Kathy Webb has spent a large portion of her life working in restaurants. Although she now works for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and is very civically active, we still thought it appropriate to feature her in this month’s ‘Women of the Food Industry’ in honor of September’s Hunger Action Month.
Though she doesn’t gamble, Kathy Webb has a clear idea of what she would do with her queried imaginary winnings. “I would quit my job and do nothing but Cooking Matters,” she says. Cooking Matters, a nutritional six-week education course aimed at families, stems from the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, for which Webb serves as the executive director.
You may also know Webb as a City Director, a member of the Civic Advisory Board for the Little Rock School District, and a past member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. What you probably don’t know is just how passionate she is about changing the landscape for hungry Arkansans.
Born in Blytheville, Ark., Webb calls the Natural State home. She grew up in Central Arkansas and graduated from Hall High School before studying politics in college. Webb left the state for nearly 20 years, but during that time, she found herself putting her skills to good use in the food industry.
She noticed a gender disparity early on while working for a franchise, but if anything, she just worked harder. “I noticed that almost every manager was male, but I went into my interview and absolutely talked them in to hiring me. Then I got promoted to a regional manager and was the only [woman], and that was great because I got to hire more women.”
Even when she became a full-on restaurant owner, she felt ignored or glossed over at times because she was a woman, but that didn’t stop her endeavors.
She eventually moved back to Arkansas to spend time with her family and co-run Lily’s Dim Sum Then Some in the early 2000s. Seven years later, she was sworn in to the Arkansas House of Representatives and would serve three terms.
Notably, she was the first woman to serve as co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, no small feat. Among her other works during this time, she became familiar with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.
“When I was in the legislature, I helped co-found the Arkansas Legislative Hunger Caucus,” she says, “and the alliance was the liaison, as it is a statewide advocacy voice.” Later on she discovered that the Alliance had an opening for an executive director, so she applied and got the job.
Within months of taking her new position, she helped steer the organization toward Cooking Matters, after discovering it at a St. Louis Conference.
The Alliance takes a holistic approach to fighting hunger in Arkansas, provides a plethora of resources to those in need, and all the while works to end hunger. It’s about getting people the resources they need, and then showing them how to use those resources. At the same time, the Alliance aims to raise awareness and stay involved in food policies.
Among the amazing strides made by the Alliance – the gleaning project, fighting senior hunger, and working with food banks and pantries – Webb continually comes back to Cooking Matters in conversation.
The program offers various courses aimed at different groups – adults, teens, and families. There’s a grocery store component, in which learning how to read labels and purchasing healthier items is the main goal. The six week course operates on a step-by-step basis so that serious diet changes are more likely to become habit.
She says, “It’s not that I’m going to tell you what’s best for you, instead, we’re going to have a discussion about all of these healthy alternatives you can take,” she says.
There’s also a camaraderie that develops. She says, “We all prep together, we all cook together, we sit down and eat a meal together, and then we clean up together.”
The stories she tells from these classes are eye-opening. From teaching disabled individuals cooking skills that led to employment, to seeing the excitement in one mother once she began losing weight from small changes – the rewards are immense. Webb often stops and asks herself the following: “How did I get to participate in this amazing opportunity?”
Even though she works hard, there is still much to be done. Currently, Webb is excited for a mobile market which is in the works. She explains, “Not everybody has access to transportation or fresh fruits and vegetables, so we’ve got this idea to get a mobile market going which will even help the farmers.”
A breast cancer survivor, Webb also finds herself working in that arena when it comes to food. She says, “I did a demo cooking class a month or so ago for cancer survivors because you really don’t feel like cooking when you have cancer – but some people don’t have a choice.” She recently participated in the Runway for a Cause, and will be this year’s honorary survivor at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in October.
Most importantly, she wants everyone to get involved. Her respect for the local chefs who have taught classes: Matt and Amy Bell, Rosalia Monroe, Cash Ashley, to name a few, is extremely high. But even non-chefs can make a difference as she lists off ways to help: “Making sure people are aware of our hunger problem – we rank at the top in the country, is important. We’re number one in senior hunger and so being aware of it helps. Talking to elected officials, and also making sure they’re aware of it and not implementing laws that are harmful to folks who suffer from food insecurity comes to mind. Also, we always need volunteers at the Alliance, Cooking Matters, or any of the food pantries.”
Webb considers herself extremely blessed. When not working, she likes to be with family and friends. She enjoys reading, and traveling, as she just returned from the Santa Fe Opera.
She says with conviction, “It’s a wonderful life, like the movie. I’m so fortunate.”