Fundraising organizations have caught onto the power of food to raise money. I have seen a considerable increase in the amount of chef events over the last 3-5 years. Initially, it made sense to me. If the cause was related to kid’s nutrition, for example, or some other food-related issue, the connection was obvious: use food to call attention to food issues. There is an ironic exception, though, with food events that address hunger concerns – “It’s horrible that there are so many starving people in the world, so I am going to gorge myself at this event and do my part!” At any rate, it seems the secret is out that there is a successful formula to these events. Cancer research groups, religious charities, and many other non-profit groups now organize chef events. The concept is for a few hours you put a bunch of chefs and restaurants in one room, and then charge an admission fee for the general public to come and eat. And the more restaurants and the more celebrity chefs you have, the more you can charge for the event. Venue choice, type of food, and size of crowd can also factor into the perceived value, i.e., five-star restaurants for a few at an exclusive location vs. fast, casual chains for a mass of people in a park.
It can be a great way for restaurants to get exposure. Perhaps they are located in a remote suburb or just newly opened, a food event can bring the restaurant to a larger, more diverse audience. Conversely, it may be a way for a foodie to discover new eateries or sample their food before making the full investment to dine there. It creates an intersection between hungry customers and eager restaurants. Beyond this marketing aspect, though, food fundamentally has a drawing power. We need to eat, and we have learned to love eating. There has especially been a growing foodie movement, probably more so with the middle and upper class, as more and more people are educated about food. So the idea of using food to raise money is a no-brainer. Use something we already like to do, charge a good price for it, and the rest will follow! The way to someone’s heart (and to his/her wallet) is food.
My only critique of this fundraising formula is that the original cause is often lost. Put 30 chefs in one room and you create a shrine to the art of cooking at best, and a shrine to gluttony at worst. When one goes to a chef event and consumes lots of little samples, is he/she conscious that his/her money is going to, say, AIDS survivors? My judgment is that the general public is really there to eat a smorgasbord of food and to drink cocktails, and do not care about the bigger “why” of these events. Don’t get me wrong – there is merit to throwing money at a good cause and being rewarded with a yummy food event. Ultimately, the world is a better place with charitable giving in whatever form.
And so maybe this is as good as it gets. Perhaps people don’t really want to get to the root of the issue to see what they can do. They prefer some detachment because it’s upsetting and frustrating to solve bigger problems. It’s easier to give money, and hope for the best. That’s how I feel about many of the foodie trends overall. It’s easier for people to shop at farmers markets than to take on the agribusinesses that have polluted and corrupted our current food system. Food has power and, unfortunately, it has power to numb us, too. Eating can lead to complacent full bellies, which is a poor substitution for the real hunger to change.