Cooking up a better food system

By Divya Amladi
Alejandra Schrader pictured at the Stockholm Food Festival in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Alejandra Schrader.

This World Food Day, we spoke to Chef Alejandra Schrader about her vision for a world free of hunger, and how we can all help reach that goal.

Alejandra Schrader is a Los Angeles-based chef, food advocate, Oxfam Sisters on the Planet ambassador, and former MasterChef contestant. She represents Oxfam in the Chef’s Manifesto community, a group of chefs around the world that is working toward a better food system for all.

How did your childhood influence your attitude toward nutrition?

As a child of a single mother growing up in Venezuela, I struggled to get proper nutrition. I was not breastfed because my mother had difficulty producing milk. I was overweight, and I struggled with childhood obesity. I was also malnourished, which led to learning and cognition issues.

For me, it’s about quality of life. My mission is making nutritious food more accessible.

You started your career as an architect. What led you to change careers to become a chef and food activist?

My former career was in architecture and urban development, and I always focused on sustainability. In 2011, I left real estate development and started doing more community outreach stuff. The market caught up with me, and I had to close my company. I was unemployed, but I always had a passion for cooking, so I went on MasterChef.

How did you get connected with Oxfam?

After I competed on MasterChef, I reached out to Mary Sue Milliken—another chef based in LA who had done reality TV competitions, and who I looked up to—for her guidance. I learned about Oxfam’s Sisters on the Planet initiative through her, and the more I leaned about Oxfam’s commitment to sustainable farming and food production, the more I thought not only is this a perfect fit for me, but Oxfam’s programs can help us achieve a food system that’s fair to the people who grow the food and accessible to everyone.

In 2013, you traveled with us to Peru as an Oxfam Sisters on the Planet ambassador. What did you learn from that experience?

I got to go to Mistura Food Festival—one of the largest culinary festivals in the world—to do public outreach alongside local chef and Oxfam ambassador Flavio Solórzano. Oxfam had a program with the Asociación de Productos Ecológicos, which supports small farmers and food producers and champions more resilient food systems. Oxfam paid for some of those farmers, people who grow special algae or harvest yucca, to come to Mistura so they could meet the public and get greater exposure.

Schrader with Peruvian organic farmers from a cooperative supported by Oxfam. Photo courtesy of Alejandra Schrader.

We also did a couple of site visits to soup kitchens that are sponsored by Oxfam. Some of these kitchens get their organic produce from the small farmers Oxfam supports. We visited one in the most poor and dilapidated neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima. The women who worked there were victims of domestic abuse and had left their husbands. The soup kitchens gave them work so they could earn money to provide for their families, but also provided food they could give their kids for dinner at the end of the work day.

In the last 10-15 years, anemia has been a problem for the poor in Peru. To tackle that, the kitchens cooked with iron-rich lentils or  chicken blood. There was soup with lentils. The entree had been sautéed in blood. A full lunch with an entrée, soup, and juice cost less than a dollar, and it was all made from scratch from natural ingredients. The meals were so hefty that they could easily feed a mother and two small children.

Access makes all the difference. I’ve seen barrios just like that in Venezuela where the mother cooks one kilo of pasta (2 lbs). She’ll feed plain pasta to her older children and use the water that people throw away in a bottle to feed to the small babies.  

What is the Chef’s Manifesto, and how are you involved with it?

The Chef’s Manifesto is a UN initiative that brings together chefs from all over the world to create a better food system to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Goal 2—to end hunger, reach food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. The manifesto itself is a framework written by chefs to educate other chefs about how they can contribute to these sustainable development goals through simple, practical actions. The idea is that the chef’s actions inspire people to make changes in their own kitchens and communities.

I was asked to represent Oxfam in 2017 with the Chef’s Manifesto in New York. At that time, it was more like a think tank than anything else. We got together and talked about the issues that concerned us the most. There were chefs, farmers, and people from organizations concerned with world nutrition. What started as a group of 18 is now at least 136 chefs involved from all over the world. I helped introduce the manifesto’s eight thematic areas—which include celebrating local and seasonal food, ingredients grown with respect for natural resources, and nutritious food that is accessible and affordable to all—at the 2017 Global Nutrition Summit in Milan.

How can home cooks integrate these principles—and Oxfam's Eat for Good principles—into their own cooking?

One of the eight principles is education, and it is my personal mission is to make the manifesto more inclusive. I want to empower every home cook so he or she can practice these things at home.

In Venezuela we have a saying, “If everyone puts in their grain of sand, we can build mountains.” Small actions can have a big impact. Food can always be repurposed. You can throw anything in a soup. Even when you eat out, take your leftovers home.

Another one of the principles is no waste, which is in line with Oxfam's Eat for Good tip to save food. In my recipes, I try to incorporate things like celery greens or the leaves of a cauliflower, instead of throwing them away.

If we make these principles household practices, it would have a great impact. If the primary care giver models good food habits, their children will take these ideas with them when they leave home.

Want to learn how you can cook a tasty, environmentally-friendly meal?

Check out Alejandra Schrader’s recipe for vegan ceviche.

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