How The Queer Food Foundation Creates Safe Spaces For LGBTQ+ Food Workers

The organization supports queer chefs, farmers, and other food workers.

Growing up, Gabrielle Lenart didn't have any queer role models in the food industry. She was passionate about food, and while surely queer food workers were out there, she didn't know how to find them.

"I never had anyone to look to," she said, "and representation in discovering your identity is super important. To realize there are people who have your identity doing something you might want to do, it just gives you hope."

Now, armed with a master's in food studies from New York University and a bachelor's in food science from Pennsylvania State University, Lenart has devoted her life to increasing the visibility of queer people in food. Last year, Lenart and co-founder Jona Beliu launched the Queer Food Foundation (QFF), a space for queer people in the food industry to safely build community. The New York-based collective offers regular programming, raises money for queer food workers, and works to elevate their voices and skills.

Queer Food Foundation founders and board members in group portrait
The Queer Food Foundation founders and board members. Courtesy of The Blend

"When we say food workers, we mean everybody," Lenart says. "From farmworkers to hospitality workers to waitresses to those who work in food media to beverage experts to sommeliers."

According to Beliu—an Albanian chef who has worked in food their entire life—QFF is one of the only organizations devoted to serving people across the industry and not just focused on a certain subset or profession. "I think what we really aim to do is showcase that there is a very large [queer] community within the food industry," Beliu explains, "and we aren't just sporadic back of house staff and bartenders and a few farmers. We are a collective, and we will stand as a collective."

Like any marginalized community, queer food workers often face unique challenges. "When it comes to restaurant workers in particular," Beliu says, "There's an ingrained culture of exploitation inherently within the restaurant culture, and that creates a hierarchy…and the hierarchy always puts Black trans women at the bottom. The more intersectional an identity, the less say and the less safety of the one working."

This lack of safety, Beliu continued, is true across the industry and affects anyone from food writers to farmers. QFF combats these challenges by creating culinary spaces in which queer people are the majority. Doing so, Lenart explained, creates an elevated level of comfort. "When we allow people to be themselves authentically in the spaces we create and connect to each other through their identity of being queer, you can just feel like yourself. You don't have to put a shield on. You don't have to hide."

Gabrielle Lenart

"When we allow people to be themselves authentically in the spaces we create, and connect to each other through their identity of being queer, you can just feel like yourself."

— Gabrielle Lenart

In addition to providing safer spaces to explore culinary issues, Lenart added that one of QFF's major goals is to combat the tokenization of queer food workers. "As soon as June comes around, all these corporations come and ask us to do things…But then when July rolls around, they don't want anything to do with us," she says.

Hence the QFF campaign, "Queer All Year," which the website emphasizes focuses on "the long-term goal of curating and building a network of queer food folks."

For Lenart and Beliu, it has always been important to create new kinds of queer spaces, namely, ones that are not centered on politics, activism, or the bar. "We love our bartenders," Beliu explains, "but it's giving us more options in order to create community."

Representation is another big priority. Largely through social media, the QFF team regularly showcases queer chefs, farmers, and other food workers. Doing so not only helps provide the visibility Lenart so desperately sought as a child, but it is also a way to connect food workers with those who might want to hire them.

In February, QFF also launched its inaugural Queer Food Fund. In honor of Black History Month, the organization provided $100 grants to 100 Black queer individuals. Lenart is proud that she and Beliu have been able to build QFF into what it is today while also managing other full-time jobs.

"We really genuinely care about every single individual we highlight and promote," she says, "and [I'm proud of] just being able to showcase that there are people like you out there and they're doing really cool things."

They are not focused on exponential growth, Beliu added, but rather on growing smart, on expanding without letting go of their morals.

"We don't have all the answers," Lenart says, "But because we grew so rapidly, we're so thankful that people trust us. Because we are very intentional. It is a challenge sometimes to be the voice of queer folks in food. One of our bigger challenges is making sure we let people know we're all doing what we think is best."

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