Plant Chicago: Eating for 8 Billion through Vegan Food

My blog focuses on ethical and plant-based eating in Chicago, and I am honored to feature notable Chicago organizations and nonprofits that carry out this necessary mission.  I had the opportunity to venture down to The Plant (a collaborative community of small businesses) this past Saturday during the Plant Chicago’s monthly Farmers Market (1st Saturday of the month).  It was bustling with people who were eager to explore its vast premises and drink some kombucha and beer in the Whiner Taproom. Located on the south side of Chicago’s Back of the Yards community, the infrastructure of The Plant used to be an old meatpacking factory but now houses many of the events coordinated by the nonprofit, Plant Chicago.  

Plant Chicago hosts a monthly farmers market and is also hosting the first of their Eating for 8 Billion meal series at Whiner Taproom this upcoming Sunday, April 14th from 1-3pm. Their meal series brings awareness of the world’s ever-growing population with the hope that people will become more aware of their daily choices as consumers and become agents of change. The first iteration of their meal series will include a 3-course vegan meal prepared by Chef Abra Berens featuring alternative protein as well as ingredients from tenants of The Plant with a drink from Whiner Taproom.

Whiner Taproom

I had the pleasure of speaking to Julie Williams, the Chair of Development for the Board of Directors of Plant Chicago.  She gave me a unique insight into the mission of Plant Chicago and the inspiration for this meal series.  I also had the lovely opportunity to chat with Jonathan Pereira, the Executive Director for Plant Chicago.  I was able to gain a deeper insight on what Plant Chicago aims to achieve with this meal series and with the ecosystem in general. Check out my interview with them below!

What is the purpose and mission behind Plant Chicago?

Williams: Plant Chicago [which is distinguished from The Plant facility] aims to develop local circular economies. We focus on how we can reduce the waste that goes into a landfill by using those resources and putting them back into the system. For example, with composting we use waste scraps and create a new product that is sold and re-used.

We cultivate a closed loop model, which is demonstrated by some of the businesses inside of The Plant. When Pleasant House Bakery used to be a tenant, they used the spent grain from Whiner Beer Co. as part of the brewing process for their baked goods.  Another example would be reusing a byproduct of coffee after it is roasted that is typically thrown out.  Plant Chicago researched ways to develop fuel out of this coffee roasting byproduct, which is a way to repurpose waste.

Julie Williams, Chair of Development at Plant Chicago

How long have you been involved with Plant Chicago and in what capacity?  What inspires you to be a part of this nonprofit?

Williams: I have been here since 2015 and I started off as a volunteer. The reason I came to the facility was because I heard they were doing shared kitchen spaces at The Plant.  I appreciated the shared community vibe and I fell in love with the nonprofit.  For me it’s about the community – everyone here is really passionate about what they do.

Pereira: I started here years ago as a volunteer – like many Plant Chicago volunteers over the years, I helped with the build-out and deconstruction of the building, which is owned by the for profit, Bubbly Dynamics. Later, the board of directors was looking to hire an Executive Director to replace the founder John Edel.

The many years of volunteer work is one of the reasons the developer/owner of the building can charge lower rent, which in turn supports the co-located small business community. Now, Plant Chicago continues to be a support structure for the small business partners. We provide tangible support structures to small businesses through additional revenue generation opportunities such as the market and co-branded workshops. We also facilitate knowledge and cost sharing opportunities between businesses.

The community of small businesses, staff, and volunteers inspire me – there’s a real desire for people to be involved and become agents of change, which you can do through food. Our agricultural system is one of the largest contributors to climate change and we focus so much on other factors. The biggest change you can make from a climate-change perspective is to stop eating beef and that’s asking too much for some people unfortunately. Younger people get it and are willing to embrace this change but the older you get, the more conservative you get. That goes for everyone.

Jonathan Pereira, Executive Director of Plant Chicago

The five biggest ways to make an impact are: reduce travel that requires fossil fuels, take more trains and bike more, don’t use a dryer/AC in your home, limit your beef intake and reduce your square footage. Car ownership is extremely wasteful too. The average car spends most of its time parked and our whole city infrastructure is built upon cars.  We have this image that everyone should own a car; however, younger people are less likely to own cars [which is a step in the right direction].

The community of small businesses, staff, and volunteers inspire me – there’s a real desire for people to be involved and become agents of change, which you can do through food. Our agricultural system is one of the largest contributors to climate change and we focus so much on other factors. The biggest change you can make from a climate-change perspective is to stop eating beef …

-Pereira

Tell me more about the vendors at your weekly Farmers Market through Plant Chicago.

Williams: There is a heavier representation of vendors from the Back of the Yards and the south side neighborhoods. We want to work with people who are local to us, but we still have a variety of vendors – there are people selling pet food to vegan cookies.  There is a high representation of vegan/vegetarian here.  We work with local produce growers in the Back of the Yards, which is more obvious in the summer months when we go outside. Temo’s Tamales is a standout vendor here that sells their locally made tamales. Temo uses completely compostable products. We want our market to eventually be zero-waste.

Monthly Farmers Market
Human-Grade Dog Food!

Liz Lyon, Market Manager at Plant Chicago: We have about 18-20 vendors during the indoor farmers market season and mainly have local and plant-based vendors. We have 2 vegan vendors: Tubby’s Taste and Ste Martaen. The owner of Tubby’s Taste used to make cookies at home and decided to turn her passion into a business. Ste Martaen is a prepared food vegan vendor who does greens and mac and cheese (among other delicious offerings!). They will start sourcing their collard greens locally, which will connect them with Urban Canopy, a vendor that does farming, CSA, and compost at The Plant.

Debbie Wood, Founder and CEO of No Denial Foods, selling healthy, sweet treats

What is the inspiration behind your meal series and will there be more?

Williams: The event on the 14th will be the first installment of the dinner series.   Each dinner is open format – we’re not sure what the next one will look like (it’s a surprise!)

Bustling Whiner Taproom

There was a UN report in 2017 that stated we’re going to hit 8 billion in 2023.  Something about that number really struck people hard – 2023 is so close and 8 billion is such a large figure.  It has spurred a lot of people into action. We see ourselves as a social responsibility and economic organization, as well as environmental. We care about the planet, especially in the ways it relates to the quality of human life. We want to responsibly feed 8 billion people. We want to walk away from traditional sources of protein.  This meal series is a cool way to explore these ideas.

For this installment we’re using locally produced alternative proteins and collaborating with other tenants of The Plant like Rumi Spice, Tuanis Chocolate and Closed Loop Farms (microgreens supplier) and with Abra Berens who is a well-known chef, formerly of Local Foods in Chicago, and now with Granor Farms in Michigan.

Rumi Spice at The Plant

We want to responsibly feed 8 billion people. We want to walk away from traditional sources of protein. This meal series is a cool way to explore alternative proteins.

-Williams

Pereira: We want to collectively have residents in Chicago start thinking a little differently about how we consume food and materials.  A core tenet of a circular economy is to reduce consumption of materials and a way to do that is to do it over a literal meal – consuming food but consuming it in a different way with alternative proteins, from mycelium and locally sourced/produced food. Meals bring people together. It’s a community building experience to have a meal that is out of the box that a lot of people wouldn’t normally try. This meal series is an opportunity to have a conversation with friends over a meal.

The name for the meal series comes from a push back on the idea that by 2050 we’ll have 10 billion people on the earth which is entirely possible but far away for a lot of people.  When we consider the carrying capacity of the earth, it’s too late to wait till 2050 to change. As Americans and individuals living in rapidly developing countries, we need to cut back on eating beef. I am not saying we should stop eating beef, but we eat too much of it, and we don’t need to eat all of these animal proteins that we tend to on a daily basis.  We are also eating a lot of processed foods and there are access issues to healthier foods, which we are also trying to address. We wanted to work with exciting chefs, food producers, and food growers.  Chef Berens is an amazing chef.

Winter Garden at The Plant

Will all of the meals from this series be plant-based?

Williams: There will be a heavy plant focus. There are a lot of meat options out there already.  We’re exploring novel ways to feed 8 billion.  In order to responsibly do that, it’s going to require much more than minor changes, it’s going to require a paradigm shift in how we do everything.  For example, what if we all shifted to a plant-based diet? That would be exciting!  Personally, I would like to see veganism as a regular way of life. Whatever your reasons are for wanting to be vegan, I think apart from the cruelty to animals, being vegan helps your fellow human beings.  It is a humanism movement as much as it is for animal rights.

Pereira: Yes, we will have a plant-based focus, but if we are focusing on another type of concept – let’s say there’s a meat component as well, there’s a conversation that can be had about how we raise meat, such as can you raise meat “sustainably”?  There are certain parts of the world where meat is the only way to get protein, e.g. fish – there are a lot of fish operations, and many conversations can be had about where the food is coming from.

Demonstration Farm at The Plant

There are a lot of meat options out there already.  We’re exploring novel ways to feed 8 billion.  In order to responsibly do that, it’s going to require much more than minor changes, it’s going to require a paradigm shift in how we do everything.  For example, what if we all shifted to a plant-based diet?  

-Williams

How is this meal series a means of being an agent of change and responding to the world’s hunger problem?

Pereira: We’re having a panel discussion with the chef about this issue beforehand.  From my perspective, being able to grow protein indoors is a great alternative for feeding more people.  Everyone needs protein in their diets and to be able to think that there are different sources that you can get it from is great. In the US, there’s no reason to eat all of this meat since we can get protein sources from other places.  If it’s the texture or flavor you’re looking for, there are some amazing products that mimic that, and we’re getting better at doing this.  It’s an exciting time to be eating.

This series is also about being able to produce more food efficiently.  We typically focus on the yield, but the industrial agriculture system is inefficient.  You can get as much food out of the land as possible, and we need to figure out how to make sure that the food that’s grown actually gets consumed by people.  We’re at 30-40% waste with our system.  Things like local produce and community supported agriculture are much more efficient in terms of what it delivers, and it’s not being wasted in the landfill.  Most of the food that’s coming from CSA/farmers markets is local.

Sustainability

The industrial agriculture system is inefficient…We’re at 30-40% waste with our system.

-Pereira

Is there anything else that you’d like the plant-based community in Chicago to know?

Williams: Changing the way you eat is one of the easier first steps that we can all take – switching from protein to alternative proteins.  But it goes way deeper than that; we’re just scratching the surface.  There needs to be a general shift in the way we consume, away from plastics, for example – it’s more than just what we put in our mouth.  We also have to consider how proposed solutions, like alternative proteins, are made.  What are the resources that are used to create those alternative proteins?  We need to understand the companies and the processes behind making these products. 

I think Plant Chicago is striving towards a higher level of awareness that goes beyond solely making dietary changes and towards being a more educated consumer and not being a consumer at all.  While this is challenging, it’s worth trying, and maybe we’ll find a balance. We go beyond just food to explore the general nature of consuming in our society and how to change the norms.

Plant Chicago storefront

Pereira: I am not vegetarian but that’s the demographic we need to hit.  You don’t have to be a vegetarian to make a huge impact; just look at your diet for one week and cut down on the beef you’re eating.  You’re eating more than you think.  If you have two burgers a week, then eat 1 – it should be a treat, not an expectation for your daily diet. If you’re eating cheap meat, buy beans.  There’s nothing good that comes out of cheap meat; there’s a reason why it’s cheap.

This conversation gets into huge issues of equity.  There are families that can’t afford to buy healthy food and if you want to serve something special, you buy meat and buy the cheap meat.  I understand that there’s a crowd that I am speaking to, and it’s the crowd that can afford to not buy cheap, processed foods.  Low-income families want to be healthy but when the cheapest option is the worst for you, you’re going to make the economic choice in the short-term.  We want to have conversations about these issues [equity, food, the environment] over a meal.  At our meal series, the tables will have facts/question for people to think about.  Our Chicago events typically draw a diverse crowd of people, and there will be pretty unique conversations. It’s a very exciting time for people to come together.

I think Plant Chicago is striving towards a higher level of awareness that goes beyond solely making dietary changes and towards being a more educated consumer and not being a consumer at all.  While this is challenging, it’s worth trying, and maybe we’ll find a balance. We go beyond just food to explore the general nature of consuming in our society and how to change the norms.

-Williams

If you are interested in purchasing tickets or just finding more out about the event, check out Plant Chicago’s website.

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One thought on “Plant Chicago: Eating for 8 Billion through Vegan Food

  1. I’ve been to The Plant a handful of times now and thoroughly enjoy it. It’s really cool to see the progress made each time I visit, and I love that they’re incorporating this vegan dinner into their events. I got my ticket to the event and can’t wait to try it!

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