In certain East Bay Jewish circles, Lauren Greis is known for overseeing the annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley. From 2011 to 2017, she managed all of the details involved in bringing rabbis and educators from different movements of Judaism together for an all-night extravaganza of Jewish learning.
But in East Bay food circles, she is known for something else entirely. Greis is the co-founder of East Bay Eats, a dinner series that raises funds for local nonprofits and recently kicked off a new season.
The concept is simple: A local, upscale restaurant hosts two seatings of a family-style meal on a Sunday evening, with proceeds going to a pre-selected nonprofit. Often it is an organization working in the food justice arena, sometimes not. Diners are treated not only to a three-course meal with wine, but also a presentation by a representative of the nonprofit or an individual who has benefited from its services.
“We get donations from local farms and purveyors, and the restaurant has as few staff people on as they can,” Greis explained. “We cover the restaurant’s costs and printing and staffing, but the rest of that money goes to the organization they are partnering with. And we raise money at the event, too.”
The East Bay Eats series has returned after a year hiatus with a new name (it had run since 2014 as Sunday Suppers). The season’s first dinner took place in January at Chez Panisse, supporting the Oakland urban youth farm Acta Non Verba. The second dinner is on Sunday, March 17 at Benchmark Oakland, with proceeds designated for Oakland Communities United for Equity and Justice.
Greis said she wanted to work in food from the moment she saw her first Brussels sprouts stalk in a market on the East Coast. In addition to her work with East Bay Eats, she also does Tuesday shifts at the South Berkeley farmers market for Riverdog Farm, an organic farm in Guinda, about 40 miles northwest of Davis.
I’m one of those people who organizes their day around what they’re going to eat.
“I’m one of those people who organizes their day around what they’re going to eat,” Greis said. “When I hear someone say ‘I forgot to eat,’ I think, ‘Huh? That never happens to me.’”
Greis has worked for several food justice nonprofits since moving to the Bay Area 10 years ago. She had trouble reconciling the inequality she saw — the disconnect between living in such a food-obsessed place, where diners think nothing of paying hundreds of dollars for one high-end meal, in contrast with the many people living in “food deserts” where they can’t even get fresh produce.
Greis thought about how to connect the two disparate communities, and figured since diners are already eating out at restaurants, “What if some of this money could go to help seed the work these organizations are doing, which is so powerful?” She also saw it as a way to build bridges.
Greis grew up in the Chicago area, the daughter of immigrants from South Africa, with a great-grandmother who was involved with the Bund and left Lithuania before the turn of the century. She sees her affinity for social justice and her work with East Bay Eats as extensions of her Jewish values.
“I was always interested in social justice, but growing up, I didn’t necessarily see the connection to Judaism,” she said.
Moving to the Bay Area opened her eyes to the myriad of ways that Jews here are involved with social justice issues. “A huge part of being Jewish,” she said, “is speaking truth to power.”