often divorced from the indigenous origins of their ingredients. In contrast, Chaney references traditions like Rastafarian ital cooking, which originated in Jamaica in the 1930s and promotes a locally sourced diet free from additives, chemicals, and meat, as an example of plant-based practices Black vegan and vegetarians have always known. “I'm not super pressed to be in that [wellness] space. Because the same institutions that build you up are the same institutions that will tear you down,” Chaney says.
Her goal isn’t to necessarily infiltrate the mainstream media wellness movement or even push more Black people to become vegans. Instead, she just wants to make healthy, feel-good options that are true to tradition and, more importantly, actually accessible to her customers. “We’re just reintroducing food and swapping the parts that are normally a little harsh on our bodies,” she says. “It's more about saying ‘Hey, this is good, too.’ It's just a little shifted from maybe some of our traditional dishes across the board.”
Making healthy food accessible goes hand in hand with Chaney’s desire to address food insecurity, an issue that disproportionately affects Black people — and the gap has widened due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to estimates from researchers at Northwestern University, 23% of households experienced food insecurity in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and Black households were twice as likely as white households to be struggling with food.
For Chaney, bridging the gap means making the food on her menu affordable: By participating in initiatives like EBT for Hot Food, which allows the restaurant to provide $15 vouchers to customers who use food assistance (food stamps), Sol Sips has been able to adapt to the needs of its community. “Every couple of years, I'm thinking about how we can evolve and make sure that we're coexisting with the needs of the neighborhood,” she says. “If we're doing something that doesn't make sense anymore, or it's outdated, then it's important to shift how we're playing a role in bridging the gap.”
Her recipes, she says, have always been made in service of the Black and Indigenous people in her community, even if serving the community means bringing the food to their doorsteps. “It’s important that our food reaches everyone, and that we have options available so that everyone can at least try a meal from the restaurant,” she says. When she’s not spending her day operating the restaurant or developing recipes, she’s packaging meal kits to deliver to customers’ homes. The idea is to make Sol Sips readily available to people living in areas with fewer healthy options. “We deliver meal kits to Flatbush, Brownsville, East New York, even sometimes as far out as the Bronx,” she says. “I always wanted to expand outside of Bushwick because it is a gentrified space.”
We should all experience good food at least once in our lives.
Accessibility is key to the kind of wellness environment Chaney wants to create. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as of January 2022, food prices worldwide have climbed to their highest level since 2011. In New York City, this year’s grocery bills are predicted to rise by as much as 20% on staple foods including pasta, condiments, dairy products, and meats, per the New York Post. Chaney thinks inflation will be the barrier between Black people and developing a healthier relationship with food.
“People might be able to afford something this week, but next week, maybe not,” Chaney notes. “What once was affordable is no longer.” In an effort to support the community keeping her afloat, she offers Sol Sips’ meal kits on a sliding scale, which now replace the weekly “pay what you can” brunch the cafe offered pre-pandemic. “We can at least meet them in the middle,” she says.
As a young entrepreneur, Chaney sometimes feels burned out. But she has faith her community will support her in turn. “There have been so many times where [this work] feels extremely demanding of me in a way that I’ve never known before,” she says. “So, I lean on the community.” Even during a global pandemic, her customers keep showing up. “We have a genuine connection with our customers that come in,” she says. “[Many of them] are friends, family, neighbors, and strangers who become regulars.”
When centering Black communities in discussions of wellness, Chaney says it’s important to allow Black people to tell their own story. In 2019, she was named a Future Leader of the Restaurant World as part of the Eater Young Guns, a recognition which gave her a platform to give back to her community by curating events that paid homage to Black chefs and the Black experience. “The most important thing to me is learning from our elders and from farmers who know the land and know how to grow food,” she says. “That’s the way we can transgress the [wellness] space and have control.” Without voices like these, Chaney fears the larger community will miss out on Black history with food.
Chaney is invested in seeing her community grow, one diner at a time. She wants to be remembered as someone who helped those around her take better care of themselves. “We should all experience good food at least once in our lives, it really stays with you,” she says. “I just want to contribute to someone having a good and nourishing meal.”