When asked, the patriarch behind My Dad’s Turkey Chili at Souper Jenny, a popular lunch spot serving fresh and healthy soups, sandwiches and salads at four locations around Atlanta, will deny he gave his daughter the famous recipe.
Jarvin Levison, father of restaurateur Jenny Levison, is, however, joking. The 91-year-old is well aware he gave her the recipe in 1996 after she returned from an international sojourn with a bunch of soup recipes in tow.
It just makes him laugh, his daughter says, because despite being an Emory-educated attorney for 60 years, a founding member of the Breman Museum and heavily involved in the Atlanta Jewish Federation, his mainstream claim to fame is that hearty chili.
“It became our most popular thing that we made,” said Levison.
It is also the primary funding source for The Zadie Project, a nonprofit Levison founded in 2016 to combat food insecurity with soup donations and community education on nutrition. According to the organization’s data, nearly 30 percent of children in Georgia don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, and the rate of food insecurity among seniors has increased 68 percent in the past decade.
When customers buy a $7 bowl of My Dad’s Turkey Chili — a marriage of beans, peppers, brown sugar and other ingredients that deliver the perfect combination of sweet and heat — the profits support The Zadie Project. Levison estimates about 1,500 quarts are sold weekly across her four restaurants, located in Buckhead, Brookhaven, Westside and Decatur. (Plans are in the works to relocate the Decatur restaurant to Roswell in the coming months.)
An Atlanta native who grew up in Los Angeles and attended boarding school in Massachusetts and college in Pittsburgh, Levison, 52, first pursued a career in acting. But she eventually made her way back to Atlanta and opened her first Souper Jenny on East Andrews Drive in Buckhead 20 years ago. She has been a force in Atlanta’s ever-changing food scene ever since, with no signs of slowing down; she plans to expand to six locations in the next few years.
Partially inspired by Blake Mycoskie, the philanthropic founder of Toms Shoes, Levison started The Zadie Project two years ago. Since then, the nonprofit has donated more than 25,000 quarts of soup to organizations that serve families who struggle to make ends meet, such as the East Atlanta Kids Club, City Lights Seniors and Urban Recipe.
“I’m particularly attracted to parents (whose) kids are in school,” said Levison. “A lot of them are working several jobs, and sometimes it’s the decision between paying the rent and buying food. They have a place to live, but they’re always sort of on the edge and need that kind of help.”
Grove Park is a low-income northwest Atlanta neighborhood where the crime rate is high, vacant homes are plentiful and grocery stores are scarce. PawKids is a nonprofit that serves the community by providing summer camps, a food pantry, mental health counseling and after-school activities, among other services.
Many residents are coping with hunger and poor nutrition, said Director of Operations Anthony Gates, who says it’s not uncommon to see kids walking to the bus stop in the morning with a bag of Hot Fries and a peach soda for breakfast. Passing out soup at its Donald Lee Hollowell location and delivering it door-to-door to the elderly has “opened up a window” for PawKids to engage with more people in the neighborhood, he said.
“For some people over here, it’s the only thing they’ll eat for the week,” said Gates.
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The Westside location of Souper Jenny on Huff Road looks like a child’s coloring book come to life. Bright slogans and sketches are painted on the walls, strings of lights hang from shelves, and everywhere you look there are real, live smiley faces on the people who work there. Behind the restaurant is the one-acre Souper Jenny Farm, which helps put a small dent in the fresh produce the restaurant uses in its recipes.
Every Tuesday, Levison, General Manager Keith Yaeger and a cadre of staff and volunteers cram into the compact kitchen to package 500 quarts of soup for distribution to about 10 organizations, which will distribute it to those in need.
While they work, Yaegar likes to regale the staff with stories of his visits to the various organizations they serve so the staff knows the impact they have on the community. He describes 40 kids jumping up and down in excitement over soup and a woman he met who shares her soup with a neighbor.
Yaeger credits Levison for fostering a philosophy of philanthropy.
“Jenny just has this belief in doing good and giving back, and it has traveled down to me and the rest of the staff,” he said.
To help raise money for the organization, Yaeger has organized a fund-raising event on Feb. 9. He will walk 18 miles from one Souper Jenny to the other until he hits all four. Anyone who makes a donation of $18 or more at any location on that day will get a free cup of soup. He hopes to raise at least $1,800.
Yaeger’s walk will end at the Westside location, the site of The Zadie Project’s nascent educational initiative. So far seven classes or farm tours have been held there, with the goal of teaching the importance of avoiding processed foods. During their visits, Jeffrey “Farmer Jeff” Collins encourages children to eat peppers and peas right off the plant.
The educational side of The Zadie Project is still evolving, and Levison encourages more people to contact the organization to schedule visits in the spring. She also wants to expand her soup donations to 1,000 quarts a week by the end of the year. The biggest challenge is finding space to store the soup, so she’s seeking household or professional donations of refrigerator space. She’s also looking for more organizations to help distribute the soup.
The Zadie Project is a grassroots initiative that perfectly aligns with Levison’s belief that our communities would be greatly improved if everyone got involved in a way that expressed their passion. It’s a lesson she learned from her father.
Zadie means grandfather in Yiddish. And just like the turkey chili that funds Levison’s philanthropic endeavor, the name of her nonprofit organization is an ode to her dad, who has seven grandchildren, including Levison’s 15-year-old son Jonah.
“Getting involved with philanthropy is something I learned from my father,” Levison said. “I think it was just sort of my time to get involved.”
For more information on how to schedule a farm visit, volunteer, or make a donation, go to www.thezadieproject.org.
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