Ashley Brooks and Sonja Overhiser teamed up last year to build a community to support women who work in the local food industry. Brooks, co-founder of Milktooth and Garfield Park Farmers Market, and Overhiser, cookbook author and half of the popular A Couple Cooks website (with her husband Alex), met in early 2017 after an event from Cherry bomb, a national food magazine that focuses on women. They found out pretty quickly that many of the local women who were thrilled to be in their industry mates’ room didn’t even know each other. Within a few months, Brooks and Overhiser launched Indy Women in Food. What began as a small private Facebook group and informal potluck series has grown into a network of nearly 150 women who share business advice, supplier resources, and moral support. September 25th marks Indy Women in Food’s first high profile public event where the two women host a moderated Q&A at Indy Reads Books with award-winning cookbook author and food activist Julia Turshen (Kleine Siege, Feed the Resistance, Now &) . Once again). We recently spoke to them about the upcoming event and the unique challenges women face in the Indianapolis food community.
Indianapolis Monthly: What were your goals when you started Indy Women in Food?
Sonja Overhiser: Our three main goals were to bring together women who work in the city in the food industry, promote initiatives related to nutrition, and host some events and gatherings that are led by women. We really wanted to bring people together for the good of the city.
Ashley Brooks: There are other groups that support entrepreneurs and mothers’ groups, but there was nothing specific for the food industry, and especially for chefs. And at the Cherry Bomb event, it was surprising that so many women who work in the industry hadn’t even met. They are just so busy with the restaurants or in their kitchen. The need for stronger connectivity was highlighted.
IM: How is life different for men and women who work in food?
AB: I think there is a natural difference between the way men and women work in the industry. Women are naturally more caring, more supportive, and make those connections. My experience (as the co-founder of Milktooth) with the fact that I am a young mom and entering the food industry has been taking on a back-of-house role that is more behind the scenes and often discounted. I don’t think my ex-husband (Milktooth chef / owner Jonathan Brooks) would have had the opportunity to be as successful as he was without that.
SO: It’s different for me to be in the media because there are more women. But it’s also easy to get isolated as someone running their own independent publications and digital media. It is not easy to keep in touch with a community of others who do similar things and understand the abundance that food is.
AB: And then of course right now it’s really important to start a conversation and talk about how women are treated in the industry. Some places have a culture of toxic masculinity. There can also be addiction problems. And often women tend to be silenced. They don’t feel like they can speak out for fear of retaliation or letting go of complaining.
IM: What can men in the food community do to better support women in the food community?
AB: Just listen. We’re going to have a public talk on diversity and unity soon (date TBA, with hosts Tanorria Askew and Candace Wylie), and I’d love to see male industry leaders come and hear women tell their stories. Listen as they talk about what they went through – arguments, adversity, whatever it is. And they don’t even have to answer. Just be educated and aware. I don’t even blame some of the bro-ey cooks in town. I just feel like they don’t know any better. But you need to know better. Let’s all get on the same page.
I AM:: Why do you think it is important for the local community to hear from a New York-based writer? Julia Turshen?
SO: She’s a great cookbook writer and activist for women, people of color, LGBTQs and non-binary people. She created a digital database called Equity at the Table (EATT) to help the media and companies hiring grocery professionals find people who normally don’t get featured in the news. She really is at the top of her game.
AB: I also think it’s important for people in Indianapolis to see what others are doing in bigger cities. It’s easy to pigeonhole yourself or your own little bubble at times, and it’s really good to step out of it and hear different perspectives.
More information about Indy Women in Food can be found online at indywomeninfood.com and on Instagram @indywomeninfood.