Operation Bon Appetit: Changing Communities Through Conversation

In early June, Tampa resident Jan Roberts was driving through South Dakota's Badlands on her way to Saint Mary-of-the-Wood, IN, where Catholic nuns run White Violet Center for Eco Justice, a 343-acre organic farm with its own herd of alpacas, a "classified'' forest and a community-sponsored agriculture program.

In Nashville, TN, she stopped at Thistle Farms and Thistle Stop Cafe, a residential program and social enterprise dedicated to women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction.  

And, in Washington State, she talked with people at Quixote Village, a self-governing community of formerly homeless adults who now live in a village of "tiny'' (144-square-feet) homes.

Roberts, who turned 76 on the road, just finished a 11,450-mile cross-country trip collecting stories about "good people doing good things.''  In total, she's assembled 50 live-interview videos, which she'll edit and post online in coming weeks.

A self-described community builder, Roberts says she has always been looking to change the world. She's a former adjunct professor at the University of Tampa's Sykes College of Business and has founded or co-founded several nonprofits, including the Sustainable Business Coalition and Earth Charter U.S.

The CIA As An Agent of Social Change

More recently, she launched the Cultural Innovations Agency, a nonprofit group with a mission of engaging people in social change. Cultural Innovations Agency's initials, CIA, are a product of Roberts' zany sense of humor and creative flair.

Operation Bon Appetit is one of CIA's first initiatives. It serves as an online resource to spark conversations about socially conscious issues – issues like alternative energy, how to create a culture of peace, the new economy, school education that works and the push for healthy eating with concepts like farm to fork.  

The idea is to engage people in provocative conversations around the dinner table. Operation Bon Appetit is about changing the world one dinner party at a time, says Roberts.

"I love the idea of connection, relationship, making a difference and being around people who have a passion for doing creative things,'' says Roberts. "It was natural for me think of structuring conversations around cooking and dinner parties.''

On her website, Roberts gives a tribute to culinary icon Julia Child, whom she tongue-in-cheek calls a "Special Ops Culinary Agent.'' Roberts also notes that Child was actually a true CIA agent early in her career.

To kick-start Operation Bon Appetit, Roberts brainstormed the idea of creating a series of videos of people who weren't just talking about how to  make a difference, but were actually doing it. She thought the videos could serve as a resource and further the dinner table conservations.

"I was looking for stories about people doing really transformational work in their communities; stories that don't make it onto the nightly news but deserve national attention,'' says Roberts.

Road Trip USA

Earlier this year, Roberts conceived the idea of a cross-country road trip to visit with people making a difference in various cities across the U.S. She invited friends to a "mapping'' party at her Tampa condo, inviting them to stick a push pin into a big map of the U.S. where they thought she should visit.

Friends and relatives offered her a "couch to sleep on'' as she stopped in various destinations. Lorna Taylor, CEO of Premier Eye Care of Tampa, a former board member of Earth Charter U.S., agreed to be a sponsor.

In April she set out with a new car, a GPS and a video camera. First stop was Tallahassee. Second stop was New Orleans, where she met Delaney Martin, who helped found New Orleans Airlift, an initiative to support and showcase the many "under the radar'' artists who were struggling after Hurricane Katrina.

Roberts had an initial list of interviews set up thanks to a friend who is publisher of YES!, a nonprofit magazine targeting people engaged in social, political and environmental change.  

But many just happened in an organic way -- a suggestion from friends, referrals from people she interviewed and even articles she read in the media. Not one to be intimated by a challenge, Roberts simply picked up the phone, introduced herself and invited the person she was calling to be part of her Operation Bon Appetit project.

"Surprisingly, 90 to 95 of them said yes,'' says Roberts. "I think when you're doing this from the heart, doors open. People feel good about telling their stories. One of my interview subjects in Portland said he loved what I was doing as it allowed him to reach a different audience than he would normally speak to.''

A Favorite Recipe

In addition to asking people to talk about their work, she also invited them to share a memory related to food. "I had one final question for everyone -- tell me about your favorite dish,'' says Roberts.  

"It's always so disarming to be asked a question like that,'' says Roberts. "But it got people thinking and they really enjoyed it. One woman told me about growing up as a Navajo and eating her mother's mutton stew. Her persona completely changed as she was telling me that story.''

Roberts plans to have the videos edited and ready to be posted online later this summer, along with recipes for many of the dishes mentioned in the stories.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.