The James Beard award winner on why she won’t give up hope for a brighter future: “When I’m out in nature, I see miracles happen.”
For Chef Mary Sue Milliken, skipping a meal is a moment to see the world as it is, look it squarely in the eye, and demand we do better. And across the world—from Gaza to East Africa to Yemen—the demand for a more equal world is growing.
For almost 50 years, Oxfam has encouraged people this time of year to pledge to Skip a meal for Oxfam to draw attention to the plight of people worldwide affected by hunger. Milliken is a leading voice for this year’s effort, and we sat down to find out what is motivating the cookbook author, food system activist, and co-chef/owner of Socalo & Border Grill Restaurants to join forces with Oxfam to raise awareness.
Q: Oxfam has encouraged people to skip a meal for decades to raise awareness about inequality and global hunger. Why are you skipping a meal this year?
A: As a chef, I see how much bounty is in the world. And the thought of humans on the planet being undernourished, suffering from hunger, pain, and the inability to learn and thrive is very disturbing. I’ve been a chef for 45 years and it’s become increasingly clear that food is a basic human right that everyone deserves. The planet has limited resources and I am very happy to lend my voice to the idea that there is enough food and we just need the will to make sure that it gets distributed appropriately.
Q: You recently pressed U.S. lawmakers to oppose legislation that makes it harder for U.S. food aid dollars to support local farmers in countries experiencing hunger. What message did you send?
A: I lobbied with Oxfam’s help to loosen restrictions around foreign food aid that are based on the very old idea that you’re helping American farmers and American shippers to use all-American products and all-American transportation to reduce hunger many thousands of miles away. It's just not true anymore. It doesn’t really solve the problem, it’s not logical, the food is often inappropriate, it doesn’t agree with people’s customs or diets. The food often sits for very long periods of time and sometimes becomes unusable. It just creates so much waste. The intent is good but it certainly doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do long-term for the people who need it. A much smaller amount of dollars can be leveraged to support local farmers for much better impact. If it’s not a crisis or an emergency it’s smarter to jumpstart an economy by buying food from local farmers.
Q: We live in a time of rising global hunger and malnutrition. As important as food banks are to meeting immediate needs, how important is it to simultaneously address systemic drivers of hunger like climate change and conflict?
A: We’re not solving problems very well without considering a sense of place. When you are diving into a problem—whether it’s climate change or malnourishment—you have to really consider where you are on the planet. It's just not a one-size-fits-all answer. And the great thing about human advancement is that we know so much more now than we knew 75 years ago. For me it’s just so important that we learn from all the different tactics we’ve tried over the years and look at each place independently and really solve for what that place needs. I met this wonderful woman in Fogo Island, Newfoundland, named Zita Cobb. She emphasized that sense of place and it had such a profound impact on my brain. She’s working on Fogo Island to solve problems there but as a microcosm to the globe, that really is the next step in how we are going to be able to conquer all the things that are haunting us.
Q: You’ve described yourself as a ‘perennial optimist.’ What gives you hope that we can continue building more equal and more sustainable food systems in the U.S. and across the globe?
A: Many things make me a perennial optimist—but mostly nature. When I’m out in nature, I see miracles happen—a flower growing, animals. I also believe in science. I’m also the person that is always zooming out to the largest size frame to look at what’s going on. If I do that with problems that society has faced over hundreds and hundreds of years, it does feel to me like progress is being made. Even in this information age when we find everything out immediately and sometimes, we find things out too often and they become too depressing, when you look at the whole picture of how we are facing our problems as humans, I think it is getting better.
Q: You are active in so many causes that matter to you. Why do you continue after so many years to actively support Oxfam’s mission in particular?
A: Oxfam has really impressed me. They make it easy to engage and connect with things that I care a lot about. I went to Ethiopia in 2001 and met a lot of people working for Oxfam there that I really fell in love with. I also ran into an Oxfam delegation on a culinary diplomacy trip in Jordan in 2019 at a Syrian refugee camp and they recognized me. I just fell in love with the way the work was being done and the people. Those kinds of experiences really change me. I feel very comfortable and grateful to have Oxfam making it easier for people like me to be heard.
Q: Why should people sign up to skip a meal and donate the cost of what they save to support Oxfam’s work to fight inequality and create a more sustainable and food secure world for all?
A: It’s a really simple but great way to engage. Anyone can do it—you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be powerful. All you have to do is make a decision to be engaged. Skip a meal, and then donate that money and know in your heart the people who are spending your money are doing a really good job.