How The Okra Project Is Bringing Food Security to Black Trans People

A partnership between The Black Trans Solidarity Fund and Zaddy's Kitchen, The Okra Project's main goal is to bring healthy meals to black trans people, free of charge.

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in January, everyone gathered in a Bronx, New York, apartment has at least one thing in common.

They're hungry.

While a group of friends kick back and debate Ariana Grande's “thank u, next” video, chef Meliq "Zaddy" August is in the kitchen preparing a Caribbean feast. 

First up, a nod to August's heritage is served: Belizean garnaches, which are similar to tostadas. They're fried corn tortillas with refried beans and mango slaw on top.

Having a chef prepare a meal like this might seem like no big deal to some. But for this group of friends, it would have been unfathomable without Ianne Stewart's idea.

"It truly was just a thought that occurred to me," Stewart told "I was on the couch and the idea just kinda spilled out of my mouth."

Right then, just days before Christmas, The Okra Project was born. 

A partnership between the Black Trans Solidarity Fund and Zaddy's Kitchen, which was founded by August, The Okra Project's main goal is to bring healthy meals to black trans people in need, free of charge. 

"What we do is we hire black trans chefs to go into the homes of black trans people or for those black trans people who are experiencing homelessness, we prepare food for them," said Stewart. "... That is our intention, is to basically bring food to food insecure black trans people."

After coming up with the idea on the couch, Stewart shared it with a friend, Nyla Samson, who founded the Black Trans Solidarity Fund. They contacted August and scheduled a meeting. At best, they thought they'd raise $500 to $1,000, and hoped to provided some tasty food to those in need over the holidays. 

Santa did them one better.

“A week before Christmas Eve, the idea came. It was just when I first reached out. That happened on Sunday. That Wednesday, we came out. By Friday, we had $6,000, which was wild," Stewart said. "We had $1,000 by the end of the day on Wednesday and the idea went out at 9 a.m."

The only people who get paid through The Okra Project are the chefs. Those who request food through the nonprofit don't spend a dime. Meals cost about $20 a plate.

August was only too happy to help.

"Everyone should have access to healthy, accessible food," August said. "And the fact that that is not there, the fact that I see the stark difference between produce at Trader Joe's and produce at most grocery stores in the hood, it's a damn sin."

Stewart explained that the nonprofit's unique name was chosen to reflect its founders' ancestry. "The whole reason why we call it The Okra Project was because our African ancestors you know, during slavery and the Middle Passage, would hide okra on their bodies. Some people would weave it into their braids. And hide it and plant it in the new world as a means of sustenance.

"That's why okra means what it does today. About prosperity and about community."

What August prepared that January day didn’t last long. Barely five minutes passed from when August announced the main course was ready — jerk jackfruit, rice and peas, fried plantain and avocado — to when plates were licked clean.

Devin Lowe, whose apartment everyone was gathered in that day, was emotional while speaking about what it means to have The Okra Project in the home he shares with friends Eli Berry and Kai Parker.

"The fact The Okra Project is out here saying, ‘Hey, you deserve healthy meals and you deserve it for free,’" Lowe said. "'You shouldn't have to be struggling, and having to pay to survive.' And doing the work that I do, doing a lot of community organizing work, working with a lot of other black trans folks, I see every day the people that are struggling, I have kids reaching out to me all the time, trying to ask for $10 to $15, so they can find a meal, trying to ... which is so heartbreaking," said Lowe.

Lowe’s roommate, Parker, who is a vegetarian, appreciates the fact that The Okra Project also offers that option.

"Essentially I was just sitting here thinking it's another part of community, and community coming together to make sure that we're out here surviving. We're out here healing, just existing in this world, trying to create, trying to love and just be. So that's why I love this project, because it brings communities together, you know what I mean?"

The demand for The Okra Project is now so great, they've already expanded to Philadelphia.

Stewart admits the fast growth is scary, but it doesn't matter. If they stay ready, they don't have to get ready.

“The Okra Project is something we did because there was a need and we wanted to meet it, but I really wanna see people start to invest in ways that means that we can really look to bigger and better future," Stewart said. 

If the reaction on everyone’s faces after the meal was any indication, The Okra Project’s future looks quite bright.