Jillian Brainard: From High Cuisine to Helping Communities

Community and Regional Planning graduate Jillian Brainard

Before Jillian Brainard came to Temple University, she spent a few years with the CIA.

In this case, however, her stock in trade was entrees, not espionage.

“I really fell in love with cooking when I was in high school,” said Brainard, 28, of Philadelphia. “I decided to pursue a more culinary-based education and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, I started working for Starr Restaurants.”

For several years, Brainard worked the front of the house — in addition to duties as a sommelier — at some of the most prestigious restaurants in Philadelphia including Barclay Prime, Buddakan, Washington Square and Jones. But something was missing, she said.

“When you’re working in fine dining and dinners are $200 a person, there’s only so much of the population that can afford that. I started volunteering at the Fair Foods Farm Stand in the Reading Terminal Market,” she said. “I realized I wanted a job that had more of an impact in the community. I wanted to work in a system that was more inclusive, that could make fresh, healthy foods available to a greater percentage of the population.”

While working full-time at Osteria Restaurant, she discovered Temple’s Community and Regional Planning program, “which closely aligned with what I wanted to do, while I didn’t necessarily want to become a planner,” Brainard said. Completing most of her general courses at Bucks County Community College, she transferred to Temple in 2010 and will graduate with her B.S. in Community and Regional Planning this month after taking some time off in between to travel the United States facilitating large, farm-based dining events.

“I became particularly interested in sustainable food systems and food security. During one of our studio projects, we created a food systems plan for Norristown that included local urban farming, emergency food plans, food pantries, grocery and food service and waste dispersal,” she said. “I think my background and experiences make me uniquely able to plan out where food and food services need to go.”

Part of that experience comes from spending the Fall 2012 semester “on tour” with Outstanding in the Field based in Santa Cruz, California, traveling to 44 out of the 50 states in just a few short months spreading awareness of using locally-produced food and sustainable methods.

“We traveled all of California, the Pacific Northwest, parts of Canada, the Midwest, the East Coast, down South and back to California — it was a lot of camping, a lot of traveling. It was all about celebrating the farm and farmers and we’d source as much for these dinner events at the farms as we could,” said Brainard, who is also completing a minor in Geography and Urban Studies while at Temple. “Some of them were out in the middle of nowhere — cattle farms, fruit and vegetable farms, abalone farms, wineries. We’d bring in local chefs that shared the same values and the dinners were open to anyone. We’d begin selling tickets the first day of spring and they’d sell out that day all over the country.”

Returning to complete her Community and Regional Planning degree, Brainard began an internship with the SHARE Food Program in Philadelphia, a food distribution center whose 28-year mission has been “building communities through food.” Her internship has since expanded into a full-time position as SHARE’s Director of Community Programs.

“SHARE helps support 400 food banks in the Philadelphia region. We also have a large urban farm that provides about 6,000 pounds of chemical free produce per season,” she said. “SHARE offers a wide variety of programs. We have a packaged food program, for example, where the items are typically 30 percent less than you would find in a grocery store. Anyone can participate and in exchange for the savings, they volunteer two hours in our warehouse.”

Taking a 90 degree turn in her career wasn’t a simple process, but the long road has been worth it, Brainard said.

“I am so much happier in my life and my career than I was before. From a health standpoint — with the staggering rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease — food security is of paramount importance to the future of our communities,” she said. “My goal is to help make healthy food affordable and accessible. Whatever sacrifice I’ve made is more than worth it.”