The Food Bros Are Working for a
Focused on Food Security
|The Food Bros: Donale Richards, George Reistad and
By Hedi Rudd
“When I was in middle and high school we were struggling with homelessness, so I often had to
find other family members and friends to stay with. For a good ten years of my childhood I was going
from place to place living with different people. I always got my meals, but there were times when it
might be only once a day or supplemented with a bunch of junk food,” reflected Donale Richards, a
Richards grew up in Madison, spending most of his time in South and East Madison. His mother
was white, his father Jamaican and they separated when he was three years old. His mother
remarried, so he grew up with the strong presence of his Gambian father.
“Growing up I was always surrounded by food. Always invited to big parties, where I was a little kid
running around, music’s on, playing with other kids. It was just kind of cool. I interacted with
multiple races, multiple ethnicities, people from diverse backgrounds. I was very open-minded
growing up and began to understand that music and food brings people together,” Richards shared.
“I was a person, who had access to education, but my parents didn’t necessarily support me a lot in my academic adventure. It was just me starting to see the
failures of people who were older than me,” he pondered. He then entered the UW-Madison PEOPLE Program, maintained a 4.0 GPA and focused on changing his
future. He would graduate from Madison East High School and was accepted to UW-Madison in December of 2012. “There was a not so great reputation for the
Richards by that time and I wanted to change that.”
He chose to go into mechanical engineering, but quickly realized that it was extremely competitive to get into the College of Engineering. He switched from
mechanical engineering to industrial and systems engineering, which was closer to his interests and more business-orientated. Having finally decided on a major,
he was hit hard — and his confidence shaken —when he was not admitted to the program due to his grades. He tried to appeal, but lost and was forced to change
his major. He chose biological systems engineering.
“From there I was trying to merge agriculture and engineering, what does that look like,” Richards said. “I figured that out and fell in love with it. I really wanted to
learn more about natural resources because in the news, I was hearing about depleted natural resources. What does it mean for the fate of humans if we don’t have
these natural resources? It opened my mind to a whole new level when I got to that department, something I was not expecting at all. At that point I just wanted a
degree in engineering, but through that I found my true passion in agriculture and explored that. I had a deep history with my family and everyone I am around loves
to cook and I was like ‘we need to make this more known to people’ and at that point I started to really get involved in social justice and advocating around food.”
While on campus, Richards would meet Devon Hamilton. He heard about Hamilton long before meeting him. Hamilton was in the Posse Program and was one of nine
members of a cohort from Los Angeles. He too had come to UW-Madison with his sights set on an engineering degree, but came onto campus at a time when the
racial climate was tenuous, and he quickly found himself taking part in campus protests.
“Organizing was taking up a lot of my time; because I had a passion for it, which meant I wasn’t doing all of my other work,” Hamilton said. “Once I figured out I
couldn’t juggle the two and didn’t pass calculus, I’m like engineering isn’t my thing. And with everything going on I couldn’t balance it, so I was really searching
hard for something that spoke to all my interests around social justice, design, environmental justice. I talked to a few mentors and found landscape architecture. I
liked the program, but it was still missing something.”
Enter Monica M. White., Ph.D.
Professor White, joined the faculty of UW-Madison in the fall of 2012 as an assistant professor of environmental justice, a position created and shared between the
Department of Community and Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Her research is described as “engaging communities of
color and grassroots organizations that are involved in the development of sustainable community food systems as a strategy to respond to issues of hunger and
food inaccessibility.” Professor White recently completed her first book “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, 1880-2010,”
which contextualizes new forms of contemporary urban agriculture within the historical legacies of African American farmers who fought to acquire and stay on the
In reaching out to Professor White, Hamilton shared his strategy.
“I looked her up online, sent her an email out of the blue and said ‘Hey, I am really interested in these things. I saw a few of these videos about you and food and I
read up about what you do, you come from Detroit and I would like to hear more about you and what you do and what is out there around this work.’ She responded
and asked me to come and meet her and she changed my whole life, just like that.”
“I went in there and she was just herself,” Hamilton said. “I hadn’t seen anyone in academia like that when I was younger. I loved everything she did. This was right
before I took about a year off from school. Monica suggested I go to Detroit to the Black Urban Grower’s Conference and I link up with this brother named George
Reistad who was also trying to go. When I got to Detroit, it just changed my entire world, everything. I’m like ‘Black and Brown people do this? This is so dope. This
is where I need to be.’ Really early on, in that moment, everything clicked.”
George Reistad, who is originally from Milwaukee and was also in the PEOPLE Program, graduated from UW-Madison in December of 2011. Like Hamilton and
Richards, he too had come to UW-Madison to pursue a degree in engineering.
“Engineering didn’t go so great for me personally,” Reistad said. “I won’t blame the school as I definitely had my own part to play in that. I got kicked out, not just out
of the School of Engineering, but out of UW-Madison. They sent me an email over the summer. I kept it to myself, while a formulated a plan, before I took it to my
parents. I appealed the expulsion and it was accepted back with the condition that I change my major. So, I changed it to economics through the College of Letters
“In my freshman year, I had started to get involved with some people and organizations focused on environmental justice and that opened the door to my talking to
advisors at The Nelson Institute,” Reistad elaborated. “So, I ended up turning that into a certificate. An economics major with an Environmental Studies Certificate., I
was in the first cohort to get the environmental studies major, which you have to pair with something else.”
He was one of the first students Monica White met when she was considering coming to UW-Madison, and it was knowing that there might be students like Reistad
on campus that sealed the deal for her. Reistad would graduate before she took on her assistant professor role, but they kept in contact. He would return to his
home in Milwaukee, where he worked in human resources. Yet, he remained interested in the environment movement.
While attending a talk on the “Diaspora of Food Based on the Diaspora of People,” Reistad ran into Margaret Krome, the public policy program director at Michael
Fields Agricultural Institute. Krome knew of Reistad from his intern work while in Madison as a student, which included work at UW-Extension, city of Middleton,
MG&E Greenpower and the PEOPLE Program, where he developed curriculum for their Urban Ag program.
Krome, aware of his interests and potential, was set on getting him back to Madison and working in agriculture and public policy.
“Margaret was very straight forward about wanting to get people of color involved, to have people who look like the people being served,” Reistad recalled. “She
kept it real with me, very candid. She knew I was also qualified and teachable. I didn’t know too much about public policy, but she offered to teach me about the
innerworkings. She is really the one who planted the public policy seed. I was then connected to a lot of organizations that are important to my work today. I was
there three years until I moved into my current position as the city of Madison food policy coordinator.”
Three young men — one born and raised in Madison, one from a nearby city and the other from the West Coast — would find themselves and one another, working in
the world of food systems. This world, however, is not known for being one that is heavily populated with people of color, unless on the receiving end of food.
Professor White reflected on Reistad and Hamilton. “You can tell early on that food access and food justice were important to them. They were looking for someone
who could speak a language that they could relate to. They had left their communities and their work is a manifestation of that experience.”
While Hamilton was busy with school and negotiating the campus climate, he also found a positive outlet for the pressure. He would throw cook-outs, which started
out small and grew to 50-60 people or more. They would be in response to whatever was happening that required students to need a place to come together. He
would take a year off from UW-Madison after connecting with Professor White.
“I went back to LA for a while, remodeling homes, got a certification through a master gardener program and got obsessed with plants. I did vertical gardening,
buying up plants, learning different ways to grow in the city. I was really interested in how you can feed yourself with limited space and just went crazy with
When he returned to UW-Madison, he decided to up his cookout game and began to include food that was locally or home-grown. Professor White chided him about
bringing food to class everyday and feeding his classmates. Richards was one of the many people who attended and was given fuel for his work, by his new
friends’ efforts, which became known as “Grilling for the People.”
Their connection with the Posse and PEOPLE Program, would also yield a measurable community crop. As the elder statesman of the trio, Reistad had been working
with the PEOPLE Program on their Urban Ag curriculum. The PEOPLE Program was asked to work with Greg Lawless at UW-Extension. Lawless was working on a
grant to highlight urban ag and how you teach and introduce it to youth.
Donale Richards was working at UW-Extension at the time and describes it as “a massive collaboration with UW-Extension, PEOPLE Program, Mentoring Positives,
FEED Kitchens and other agricultural programs. The kids spent time on campus working and at FEED Kitchens. That was our first year of the pizza project, just
trying to figure out what that would like, working with kids. Developing the recipe, getting the business plan down, cost of ingredients, kitchen rentals, licensing.
That’s where I got started as the Off the Block Manager for the enterprise, which includes the Salsa and other products in development.”
Those connections to food, to place and to each other would eventually grow into an opportunity for Devon, who was preparing to graduate from UW-Madison in May
of 2017, with a degree in Landscape Studies. He connected with George, who was leaving Michael Fields for his current position at the city of Madison. George
suggested that he apply for his position and he began working part-time until he graduated and moved into the position of Assistant Director, Public Policy at the
organization. Hamilton also serves on the board of directors for REAP Food Group and the Mellowhood Foundation, where he works with youth in urban agriculture.
He also turned the cookouts into pop-ups and formed another collective, called the Traderoots Culinary Collective with Candy Flowers and Yusuf Bin-Rella.
Many who work in local food systems work have seen the trio together. Perhaps at a conference, telling their stories or advocating for food policy. They may not
have known their stories or how their connection to one another helped them individually or will invariably help others in the future. Food has brought them together
and from there the community might realize the benefits of their work and dedication to food justice.
We asked them to share a few thoughts as it relates to food justice and will end this journey in their own words.
What is food justice/sovereignty to you?
I like to look at food justice and food sovereignty through the lens of my work as a City of Madison employee who interacts and collaborates with community
members to change or create food systems policies and programs. With that in mind, creating community food systems that align with outcomes that advance or
achieve food justice and food sovereignty means creating robust options for people to grow, buy, eat, process, and sell healthy, affordable food for themselves,
their families and their communities. It means ensuring that the food community members consume is safe, nutritious, and aids in longevity and well-being,
regardless of socio-economic status or zip code. As the Food Policy Director for the City, I will continue to work with (and for) community residents to develop and
advocate for solutions and strategies that accomplish those goals.
I often hear food justice defined only at the surface level, as if by definition it ends at our right to have access to affordable, sustainable, nutritious food. Though this
may address the many immediate, visible issues we see today, it often overlooks their root causes. To me, food justice is spiritual. It's about knowledge of the land
and its people who define you, and connecting with every step of the food system, from seed to table, and back to the soil. It's rooted in the freedom and resiliency
both of community and the environment, understanding how food has and will always shape our quality of life. At its core, food justice is about more than access to
an apple at a corner store. Rather, it's about that apple's story, from the soil it was sowed in, to our knowledge and reclamation of our ancestral connection to it.
Food justice is the ability for our global systems to provide diverse, nutrient-rich foods to all people at an affordable cost while minimizing our environmental
impact. As an individual, it is our responsibility to maintain a healthy, balanced-diet but we must also be conscious how we influence others. From a positive
aspect, this is sharing our culture, so people can feel more connected. From a negative aspect, how we disrupt ecosystems that alter or reduce the availability of
What is your personal relationship with food?
Now I may not be as accomplished a chef as Devon, but I do enjoy cooking and I definitely enjoy eating. My fiancée and I often cook at home together and
sometimes cook up recipes separately to try out new cuisines and dishes. I like to think that we are both proficient cooks, so whether we are cooking separately or
together, we both end up winning because the dishes usually turn out very well. Outside of that, food has always been a connector in my life, whether as a medium
to get family and friends together or the unifying bond that allows strangers to sit down with one another and become acquaintances and friends. Food allows for the
building of community. We all eat, and I can’t think of a better way to get to know someone than to sit down at a potluck-style meal and eat with folks, especially with
dishes prepared by those you’re dining with.
Food is how I connect with spirit. The kitchen and the table have become my church, my diary, my classroom, and everything else in-between. I feel connected to
family I'll never know when I'm cooking and, in the garden, and hear their whispers as I work over pot and plant.
I have a diverse family background that has exposed me to a variety of foods. I was always eating new things and it made me appreciate the culture that food came
from. I also saw how food truly brings people together. As I got older, I started to see how disconnected people were to the food they put in their body. I would have
family members who would eat poorly, but then have frequent visits to the doctor. I have friends who would starve themselves because they didn't know how to
cook for themselves. The people around me are the ones who made me value food on a deeper level. Now I am in control because I am willing to garden, I am
willing to prepare food and I am willing to cook for not only myself, but for others.
Thoughts on Communities of Color and Food Justice
Oftentimes (and unfortunately) Communities of Color are faced with a variety of issues that are all important as it relates to the on-going well-being and health of our
communities, with those issues usually centering around advocating to level historic disparities around economic, educational, and public health outcomes. I think
that because of the urgency of some of those issues, food systems-based work (unless housed in larger public health efforts) can sometimes become a secondary
or tertiary priority for community leaders and organizations. However, in my humble opinion, eliminating gaps/barriers in accessing and consuming nutritious foods
by creating community outlets that provide affordable options to fresh and frozen produce and food options that provide a healthy balance between processed and
non-processed selections is a huge step forward in improving community health. I think that providing those options, so that Communities of Color have a true (read
affordable and convenient) choice in what they buy, grow, and consume is a basic tenet of food justice and an outcome that will ensure positive public health
outcomes. Additionally, food sovereignty principles advocate for residents of Communities of Color (and all communities) to frame and define their own food systems
so that healthy dietary choices and options are not those that are dictated by outside parties but come from knowledge within the community, leading to healthy food
choices that are housed in tradition and culture.
Touch the soil from time to time and listen to what she says. Never cook alone and take the long way when you can - it always tastes better. Eat to feed the soul and
be inquisitive - did you really make that from scratch? Sing to your food, from the garden to the pot, and thank the lives it took to make it. Coming from a city kid
turned just a little country, these things have always held me down when I needed them most. To know your freedom is to know your food.
For communities of color, it is on us as individuals to break the cycle, so we can carve our own path. We need to be honest and ask ourselves: What can I do
better? How can I be positive role model? Am I making an effort to connect with my community? We can't continue to blame the system when we have the power to
change that system. Our ancestors have faced hardships, so we have voting power and purchasing power. Now it's our turn to continue the fight for equity.