Emily Torgrimson always is on the lookout for what she calls the "small solutions" within big problems. ¶ As a cook at a homeless shelter, she'd invite kids into the kitchen to help, filling their time as well as teaching a skill. When survivors of Hurricane Katrina needed supplies, she corralled college friends into throwing a jambalaya feed and raised a few hundred dollars. ¶ When plunging temperatures seep into the small travel trailer in which she's living, she turns on a tiny space heater. ¶ Torgrimson is on the ground floor of social entrepreneurism, where you can be featured in Oprah magazine as a visionary while your organization's national headquarters are a 1998 Sun-Lite parked in a frigid Minneapolis driveway. ¶ Nine years ago, Torgrimson, now 30, founded Eat for Equity (E4E), a nonprofit group that turns diners into donors in surroundings far more casual and intimate than a hotel ballroom. ¶ Since the initial dinner in Boston after Hurricane Katrina, E4E has hosted 152 community feasts in its 10 branches around the country, serving 14,582 plates of food and raising $173,551 in donations.

The true value has less to do with an evening's generosity, though, than with the connections made among diners that could lead to bigger ideas.

Here's how it works: A group of volunteers plans a menu, assembles ingredients from donations or a garden's harvest, then preps and cooks a meal on behalf of a social cause. Guests crowd into living rooms and sit on stairway treads. Then, as they dine on kale salad with bacon dressing and pumpkin cheesecake, they hear about a particular need and how they might help. They're also more than welcome to stick around to wash dishes.

Beneficiaries have ranged from Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to the Minnesota Reading Corps to the Rural Health Care Initiative to the Nafula Foundation for orphaned children in western Kenya.

The effort began as many do: "Hey, what if?"

While living with 24 women in a housing co-op at Boston University, Torgrimson saw the kitchen "as a place where people come together." When the jambalaya feed she planned attracted more than 100 friends, an idea started taking root.

After college, she returned home to Minnesota, where she hosted a similar dinner for a cause. Then a friend offered to host another. That dinner proved to be a turning point.

"We were going to make a dozen apple pies, and she had nothing in her kitchen," Torgrimson recalled, laughing. "We found a half-drunk bottle of wine, finished it, then used the bottle to roll all the pie crusts. There was bread raising on every level surface."

The evening was a success, but she saw that the idea needed more structure, more organization — a real strategy.

It wasn't the first time she'd sought out those qualities.

She tells this story: As a wilderness trip leader for Camp Menogyn, a YMCA camp in northern Minnesota, she led a 50-day canoe trip through Canada that ended with a passage across massive Baker Lake. The crossing had to be done in one fell swoop; no tucking into a bay should the weather turn ominous.

With a favorable forecast, the paddlers left shore and made good progress. But a sudden squall raised 4-foot waves, turning their canoes into teeter-totters. Torgrimson realized they needed to find their angle, a 30-degree sweet spot that enables a canoe essentially to track along each wave until it crests.

"We wanted as much time to ride the wave as possible," she said. "I realized that the most I could do was devote all my energy to holding that angle."

At the same time, she said with a grin, "All I could think of was: 'I need a bigger boat!' "

Back in that Minneapolis kitchen, rolling pie crusts with a wine bottle, she sensed that food was her route to making a difference in the world. But she needed a bigger boat.

Eat for Equity became that boat, leading Torgrimson to a spot on the "Today" show and a blurb in Oprah magazine. She's delighted with the impact her nonprofit has had, yet is struggling with its next steps.

"Sometimes I think she sets too high a bar for herself," said her father, John Torgrimson, describing her fierce determination. "She could walk away tomorrow and mark it as a success. She's taken the church dinner and put it on steroids."

Far from being an achingly earnest venture, he added, "this isn't a solemn thing, but a party. It's her saying, 'We should be proud of ourselves!' You're not just writing a check, not just eating food, but getting to know each other."

Struggling to fit in

The first thing you notice about Torgrimson is her smile, wide and welcoming as a summer lake. She's tall, too, and strong, with a stride that speaks to hundreds of portages trudged.

She was born in Lanesboro, but was 3 years old when her parents, both social workers, moved the family to the Philippines to live in a camp with 14,000 refugees. "Almost from the beginning, she was tagging along with everyone," her father said. "The grass was not going to grow under her feet."

A few years later, John Torgrimson became executive director of Oxfam Hong Kong, an international development and relief organization. Then when Emily was 10, they returned to a farm near Lanesboro. "There were more people in some apartment complexes in Hong Kong than there were in Fillmore County," he said.

"It definitely felt like a big shift at the time," Emily Torgrimson recalled. "In Hong Kong, my best friends were from around the world. I never felt like I had to fit in to be accepted. I love Lanesboro — it's a place of deep community — but I had to try really hard to fit in. At one point I realized it's not going to happen, that I was always going to be the girl from Hong Kong."

Rural life presented a learning curve. "We didn't know anything about farming," although her mom "was all about local food before it was trendy."

When the kids wanted to name the hogs, their father said they could, "but they'd better be called Pork Chop, Bacon and Sausage."

One Easter, when a relative raved about the homegrown Torgrimson ham, she and her brother "pushed back our plates in horror," she said. "Intellectually, we knew the hogs would be slaughtered, but … Then my brother took a beat, pulled his plate back and said, 'I guess it's like seeing them again.' "

The value of knowing where your food comes from stuck with her, even as she pursued a degree in communications in Boston. "I wanted to make change in the world and thought journalism was the best way to make that happen."

Fred Rose, cofounder and director of the Acara Institute at the University of Minnesota, met Torgrimson when she registered for a one-week "boot camp" to help students develop programs that address societal and environmental challenges.

Torgrimson recalls that week as the moment she could put a name to her path. "I realized that I was a social entrepreneur, and that's exactly what I wanted to be doing."

Rose recalled meeting someone unafraid of crossing boundaries.

"In Emily's case, it's clear that she feels deeply, strongly, in what she's doing — really believes that food and things around food are a way to build a strong and vital community," Rose said. "Having passion is great, but you also have to be good at something."

Torgrimson's strength, he said, has been in taking her communications degree, master's degree in public health "and some amazing skills as a chef and being willing to cross the boundaries of those disciplines. She's curious, and engages with all of these different groups, very empathetic with what they're trying to do."

Stepping back to go forward

Looking back, Torgrimson realized how her trip-guiding experience influences how she approaches her work.

"Sometimes, leaders need to pull people back," she said. "You don't need to push people absolutely to the brink to have a good trip. It's hard for me to go backwards, but sometimes backing down is the most responsible thing you can do. It's looking for a way to get focused."

Torgrimson is in the midst of pulling back. This winter, she went from being the only full-time staffer of E4E to part-time. She took a job as part-time baker at the Seward Co-op, making chocolate chip cookies, meat pasties and pot pies. She also works part-time at the Minnesota Social Impact Center, a relatively new organization aimed at supporting a growing number of people pursuing the often thankless task of changing the world.

"I'm really wanting to reclaim my life," Torgrimson said. "I love the work, but I really need to be doing a little less. There was a point in the last couple of months when I realized I haven't been camping — really camping — in two years."

Without a permanent address or the means to pay for one, she has lived with a series of friends the past two years. She now camps in the E4E trailer. It was used for a coast-to-coast tour of branch cities last summer, and will make its second appearance at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee this summer.

The Bonnaroo experience was a huge success and a culinary trauma. Torgrimson led a team of volunteers chopping, grilling, pickling and stirring. More than 100 people dined on grilled bread, kale salad with bacon dressing, miso cabbage slaw, polenta with Sea Island red peas, grilled vegetables and lemon cream with berries.

But a planned pavlova — a meringue dessert — melted into sugary puddles in the 90-degree dining tent. Torgrimson, a perfectionist, was mortified. It took her awhile to get past the failure, "to realize that it's about the people, not the pavlova."

Her father, who's now the director of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, said he and his daughter often talk about challenges and strategies. Often the discussion is viewed through the lens of a specific word: trajectory.

"Trajectories can send you off spinning crazily," he said, "or they can be beautiful opportunities that propel you." Experience helps you sort out which is which.

Emily Torgrimson would love to have a foundation step in as a sort of fairy fundmother. Lately, E4E has boosted its for-profit catering program for events in and around the Twin Cities area, from a wedding for 200 to an Indian feast for 30.

A successful e-cookbook download last Thanksgiving has led to a similar digital recipe collection this month. The downloads are free, meant to raise E4E's profile and reward those who join the cause. (Visit eatforequity.org for details.)

The recipes also are another of Torgrimson's small solutions within larger problems.

"Eating a meal with someone in real life, instead of connecting electronically, is a way of engaging with people that can create really strong communities," she said. "I'm just trying to put the tools in people's hands."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185