Conversations on Food and Race with Andy Shallal

15 April, 2022


In which Wash­ing­ton DC’s artist-entre­pre­neur-phil­an­thropist (and one-time may­oral can­di­date) dish­es on mat­ters of hunger and racism.


Jordan Elgrably


Bus­boys and Poets has become a DC insti­tu­tion, albeit where pro­gres­sive events happen.

In a recent con­ver­sa­tion among the edi­tors at The Markaz Review, we dis­cussed the ris­ing threat of star­va­tion among peo­ple in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syr­ia and oth­er coun­tries, and as a result decid­ed to devote an issue of TMR to the sub­ject of food and hunger. Accord­ing to the World Food Pro­gramme (WFP), in 2022 “up to 811 mil­lion peo­ple do not have enough food.” The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and recent con­flicts across the globe have brought mil­lions to the brink of famine. The war in Ukraine has made Europe part of this dis­cus­sion, even as more than 39 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, includ­ing 12 mil­lion chil­dren, accord­ing to the USDA, “are food inse­cure.”

In Gaza, Pales­tine, the WFP reports, hunger effects more than 64% of the pop­u­la­tion. “Severe­ly food inse­cure Pales­tini­ans are suf­fer­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­sump­tion gap and lack the means to cov­er their basic needs includ­ing food, hous­ing and cloth­ing,” notes the WFP.

It must be said that with the war in Ukraine, we have observed first­hand how much more Ukrain­ian refugees have been wel­comed, fed and housed, as opposed to the rather dis­grace­ful recep­tion expe­ri­enced in recent years by peo­ple flee­ing con­flict in Syr­ia and Afghanistan, for instance — quite as if there is a dou­ble stan­dard for white Chris­t­ian Euro­peans ver­sus Arabs and Muslims.

In think­ing about the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of hunger and race, my mind went first to two movers and shak­ers in the Wash­ing­ton, DC area — Span­ish-born chef José Andrés*, who has devot­ed recent years and mil­lions of dol­lars to feed­ing hun­gry peo­ple, from along the US bor­der to Haiti to Ukraine, with his non­prof­it World Cen­tral Kitchen; and Iraqi native Anas “Andy” Shal­lal (أنس شلال), the founder of the Bus­boys and Poets chain of restaurant-bookstores.

When he was 10 years old, Anas Shal­lal left Bagh­dad with his mid­dle-class fam­i­ly, arriv­ing in the Unit­ed States in 1966. Shallal’s father was ambas­sador for the Arab League in DC, a posi­tion he held until Sad­dam Hus­sein seized pow­er, after which he did not feel it was safe to return. Grow­ing up in Arling­ton, Shal­lal went to pub­lic school and with his sib­lings, tried to blend in. While many Arab Amer­i­cans pass for white, Shal­lal has passed for Black, and more than once has been con­front­ed with the awk­ward ques­tion, “What are you?”

Race is impor­tant to Shal­lal and he encour­ages frank dis­cus­sions about race at work. As a recent sto­ry in the Wash­ing­ton Post not­ed, one of the aspects Shal­lal loves most about super­vis­ing his 600 Bus­boys and Poets employ­ees is that every few weeks, he attends new-hire ori­en­ta­tions, where there is an open dis­cus­sion about race, dis­crim­i­na­tion and serv­ing cus­tomers, in which “employ­ees gath­er around a table … to dis­cuss their fears, their pasts and their expe­ri­ences with race. It’s an approach Shal­lal has refined over decades and one that is increas­ing­ly urgent as hourly wage work­ers are on the front lines of America’s race wars — and often ill-equipped.”

As he once explained, “I didn’t think I was white and I didn’t think I was black, and no kid wants to be the ‘oth­er’” — but from time to time, he remem­bers, kids in school would say to him, “What are you?” 

And it’s fun­ny, because my broth­er looks more white than I do. And so he did not have the same expe­ri­ences I had. I have two sis­ters also. One of them looks African Amer­i­can. She could eas­i­ly pass for a light-skinned African Amer­i­can. The oth­er one looks like she’s Ital­ian or French, you know, com­plete­ly Euro­pean-look­ing. And so when I talk to my sis­ters, the dark­er sis­ter and I have much more in com­mon of how we inter­pret­ed race than my old­er sib­lings, who were lighter and had a whole dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence. [Analy­sis]

Shal­lal grad­u­at­ed with a BA from the Catholic Uni­ver­si­ty of Amer­i­can and then enrolled in Howard University’s med­ical school. He went on to become a researcher in med­ical immunol­o­gy at the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health, before going back to school to earn an MBA at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. Unlike his engi­neer broth­er, Shal­lal did not stay on the straight and nar­row path. Instead, he real­ized that he loved the expe­ri­ence of meet­ing new peo­ple at the small piz­za restau­rant his father had owned, and he deter­mined he would com­bine his pas­sion for African Amer­i­can cul­ture, food and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, to cre­ate a space that brought togeth­er his diverse interests.

Shal­lal has worked with chef José Andrés and oth­ers on food relief projects. Dur­ing the Covid pan­dem­ic, he observed that peo­ple of col­or took it on the chin, more than many white folks. Hunger and food scarci­ty have been a major con­cern, but he says, DC is an impres­sive city and it has real­ly done a decent job in mak­ing sure nobody’s left behind in this situation.”

Shal­lal acknowl­edges that Bus­boys and Poets has part­nered with the city gov­ern­ment and “with World Cen­tral Kitchen to pro­vide meals local­ly, because I think some­times we for­get that while we’re help­ing peo­ple in the rest of the world, we’re not see­ing the peo­ple in our own back­yard. Some­times it’s eas­i­er to work with peo­ple thou­sands of miles away than it is to work with peo­ple that are on our doorsteps. I think José Andrés is doing great work. How­ev­er, I did tell him that I think we also need to focus on areas that are not always in the news, places like Yemen, like Eritrea and Ethiopia, places like Pales­tine, where there are issues inso­far as food and access to food are concerned.”

There is no ques­tion that a lot of peo­ple are hun­gry in Yemen, Gaza, Syr­ia and Afghanistan, to name but a few coun­tries that should remain on our radar. 

“Yes, and in Iraq,” Shal­lal says. “Let’s not for­get that peo­ple who have a voice and a mega­phone are empow­ered to high­light those places, because often­times, as you know, peo­ple get for­got­ten. I mean Yemen is a real dis­as­ter [with mil­lions fac­ing food scarci­ty]. That’s hap­pen­ing today in Ukraine and they’re get­ting a lot of sup­port, peo­ple are going insane here, rais­ing bil­lions of dol­lars for Ukraine, you know, but let’s not for­get Yemen and these oth­er coun­tries. At times, it feels a lit­tle lop­sided. I’m all for the Ukrain­ian peo­ple and I want every­body to be safe and fed, but I also feel like some­times we go for the shiny thing and we don’t real­ly care about those who are more desperate.”

Besides the eclec­tic menu that includes Arab dish­es as well as soul, veg­an and com­fort food, most famil­iar at Bus­boys and Poets are the murals of major civ­il rights fig­ures and writ­ers, and the fact that the orig­i­nal Bus­boys and Poets, which Shal­lal found­ed in 2005, was named in homage to Langston Hugh­es. These are places where con­ver­sa­tions on race are encour­aged. Shallal’s restau­rants are also book­stores and cul­tur­al cen­ters and bars, where peo­ple con­verge for author read­ings, con­fer­ences and polit­i­cal events. As the Wash­ing­ton Post observed, Shal­lal has tried to “cre­ate a melt­ing pot of employ­ees who believe in equal­i­ty. And his restau­rants take on a feel­ing of a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter — with poet­ry slams, book read­ings and film screenings.”

Shal­lal with Oba­ma 2016, hav­ing lunch with the pres­i­dent and a group of for­mer prison inmates, all of whom served years for non­vi­o­lent drug charges and had received pres­i­den­tial clemency.

It’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing to learn that Shal­lal con­sid­ered anti-war activist and his­to­ri­an Howard Zinn (A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States) his friend and men­tor, and the late nov­el­ist-essay­ist James Bald­win his inspi­ra­tion. He has host­ed friends and acquain­tances from the Black and Arab com­mu­ni­ties in speak­er events that include author-activist Angela Davis, Sen­a­tor Corey Book­er, Con­gress­woman Rashi­da Tlaib, Nik­ki Gio­van­ni, Cor­nel West, Dan­ny Glover and Michael Moore.

Shal­lal is also an artist who has paint­ed murals at sev­er­al of the Bus­boys and Poets loca­tions. And as a board mem­ber of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, a DC think tank locat­ed four blocks north of the White House, he paint­ed a con­fer­ence room mur­al that fea­tures Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., Ben­jamin Spock, the late Sen­a­tor Paul Well­stone, and late Chilean diplo­mat and IPS fel­low Orlan­do Lete­lier and his assis­tant Ron­ni Mof­fitt, who were killed by a car bomb on DC’s Embassy Row in 1976.

It doesn’t take an artist to sup­port artists, but it doesn’t hurt, either: dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, Shal­lal hired local broke and under­em­ployed artists to paint murals at the sev­en DC-area Bus­boys and Poets restaurants.

Andy Shal­lal is an excel­lent oxy­moron — a wealthy pro­gres­sive who cares about his employ­ees and about the qual­i­ty of the food his cus­tomers con­sume, and a CEO who has often been seen vol­un­teer­ing for the homeless.

For Shal­lal, who says James Bald­win is his favorite writer (“we had a James Bald­win book club that I led for a long time”), food remains part of his pro­gres­sive think­ing on social issues.

“Food is vital to me, because it’s a com­mon denom­i­na­tor that brings peo­ple to the table, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly,” he says. “It’s also the engine that dri­ves the machine — when we start­ed Bus­boys and Poets, I con­sid­ered orga­niz­ing it as a non­prof­it, and I thought about how non­prof­its strug­gle. I’m on the board of sev­er­al non­prof­its, and they are always at the mer­cy of the fun­ders, and I didn’t want to be in that sit­u­a­tion; I want­ed to have the free­dom to do the things I want­ed to do, with­out hav­ing to pass by some test that a fun­der wants you to under­go. So,” Shal­lal mused, “food became the way that we make enough mon­ey that we’re able to con­tin­ue doing the pro­grams that we do. And the type of food that we serve has to be such that it allows peo­ple to enter wher­ev­er they want to, whether they want to just come and have a cup of cof­fee and leave, or a full meal, so it had to have lots of options for dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and dif­fer­ent types of dietary options, whether they’re veg­an or veg­e­tar­i­an or don’t eat glutin — we want­ed it to be a place where we could bring every­body to the table.”

Shal­lal was always hyper-aware of being an Arab Amer­i­can, and he was also staunch­ly anti-war. In fact, he was such a vocal oppo­nent of the sec­ond Gulf War in 2003 that when he first opened the orig­i­nal Bus­boys and Poets two years lat­er, it was imme­di­ate­ly suc­cess­ful in part because of his anti-war activism and cri­tique of the George W. Bush regime. In addi­tion, Shal­lal has worked on sev­er­al Arab-Jew­ish dia­logue projects, with The Peace Café, Seeds of Peace and Abraham’s Vision. And yes, Bus­boys and Poets has been a cen­tral actor in fight­ing hunger and home­less­ness in the DC area.

Food for Shal­lal is the lure, “but I always think that food is a means to an end and not the end itself,” he says.

One Thanks­giv­ing sea­son, he remem­bers, Bus­boys and Poets “pre­pared a large meal for home­less peo­ple, and we put the word out to all the shel­ters, telling them their clients could come and eat on Thanks­giv­ing Day, and we had all these vol­un­teers, and we made this won­der­ful meal, you know, every­thing fresh…All these peo­ple walked in, and we paired them up with vol­un­teers. One guy who came in by him­self, prob­a­bly in his 40s, we paired up with a young woman vol­un­teer, and she sat with him for hours — they were eat­ing and chat­ting for a long time. At the end of the meal, he came up to me and asked, ‘Are you the own­er?’ and he said, ‘I just want you to know that today I had planned to com­mit sui­cide, because Thanks­giv­ing is a painful day for me.’ As for many peo­ple who are home­less, hol­i­days tend to bring out a lot of anx­i­ety. And he said, ‘I was going to com­mit sui­cide today had it not been that you guys were open and had it not been for the woman sit­ting here and talk­ing with me.’ At the time I felt like maybe we were lit­er­al­ly sav­ing lives here. It real­ly shows you the pow­er of meet­ing peo­ple and the pow­er of food, and how impor­tant it is.”


*  Despite mul­ti­ple attempts, José Andrés proved unreach­able as he hop­scotched across Ukraine, trav­el­ing between more than 10 loca­tions where mas­sive kitchens were oper­at­ing to feed migra­to­ry Ukrainians.


A Bus­boys and Poets mur­al fea­tur­ing Howard Zin­n’s A Peo­ple’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States.

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