Foodie Activism

Marilyn HawkesAugust 2019
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Photo by Huge Galdones for The James Beard Foundation
Photo by Huge Galdones for The James Beard Foundation

Did Charleen Badman’s grassroots initiative tip her James Beard Award win?

Being a good chef involves a lot more than creating a great plate of food, says FnB’s Charleen Badman, recent winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. “It’s the whole package, and that includes service to your community and your work outside that plate of food,” she says.

Badman devotes a lion’s share of her time to teaching children about healthy eating through Blue Watermelon Project, an initiative she pioneered two years ago after attending a 2015 James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change.

While James Beard Award judges take notice of a nominee’s social activism, it doesn’t officially play a role in their decisions, says Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for James Beard Foundation. “But a new series of guidelines allows the award committee to take into consideration other aspects of a chef’s work.”

Before attending boot camp, Badman worked with students at Echo Canyon School in Scottsdale (formerly Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center) in the school’s gardens and classrooms. The boot camp experience ignited Badman’s desire to involve more schools, so she recruited a group of local chefs, restaurateurs, farmers and community food advocates to help, including culinary luminaries Chris Bianco and Tracy Dempsey.

Today, Blue Watermelon Project, which operates under Slow Food Phoenix, encompasses 10 schools. Badman hopes to add more. Her volunteers give students hands-on experience and education that ranges from gardening and learning about sustainable seafood to trying new produce and making golden beet smoothies.

Badman’s inspiration comes from “a lifetime struggle with my weight.” She’s made it her mission to teach children early on that what they eat matters. “You have a lot more awareness if you start earlier.” With that in mind, Badman and crew are working to make school lunches healthier with a goal of “A better tray every day.”

Is Blue Watermelon working? “We’re still pushing a mountain. But when an 11-year-old tells you that this is why they enjoy coming to school and how much it means to their education, it tells me I’m doing my job.”

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