Souper Jenny fills in food deserts
Words by Mary Kate McGowan
Since 1999, Souper Jenny has served fresh food and positive energy across Atlanta. Every day, the cafe chain changes its menus of soups and sandwiches based on available ingredients and the season's flavors. But two things remain the same: quality and My Dad's Turkey Chili.
After years of success with Souper Jenny, owner Jenny Levison—also known as the chief soup slinger—wanted to do more, to be actively involved in supporting the communities her cafes were already serving.
"If everyone just did one thing for their community, we would probably solve a lot of problems," Levison said.
The Souper Jenny team brainstormed what they could do to help their community more. Souper Jenny specializes in soup, so the Souper Jenny team asked: "What if we donated soup?"
"Hunger is such a big issue in our own community, including food deserts. People are out there really trying, and they're not making any headway. Since my life is centered around food, I'm just naturally drawn to wanting to make sure everyone's fed," she said.
A food desert is an urban area without a grocery store or access to fresh food where residents are a burdensome distance from accessing fresh food. The City of Atlanta and local restaurants, such as Souper Jenny, are actively working to help fill in these food deserts in various ways, including cultivating the urban agriculture community. In 2021, the City of Atlanta reported that 75 percent of residents live within a half-mile of fresh food, a 23 percent increase since 2015.
The Zadie Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was born in 2016. To help feed Atlanta's hungry children, families and seniors, Levison named the nonprofit in honor of her father, Zadie—the Yiddish word for "grandfather." The nonprofit donates a nutritious meal to an Atlanta family in need every time a bowl of Souper Jenny's most popular soup is sold. The soup, My Dad's Turkey Chili, is the only item that appears on the menu every day and was passed down to Levison from Zadie.
The Zadie Project serves the immediate needs of the Atlanta community by growing, cooking, and delivering fresh and wholesome food to people who do not have funds or access. The nonprofit's goal is to provide 2,000 meals a week. Souper Jenny employees and volunteers are responsible for cooking and delivering the soup to those in need.
Souper Jenny and The Zadie Project work hand-in-hand to help feed Atlantans. Levison wanted to tie the nonprofit and restaurant together more closely. So, Souper Jenny started the Souper farm. An urban farm on a one-acre piece of land behind Souper Jenny's Westside location on Huff Road, the Souper farm is an educational urban garden and learning center. The farm's original goal was to use the produce to supply The Zadie Project and Souper Jenny's restaurants.
"We were going to grow all the things for our soup that we were going to make," she said. "An acre of land seems large, but we could probably harvest everything that was growing and make like three packs of soup. You need a lot of land to grow a lot of food."
Now, the farm offers classes to the surrounding food desert communities and provides low-cost educational programs to families about sustainable living and the value of eating whole foods.
"We grow vegetables. We use some, we sell some. Anything we use goes back to the nonprofit, but mostly it's an education piece," said Levison, adding that anyone who wants to learn how to grow food is welcome.
Levison's passion for food infuses how she wants to serve her restaurants' communities. "I love that idea of community, of people sitting around the table," she said.
Levison said it breaks her heart when she hears about families having to choose between paying rent and buying food. This call to help others is true to Levison's belief that business owners and people should be "conscious capitalists."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but I want to do it in a sustainable way. I think it's our responsibility to be part of the community that we’re asking to be our customers," she said.
Levison said a great bowl of turkey chili makes Souper Jenny customers feel good. Still, Souper Jenny and The Zadie Project want the experience to run deeper. Levison said she wants people who eat and work at Souper Jenny to feel purpose, as if they are "a piece of the puzzle."
"We're not solving a world crisis, but maybe we're just helping in our small way," she said.
To learn more about Souper Jenny, The Zadie Project, and the Souper farm, visit https://www.souperjennyatl.com/.