In the grim first weeks after Hurricane Harvey last fall, a coalition of some of the biggest names in Houston food mobilized for a culinary relief effort. Spearheaded in part by chefs behind local institutions like Pondicheri and Theodore Rex, their pop-up event for over 90 Houstonians raised thousands of dollars towards supplies—as well as a mountain of feminine hygiene products—for the tens of thousands of women in the region who were displaced by the storm.
The flood waters have receded, but the initiative, I’ll Have What She’s Having, is only gaining steam. Led by vascular surgeon Lori Choi, veteran chef Monica Pope, and Erin Smith, co-owner of Feges BBQ, the group of female food and beverage professionals and physicians began to coalesce in the wake of the 2016 election. IHWSH’s Harvey relief dinner was the first of seven events to date benefiting providers of women’s and sexual health care. A gala early this month raised over $100,000 for four local beneficiaries, and the group has ambitions to extend its outreach across the region and, later, the United States as a whole. But even with its roots in diverse, left-leaning Houston, it’ll need to work with the state’s conservative politics in order to expand its influence.
When it comes to healthcare, Texas women are uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures in the political climate. The state’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the developed world, having recently doubled over the course of just two years. Funding for Planned Parenthood was slashed by 66% in 2011, forcing the closure of 82 clinics providing exams and contraception. The state currently has the fifth-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country and the single highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy. Texas is now leading a 20-state lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that the elimination of the individual mandate in 2019 will render the law invalid, a move to which the Trump administration has responded favorably. And in light of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court, pro-life groups have additional momentum to push for further restrictions on abortion in the state.
According to Smith, the affordable services provided by organizations like Planned Parenthood, which IHWSH has supported from its earliest days, are of particular importance to individuals in the food and beverage industry, whose employers often do not provide them with insurance. “That a lot of people utilize the services of places like Planned Parenthood to stay healthy and… this fear that those organizations were going to lose funding, that those opportunities were going to go away for women, was the tipping point,” Smith said.
Half of IHWSH’s pop-ups have directly benefited Planned Parenthood, with a focus “on things completely unrelated to safe and legal access to abortion,” said Choi, who leads a “Physician’s Advisory Squad” to bring medical awareness and information to IHWSH’s membership. “Despite that, the fact that we had mentioned Planned Parenthood at all in our social media or our website meant that some people were already nervous about being associated with us,” Choi said. “They’ll support us with donations, but they don’t want to be publicly noted.” (Early this spring, however, they dealt with the matter more directly; IHWSH donated the proceeds to Clinic Access Support Network, a provider of transportation and fiscal and emotional support for individuals accessing abortion care.)
IHWSH’s call to arms in support of the “mothers, wives, sisters, aunts and daughters of Texas and America” echoes Mimi Swartz’s famous 2012 Texas Monthly cover story, a bleak portrait from the battlefield of a state-wide war on women’s healthcare. Swartz’s piece appeared after the passage of a bill requiring women to undergo a 24-hour waiting period and an ultrasound—in which the sonographer is required to describe the positions of the hands, head, and heart of the fetus to the patient—prior to receiving an abortion.
But Choi believes the women’s health crisis extends far beyond state lines—and that its worst is yet to come. In the field of obstetrics, Choi noted by way of example, too few young physicians are replacing the many doctors retiring from burnout, and adequate funding simply isn’t available to provide OB care to the many women who need it. “It’s not just Texas—it’s truly all across the country that we’re letting women’s healthcare go,” Choi said. “And it’s a very low-tech field, in which just time with a doctor and an ultrasound will diagnose a problem that can be fixed. But because it’s so low-tech, when you follow that money, there’s no one lobbying on behalf of these women.”
IHWSH counts among its members culinary standouts like Karen Man of Oxheart, Mary Cuclis of Pondicheri, and Victoria Dearmond of Underbelly, women whose bonafides in the industry have attracted sold-out crowds to each of its pop-up events. The group has served as a platform to launch emerging talent by placing its industry stalwarts in mentorship roles with up-and-comers. “One of the most important things for our industry and other industries to really look at and push for is more female leadership,” said Smith, who opened the highly anticipated Feges BBQ with her husband, Patrick Feges, this March. “I think the most important thing to be a leader and to be confident and to really step up and take those kind of positions is, you have to be healthy,” Smith added.
Madalyn Lester, an Underbelly alumna and current line cook at bistro and wine bar Nancy’s Hustle, received the reins during the organization’s third event, in November. “When I first signed up for that, I wasn’t realizing that it was going to be my menu and that I was going to get to do whatever I wanted to do,” Lester recalls. She prepared a whole roasted fish, accompanied by sides Smith and Dearmond. “That was just a whole new learning experience, when it comes to ordering food, budgeting food, figuring out how to feed 120 people,” Lester says. “I couldn’t imagine having that opportunity with anything else.”
According to Choi, the second half of the year will remain relatively quiet, in hopes that IHWSH members and guests will focus on the midterm elections. “In order to change things in Texas, we really have to do more than the minimum in terms of our citizenry,” Choi said. “Otherwise, there are things going on on the state and federal level that are going to make changes that are really not representative of us as Texans, or women, or Americans.”