The wellness industry may be exploding—it was worth $4.5 trillion in 2018—but it hasn’t been all that inclusive. These days, self-care is a status symbol, and clean eating has become synonymous with the Goop set: accessible only to the wealthy, waifish, and white. But it won’t be that way for long if Francesca Chaney has anything to say about it. As chef-owner of Sol Sips and First Sunday, two community-conscious vegan restaurants in Brooklyn, New York, the 24-year-old is tearing down the racial barriers surrounding the ultra-healthy lifestyle.
“I experienced wellness in the margins,” says Chaney, who grew up in an African- and Central- American household in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood made up of predominantly black and Hispanic residents, and first learned about plant-based diets from her nutritionist mother. “My family instilled in me the importance of taking care of my body as a vessel for vitality. But outside of my home, I developed a greater understanding of the structures that exist that make it especially difficult for black, indigenous, and Latinx individuals who are poor or working class to have the tools to sustain that vessel. The avenues for wellness don’t run through our neighborhoods. Most of the time our only option is survival.”
Most “food deserts”— neighborhoods lacking access to fresh and healthy foods—are located in minority communities, and racial disparities in health care availability and quality are off the charts, particularly for black women. “Accessible wellness is a responsibility I have as an owner of a wellness-centered business,” Chaney says. “Hogging resources and excluding anyone from an option that could increase the quality of their well-being is simply bad karma.”
At Sol Sips, she offers a sliding-scale brunch ($7 to $15) on weekends, when diners have the option to pay what they can for a meal and drink. (Think “chicken-fried” oyster mushrooms on a turmeric biscuit downed with a burdock-root tea.) Chaney has implemented similar pay-what-you-want pricing for delivery meal kits during the COVID-19 pandemic, donating a free kit to those in need for every three purchased. It’s all aimed at lessening the burden of eating healthfully, which is especially vital in a borough with the highest percentage of food insecurity in NYC, according to the Food Bank for New York City. “Most of the time people are taken aback—it usually takes them a minute before it sinks in that they can pick their own price without a catch,” says Chaney. She continues that quest of democratizing fresh food at First Sunday, but to a larger crowd: Where Sol Sips occupies only 300 square feet, her sophomore space has room for 40 to 50 diners.
And for Chaney, it’s important that the person serving the food looks like the people eating the food. “There have been plenty of times this industry made it uncomfortable to exist and thrive as a black woman founder. But I chose to speak up and create more visibility for us in this sphere.” More visibility will undoubtedly come from future plans like a line of grocery-store products, a dedicated farm to produce food for her restaurants, and more initiatives to bring accessible wellness to the culture. “The responsibility of producing something that goes into someone’s body that can heal them is my biggest challenge and also my biggest joy,” says Chaney.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.