Kia Damon Is Combating Food Apartheid One Nutritious Meal at a Time
The celebrated chef is using her culinary skills for those in need.
"One time when I was a kid, my family gave me a task to cook the rice for dinner, and I burned it. After that, I was just banned from any cooking activities," Kia Damon says about one of her earliest cooking experiences.
Years later, the self-taught chef has come a long way— with a vast array of culinary experiences under her belt, including being a Chopped champion, hosting season two of Nike’s Athlete’s Cookbook, and spearheading a new project called Kia Feeds The People Program that helps fight food apartheid in Brooklyn.
Damon says she was able to redeem herself with her family after the rice disaster and shared how she went on to become “Kia Cooks.” But before the nickname came, which she revealed is so strongly tied to her that some people actually think “Cooks” is her last name, the Florida native’s cooking journey began out of necessity.
“I got a little bit older and my mom and my stepdad were both working and I had two younger brothers, so I had to figure out what to cook. I didn't have any money. I stepped up and just started to mimic the things I saw my mom do, but added my own curiosities around cooking and food,” Damon says. “Then it kind of developed into vegetarianism. I was dealing with some health issues, and I was like, ‘Well, this book says maybe if I eat only vegetables, then maybe I'll be okay.’”
She sought out inspiration in food magazines and began frequenting grocery stores to gather fresh ingredients to build meals of her own, resulting in a new confidence that she hadn’t noticed before and found that she had tapped into an entire new career path.
“One day, I was just like, ‘Oh, wow. I can actually do this. This feels good. I feel confident in myself,” Damon says. “I really don't know what else I'm going to do with my life right now. I'm young. I'm depressed. School is a flop. I don't know, but cooking makes me feel good.’ Then I just kind of went for it.”
Instead of going to culinary school, Damon worked her way through kitchens in Orlando and north Florida, including time on the line at Chipotle, Panda Express, Green Day Cafe, The Bada Bean, Sweet Pea Cafe and even a stint at Universal Studios making the famed Butterbeer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
In 2018, she moved to New York where she took a job as a sous chef at Lalito, which permanently closed in 2019. She was later promoted to executive chef there, resulting in her being brought into the limelight with a win on Chopped. Even though Damon found a lane to thrive in in New York, she found ways to blend in her Southern upbringing.
“It’s about to be three years of me living here. I'm like, ‘How do I find that balance of living up here, but also spiritually being very of the South and very slow culturally? How do I balance those?’” Damon says. “ I don't know how many mental breakdowns I've had moving at this New York pace since I've been here. A lot of Black women, we’re just thrown out there to kind of fend for ourselves. It's hard to figure out who you can trust.”
Mental health remains a high priority for Damon and she talks at length about her journey on her Instagram page. During the height of the pandemic, Damon said she was approached countless times to participate in online events geared around entertaining people who missed going out to their favorite restaurants or never had to cook for themselves before, but she didn’t feel right doing it.
“I really meditated on what my purpose is, why I got into cooking, and why I got into hospitality. Before I was told that I needed to cook a certain way or do certain things for accolades or for recognition or for awards or whatever,” Damon says. “Before I was told that those were supposed to be my goals, my actual goals were to just serve people, nourish them, and help them out.
After she realized what wasn’t of interest to her, she could focus on what was and that is actively working to address food apartheid through Kia Feeds The People Program (KFTPP).
“I needed to help these people who were suffering in ways and struggling in ways before the pandemic even happened, and now it's only been magnified exponentially,” she says. “This is something that's always been itching in the back of my head, even though food apartheid is only a term that I learned in the last two years. It’s the idea of food scarcity or what we previously were calling just food deserts.”
Food deserts are defined as areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food and Damon was no stranger to the general concept of food apartheid as she said the problem also exists in her home state of Florida.
“Coming from Florida, a place that’s super spread out and not as walkable as Brooklyn, you could really end up somewhere, and the nearest grocery store could be five or six miles out,” Damon says. “Then if you don't have a car or you don't have a bike, you're worrying about public transportation, and it just gets even more complicated.”
KFTPP specifically focuses on what food apartheid looks like in Brooklyn with a mission to provide quality, organic produce and pantry items to undeserved, Black, and QTPOC communities, joining other community leaders and organizations also fighting to eliminate it.
Some of Damon’s plans for the initial launch of the program include distributing chickens and turkeys for the holiday season this year, providing meals for people without housing, and to create a free breakfast and lunch program.
The inspiration for the program stems from Georgia Gilmore’s Club From Nowhere and the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, which ran from 1969-1980, and helped put a national spotlight on the lack of nutritious foods provided for impoverished school children.
“The heaviest influence is definitely the Black Panther Party. I feel like if you haven't read about the Black Panther Party's free breakfast program, I encourage you to read why it started and how it ended, and if you have read it, I don't know how you can't be filled with rage and anger, and just have this burning desire to pick up the torch, pick up some of that flame, and keep it burning,” Damon says. “Just watching people actively intend to sabotage Black and Brown people's wellbeing by cutting off their access to food, it just burns you up. What I’m hoping is that people will realize that this is a collective problem. This affects everybody, and it's much closer to people than they think it is.”