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The Food Fight

by David McKay Wilson

Tagan Engel ’95 is on a mission to change the way her hometown eats

In a country whose food system is dominated by corporate interests and slow-moving government bureaucracies, eating healthy, locally grown food can be a challenge for anyone. But people in New Haven, Connecticut, have a harder time than most of us: just buying a vegetable can be a chore, because the supermarket chains have fled to the suburbs, leaving the city of 125,000 with just one grocery store within its borders.

Enter Tagan Engel ’95. A chef, food activist, and grassroots organizer, she wants to change the way New Haven eats. In the past five years, Engel has emerged as one of the city’s leading voices for healthy food, conducting a wideranging campaign to improve New Haven’s food system, promote urban agriculture, and improve nutrition for the city’s children and their families.

Food, and meetings about food, consume Engel’s days. Early one December morning, she convenes the city’s Food Policy Council at New Haven City Hall. On today’s agenda: fast-food kids’ meals. As chair of the council, Engel wants to pass an ordinance to force fast food chains to offer healthy food when they give away toys with meals. There’s considerable firepower around the table—the city’s health director and a member of the Board of Aldermen, as well as Yale law students, health policy researchers, and food activists from Elm City neighborhoods.

“My head was committed to social justice and public education, but my heart was committed to cooking.”

Engel fears a backlash: the fast-food industry conducted a high-powered—though ultimately unsuccessful—campaign to derail a similar ordinance in San Francisco. The industry claims that such a measure would intrude on parents’ right to feed their children as they wish—including meals high in fat and calories that entice kids with free toys tied to the latest hit movie.

“We know the argument about freedom of choice is ridiculous,” says Engel. “But we need to be thinking about the press and public perception. We need to frame it in a positive way. We want the default meal to be a healthy meal, not all fat and sugar.”

Rumbling with fast-food behemoths is only part of Engel’s strategy to change New Haven’s eating habits. She’s also trying to correct the city’s grocery deficit, working as the outreach coordinator for Elm City Market, a food cooperative starting up on the ground floor of a downtown high-rise apartment tower. Engel is helping to develop a plan to attract city residents to shop for food downtown. That means appealing to both the low-income residents who use the city bus hub a block away and the middle-class residents who would have to park their cars in a parking garage rather than the familiar, vast parking lot of a suburban grocery store.

Inside, she’s helping the market strike a balance on the shelves, offering grains and fresh organic vegetables for the city’s natural food-loving middle class while also providing affordable staple foods that appeal to low income residents.

“We want a product mix that allows it to be a store for everyone,” she says. “So there will be a focus on natural foods, but we will also have a line of conventional food and nofrills brands with competitive prices that will appeal to those waiting for the buses.”

Engel’s love for cooking developed in her teens, when she volunteered in the kitchen at Dance New England, a weeklong celebration for hundreds of improvisational dancers. At Sarah Lawrence, she baked scones and muffins for the Teahaus.

Her academic pursuits, meanwhile, focused on education. She studied school reform and worked with preschoolers at Sarah Lawrence’s Early Childhood Center. After moving to Brooklyn her junior year, she taught in after-school and summer programs at the Brooklyn Friends School as she contemplated a career in teaching.

Her passion for food, however, eventually trumped her desire to transform the educational system. She baked bread in Harlem, then landed a job in a Brooklyn bakery. She traveled to Holland, Israel, and Poland to connect with her family history (her grandparents escaped from the Nazi concentration camp at Sobibor). She worked as a private chef in Jerusalem, then returned to New Haven, cooked for a natural foods shop, and later served as a chef in top restaurants in Boston and New York.

She dipped back into schools too, running a Boston after-school program where she found herself cooking with the kids.

“My head was committed to social justice and public education, but my heart was completely into cooking,” she recalls. “I ended up working in a French-Asian-style restaurant in Cambridge, coming up with great stuff.”

In New York, she cooked briefly at the legendary Gramercy Tavern before starting her own catering and private cooking business, using fresh ingredients from the city’s farmer’s market. She developed a following among Upper West Side families and corporate executives. But over time, the job lost its appeal. “I got sick of cooking for rich people,” recalls Engel. “The food was creative and so amazing. But I didn’t feel any purpose.”

“I got sick of cooking for rich people. The food was creative and so amazing, but I didn’t feel any purpose.”

So she returned to New Haven, prepared to dig in and plant her own garden. “I felt like I could have a real impact here,” Engel says—especially since New Haven has a strong history of progressive politics and grassroots organizing. Now Engel and her husband, Enroue, son Ayo (6), and daughter Tomi (2) live next door to Engel’s mother.

Engel has even melded her passions for school reform and healthy food. In 2008 she helped found the Working Group on School Food, which worked with the community to convince the Board of Education to oust corporate food-service giant Aramark from the city schools.

New Haven Health Director Dr. Mario Garcia met Engel at a sparsely attended meeting of the Working Group for School Food. He was struck by her focus and drive, and, as a concerned New Haven resident, kept coming back.

“Though only a few people were in attendance, Tagan was moving forward as if 100 people were there,” recalls Garcia. Now, with the Food Policy Council, “she has all the players at the table. She’s having the same conversation, with the same tone. She has brought people together. People are following her lead.”

Now she’s spearheading the effort to establish a city food-policy plan that would increase access to healthy food and develop a citywide composting program. She even designed the logo for the Food Policy Council: an upraised fist brandishing a fork and spoon, with the motto “Better Food for a Better City.” And she recently published a bilingual cookbook, New Haven Cooks/Cocina New Haven, which features healthy recipes from across the city. The cookbook was given out free to 5,000 low-income families.

After the morning meeting at City Hall, Engel grabs a decaf latte at Blue State Coffee by the Yale Law School. The café’s new owners hired Engel to redesign the kitchen and create a simple, sustainable menu that uses locally grown food and baked goods. That meant setting up supply chains with local farms, including one that raises grass-fed cows. The café menu features Turkey Sriracha sandwiches with romaine lettuce, pickled red onion, avocado, and spicy Sriracha mayo on a ciabatta roll.

“The trick is to balance the use of fresh ingredients with keeping the food affordable,” she says. “It’s possible.”

Later that day, Engel stops at Common Ground School, a charter high school nestled behind West Rock, on the city’s rural western border. Students raise chickens and grow vegetables, and the school’s curriculum is tied to the natural world. In October, she was head chef for a benefit dinner for 230, at which she directed four chefs and a crew of 50 students. Today she meets with Joel Tolman, the school’s development director, and over a lunch of wild rice soup and sweet-potato fries, they discuss a project called Kids, Food and Farms, which aims to provide every New Haven child with direct experiences with the origins of their food.

“Tagan sets a big table,” says Tolman. “She has good ideas, and keeps pushing in a warm and compassionate way. She makes good food, welcomes people, and uses food as a tool for community building.”

And Engel’s table keeps expanding, even as she prepares for the struggles to come.

David McKay Wilson, a regular contributor on education policy to the Harvard Education Letter, writes for college magazines across the country.