On a chilly February evening in Minneapolis — a stormy month that broke snowfall records — over 100 students huddled together in a University of Minnesota club room to share locally baked cookies and hear, first-hand, about the realities of relationship violence.
Together, with medical professionals, they discussed the impact of stress and trauma on the brain. They heard what someone experiencing relationship violence could expect from the medical community and spoke directly to a survivor now free from trauma — someone whose relationship may have been unexpectedly relatable.
And for Junita Flowers, founder of Minneapolis-based cookie company Junita’s Jar, the first ‘Cookies ‘n’ Conversation’ event was a revelation. It was the realisation of an unwavering belief that food — particularly cookies — can bring communities together for difficult and often overlooked conversations about self-care.
Junita began selling cookies in a local market 10 years ago. This formalised into her company Junita’s Jar in July 2018 — selling triple chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter and chocolate cookies with the slogan “Hope Munches On.”
She tells Global Shakers that the company was inspired by her own personal experience as a survivor of relationship violence.
“I grew up in a family of 8, a really big close-knit family. My grandmother would come over and cook meals and bake cookies once a week, so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen growing up,” she said.
“Fast forward to when I was married, the one thing that I felt that I owned while I was in the abusive relationship was baking. That was my escape during those times. It fed me emotionally — it was the one thing that I could take pride in — and also took me back to my childhood.
“It was a mental escape. No one knew that’s what it was doing for me, but that’s how cookies became the platform for Junita’s Jar.”
Credit: Junita Flowers, Alpha Chi Omega
Cookies ‘n’ Conversation
The company’s retail platform has grown and grown, shipping cookie products across the United States.
But Junita’s real aim has always been to use her business to achieve social good. In particular, to help reduce the cases of relationship violence.
The result is Cookies ‘n’ Conversation, a series of two-hour discussions between students and health professionals, funded by the cookie sales.
Junita told Global Shakers that college-age students (18-24 years old) are at the greatest risk of relationship violence: they’re often living away from parental support and checks and balances, experimenting with alcohol, and trying out dating for the first time. The goal, therefore, is to use the events to create allies that work together to tackle relationship violence.
“We wanted to create a community environment, because there’s so many things that students are faced with — peer groups are brand new, and you don’t have those years-old friendships that would be there for you regardless –that you can find yourself alone with no-one to talk to,” she told GS.
“We wanted to hold those conversations and remove the stigma and shame.”
Junita’s Jar has now hosted six conversations in partnership with student-led organisations in three colleges. The feedback has been positive, with students valuing the ability to connect with and learn from a survivor — something not always possible in volunteering posts.
“It’s doing the age-old tradition of bringing food to someone’s house and talking about the tough things, the fun things, the new things, overcoming barriers,” she added. “My idea is to have a different enough approach and be the gateway. Not the one providing housing, support, shelter — I want to get to you before you need those things.”
— Junita Flowers (@JunitaLFlowers) May 26, 2019
In Autumn 2018, Junita’s project was accepted into the Finnovation Lab, an accelerator programme run by socially focused Minneapolis beer brand FINNEGANS. The company’s head Jacquie Berglund is renowned for setting up a ground-breaking ‘reverse food truck’ to accept food donations for the hungry.
Being part of the catalyst programme allowed Junita to focus on strategies and networking. It also gave her access to mentors and business knowledge that maybe only would have been accessible through an MBA. These steps are useful as she aims for next goal: a formal partnership with the NCAA college athletic governing body, allowing Cookies ‘n’ Conversation to become part of the orientation programme for all athletes on campus.
Throughout her journey, Junita has not lost track of the driving motivation. “One in four women are impacted by relationship violence,” she told Global Shakers. “Usually when I’m doing a presentation, I show a picture of myself and three of my sisters. All of us grew up in the same, very loving home. Our backgrounds are basically the same.
“But we’re still a statistic, as I’m the one who was in an abusive relationship. So I want everyone to know that it can happen to anyone,” she said, adding a desire for everyone to have support whenever it is needed.
The next Cookies ‘n’ Conversation event is planned for December.
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