Business: If you own a business, please, show you care — give away a little. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But if you’re in the position to take from people, you should be able to give too. If you own a restaurant, give away 10 orders of food. If you own a print shop, print resumes for people who may need help. If you own a bodega, find a way to give, say, formula to two or three or five local mothers who could be helped by that. Whatever your business, give back. It’s important.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Millie Peartree.
Millie Peartree is a world-renowned chef and taste-maker who has spent the last decade perfecting her craft. It wasn’t until she entered her first baking contest that she realized she could grow her passion into a successful and innovative culinary enterprise. From her flagship business “Millie’s Cupcakes,” she has evolved from personal chef to the stars to celebrity chef, restaurateur and social impact advocate who, through her not-for-profit Full Heart/Full Bellies, is leading the charge against food insecurity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “back story”? What led you to this particular career path?
I developed an affinity for cooking when I was about 7 when I cracked my first egg. We’d get the Publishing Clearing House envelope in the mail where you could buy stuff, and I bought the recipe cards. I made drumsticks exactly according to the recipe. I followed the directions precisely. When my mom tasted them, she asked if I added salt. When I said no, it’s not in the recipe, she said you always have to add salt. That was my first teaching moment in the kitchen, from my mother. After that, I was always cooking with her, asking questions, trying to learn different things. that she encouraged me and understood this was going to be my thing — she’s my back story and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
An interesting challenge came one night when I was catering a dinner for Young Jeezy and the ovens abruptly stopped working. My team and I ran out into the NYC street, flagging people down to ask them if they lived near enough that we could please use their kitchen to help us finish this meal. We actually found someone and the dinner went off without a hitch. That was a key moment in reinforcing to me that there will always be challenges that arise. The key is to never panic and make it happen, regardless of what challenges may occur.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I believe success comes when you’re quick to give and slow to take.
In a culinary career, there will always be peaks, valleys and frustrating moments. I started selling cupcakes and transitioned to catering. From catering I became a restauranteur. From owning a restaurant, I was able to found my not-for-profit Full Heart / Full Bellies that seeks to end food insecurity. As I grew in the profession, I feel that my success came when I reached the point that I started to put other people before myself. When my restaurant closed, I felt awful because I realized it was livelihood of those who worked there with me. Even after it closed, I knew I needed to think of others and that’s been a principal that has held through.
When COVID struck, I started doing what I could to help others in a meaningful and organized way. Through Full Hearts / Full Bellies, we have provided more than 80,000 kids with meals, and are making a difference combatting food insecurity around us. “Success” — as defined in the form of additional opportunities — has presented itself sense we began serving our community in this meaningful way. I’ve never served our community for any kind of reciprocity…People needed and still need support, and it is inspiring and encouraging to help provide some. I was given a platform by others which has allowed me to continue the work. Again, when you’re quick to give and slow to take, amazing things can happen.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of my best friends is Gail Tifford, Chief Brand Officer at WW. I met her when we both worked in Corporate America. She is one of those women who helps other women and means it if she says it. She makes great things happen. She has been a huge force in my personal life. On a professional level she’s all over it. On a personal level, she’s always there. We’ve had a 10 year friendship and in all the years I’ve known her, she’s been an incredibly supportive person. She never limits the amount of time she’ll speak to someone and she’ll talk you through anything, whether personal or professional in nature. I rely on and count on her, and I am grateful to her and for her friendship, beyond words.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Three characteristics you need to be a successful leader:
1. You have to be selfless.
2. You have to be a good listener.
3. You have to be driven.
Across all of these, when you’re doing humanitarian work, you have to know the communities you’re servicing. You have to be able to understand what they’re experiencing — to sympathize and empathize to be as impactful as you can be.
One thing COVID has taught us all: life can be taken away from us at any time. Material things can be taken away at any time. You have to put yourself on the other side. An example that comes to mind is when my restaurant closed. It was pre-COVID. There was a problem with the gas lines in the entire building, not just my restaurant. All tenants in the building lost their gas. They had no way to cook for themselves. I talked to them and found them an attorney who stuck up for them and advocated for their rights. Sometimes people need other people to go to bat for them. You’ve got to show people that you care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I say two affirmations every day. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can. And wisdom to know the difference.” I find this powerful.
The other thing I tell myself daily: “You are the embodiment of infinite possibility.” So whatever you want in life, or want to be in life… just go ahead and do it. You can.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Food insecurity is very prominent in the United States. People don’t always have access to food — even in good times and they are compounded during difficult times like COVID. Food deserts and food insecurity are disproportionate to black and brown communities. There are places that you can buy food, but sometimes It’s not enough or not at all healthy, or both. Some in a specific socioeconomic strata receive money from the government, but that money received or earned from a paycheck doesn’t go as far as it needs to go.
COVID has taught me a lot. I knew people go hungry, but I never knew the extent and it made me embarrassed. As a restaurateur, I know this country throws out millions of pounds of food. How do we get it into people’s hands? How do we make it affordable for everyone? And why in NYC’s poorer areas is food is marked up to a higher price? Why? With the prices charged on that food stamp card, it’s hard for people to stock their pantries. It’s hard to have the nutritional value they’re supposed to have on a daily basis. It’s hard for them to even cover the basics of eating enough, let along in a way that is nutritionally sound.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Think about it. You’re hungry. What happens when you’re hungry? You get hangry. When you don’t eat, you can’t focus. That automatically puts a child or an adult at a disadvantage. Whether the child is taking a test or an adult is applying for a job, they may not perform as well because they’re not fueled and distracted, and that automatically puts them at a disadvantage. And that’s just one aspect to consider. There are so many!
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Well, I don’t want to comment on the politics that have played a role over in creating this epidemic. But it’s something that exists today, profoundly, and no one is really doing much to legitimately fix the problem. We need a Secretary of Food — someone who develops a national infrastructure to get people what they need, consistently, and meaningfully. Poorer people are looked at as nothing. Why aren’t we building more local farms to help them? Eating in season is cheaper. More farms and sustainable food could help EVERYBODY across the board. People would be fed, healthier, a more even playing field in terms of accessibility. Everyone would benefit.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
I started Full Heart / Full Bellies during the pandemic to help combat food insecurity in the Bronx. To date, we have fed more than 80,000 children in the Bronx, and have held two food drives in New York City…and we’re just getting started. We are planning Back to School initiatives to ensure kids have the supplies and nutrition they need.
I’ve started in my home city of New York, but my goal is to have satellite offices around the country where anyone can go pick up a hot meal or groceries if they need it, no questions asked. I see incubators, pantries, hot food services, cooking classes/education, and so much more.
Ultimately, I want to be able to teach people how to “fish” so they can sustain themselves and thrive. I want to teach people how to become entrepreneurs, to take care of themselves and be impactful in their communities. It takes just one person to say “You know what? Millie did it so I can too.” If a few people pass the baton, and we all think beyond ourselves, we will be able to combat food insecurity.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I’m very proud that we’ve been able to get national recognition that has served to raise awareness of disenfranchised communities. When people thank us for coming and share that they really needed the meal we provided, that is what makes me most proud. Giving without expectation, being mindful of the community, and being there just to help — that’s incredibly uplifting.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need to Be Done to Address the Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Affordability: Sometimes the price is too high.
2. Quality vs. quantity: A lot of empty, unhealthy junk or fast food is not helpful.
3. Food education — For example, giving someone a butternut squash doesn’t mean they’ll eat it if they don’t know what it is or how to cook it.
4. Secretary of Food — Federal and local involvement with infrastructure and oversight!
5. Business: If you own a business, please, show you care — give away a little. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But if you’re in the position to take from people, you should be able to give too. If you own a restaurant, give away 10 orders of food. If you own a print shop, print resumes for people who may need help. If you own a bodega, find a way to give, say, formula to two or three or five local mothers who could be helped by that. Whatever your business, give back. It’s important.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to work with World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods. Whenever there’s a crisis, they are the boots on the ground, nearly immediately, making meals to donate to the affected people and communities. Whether it’s a pandemic, or hurricane or any kind of crisis, they will be there and to do so much good within the community. It was nice to work with them and Frontline Foods to make and donate meals to people who really needed it.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
This is something I feel so passionate about. The same way children have to be vaccinated to attend school, I believe there should be a law that kids get three meals a day. The same way we have laws that tell us when we can and cannot do things, there has to be a way to combat hunger through legislation. The government regulates a million and one things. With all we have here, and all that goes to waste, it should be a crime for a child to be hungry.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Operation Spread Love, Share a Meal. When you make a meal for yourself, make one for someone else. We could create a national Share a Meal list, or a Share a Blessing list. If someone needs clothes, something shows others where clothes can be delivered. We need to be conscious about living a more selfless life, and showing that we care in the smallest way. Random acts of kindness can make a huge difference to the people who receive them.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Outside of Oprah and Michele Obama, it would be Tyler Perry. I read a story a few years ago where some children were denied access to a pool because they were black. Mr. Perry heard and sent the kids to Disneyland. He wanted them to know for every negative experience, there are other people who will want them to have every opportunity possible.
When you see a black man who was homeless and who dedicated every fiber of his being to becoming influential, who now owns the biggest production company in the world, and still finds time to make a difference in the lives of others — and often anonymously — that’s power in giving. Honestly, I love hearing stories where rich people share their abundance with others while they’re still here on Earth.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can check out MilliePeartree.com. Please also note we have a page where people can buy t-shirts, and swag. They’re expensive, on purpose, because the proceeds make more meals for others. So buying a shirt isn’t about us getting… it’s about giving, helping to feed others. Please also follow me on Instagram, @ChefMilliePeartree.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.