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Baltimore Sun - - CORO­N­AVIRUS OUT­BREAK -

Cen­tral Kitchen. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, led by famed D.C. chef Jose An­dres, has dis­trib­uted more than 500,000 meals in Baltimore since the pan­demic be­gan.

Many meals served in Baltimore and other cities are pre­pared by lo­cal res­tau­rants in what the non­profit calls Res­tau­rants for the Peo­ple. The pro­gram buys meals from var­i­ous eater­ies, in­clud­ing around a dozen in Charm City, a win-win sit­u­a­tion for par­tic­i­pants that keeps small busi­nesses alive, sup­ports lo­cal sup­pli­ers and serves meals to com­mu­ni­ties, said Nate Mook, CEO for the non­profit.

One key in­gre­di­ent is the $10 rate that the non­profit pays for each meal. By some met­rics, that’s a high num­ber: The U.S. govern­ment’s re­im­bursable rate can be as low as $3.51 for a school meal. But the num­ber al­lows res­tau­rants to pay fair wages to staffs while pro­vid­ing fresh, health­ful meals.

“We want to get the sys­tem work­ing again. We want to get the res­tau­rants buy­ing from their sup­pli­ers, who then buy from the farm­ers,” Mook said. “We want to keep peo­ple em­ployed.”

In do­ing so, World Cen­tral Kitchen is cre­at­ing “a new model of food re­lief,” said Del. Brooke Lier­man, a Baltimore Demo­crat. Ear­lier this year, she helped con­nect World Cen­tral Kitchen lead­ers with school sys­tem of­fi­cials in Baltimore.

The pan­demic has il­lu­mi­nated pre-ex­ist­ing prob­lems in the so­cial struc­ture, she said: “We knew about it be­fore, but this has mag­ni­fied the in­equities a hun­dred­fold.”

Some say it’s also pro­vid­ing a unique op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress those prob­lems.

On a re­cent morn­ing, the pa­tio of Alma Cocina Latina was empty of pa­trons but filled with pot­ted plants and palm trees.

Ler­man, her gaze in­tense and half cov­ered with a mask, used both hands to carry a huge sauce pot through a side door of the restau­rant. Item by item, the for­mer aid worker — she spent five years with Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, of­ten in war zones — un­loaded a mini­van’s worth of food into the kitchen.

“She’s a pow­er­house,” Stein said of her busi­ness part­ner. Staff have fig­ured out tricks to keep food costs low while main­tain­ing qual­ity and fla­vors: us­ing ex­cess pro­duce from lo­cal farms and sea­son­ing abun­dantly.

For work­ers like Cristina Or­doñez, who Stein laid off af­ter the pan­demic hit, the work with World Cen­tral Kitchen has been a god­send. An im­mi­grant from Hon­duras and mother of three, Or­doñez lacked ac­cess to un­em­ploy­ment and the stim­u­lus checks that oth­ers re­ceived, even though she pays taxes. Now, she’s work­ing reg­u­larly at Alma Cocina Latina, team­ing up with cooks from Mera Kitchen Col­lec­tive to pre­pare meals for Baltimore res­i­dents.

That day, Or­doñez poured a fra­grant tomato sauce with ca­pers and cilantro over chicken thighs. The meal would be paired with Venezue­lan style plan­tains, a fa­vorite snack of Stein’s when she was grow­ing up. “All Cara­cas smells like plan­tains at 1 o’clock in the af­ter­noon,” she said.

A thought­fully pre­pared meal can be a morale booster for the eater, Mook said. “It’s

“All the money that goes into a restau­rant — it all goes back out into the com­mu­nity. It touches so many peo­ple and so many things.”

Emily Ler­man, co-founder of

Baltimore’s Mera Kitchen Col­lec­tive

so much more than just the calo­ries on the plate [of ] food; it re­ally is sort of a mes­sage: that some­one cares. And maybe to­mor­row will be bet­ter.”

Dores Men­doza, who lives in Ar­mis­tead Gar­dens, said she has ben­e­fited from Alma Cocina Latina’s food dis­tri­bu­tion and has col­lected meals at a lo­cal pickup cen­ter. Men­doza, who nor­mally cleans houses, has had trou­ble find­ing work dur­ing the pan­demic and ap­pre­ci­ates the do­na­tion.

”It’s good — the food in there — ev­ery­thing is good,” Men­doza said, adding that she has es­pe­cially liked the broc­coli, green beans and rice . “Oh my, it’s good.”

World Cen­tral Kitchen takes a “hands off” ap­proach to the lo­cal res­tau­rants it part­ners with, re­ly­ing on their ex­per­tise and con­nec­tions with the com­mu­nity, said Mook. “We don’t tell them what to cook. We don’t tell them what they should be do­ing.” World Cen­tral Kitchen or­ders a spe­cific num­ber of meals and dis­trib­ute them in vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions.

While the fund­ing hasn’t re­placed the lost pre-pan­demic rev­enues, it’s helped the busi­ness stay afloat and boosted morale.

Be­fore work­ing with World Cen­tral Kitchen, Stein said, she con­tem­plated clos­ing her Can­ton restau­rant for good. The work this sum­mer has re-en­er­gized her, pro­vid­ing a re­newed sense of pur­pose.

The part­ner­ship with Mera Kitchen Col­lec­tive and Alma Cocina Latina worked so well that World Cen­tral Kitchen soon in­creased or­ders. In to­tal, the two kitchens have pre­pared more than 50,000 meals since the spring.

But how long can it go on?

“We’re four months into this pan­demic now, and the re­al­ity is that funds are dry­ing up,” said Mook. The or­ga­ni­za­tion re­lies on phil­an­thropic dol­lars to fi­nance their re­lief ef­forts. But, “there’s only so long that we are go­ing to be able to con­tinue this work.”

World Cen­tral Kitchen gen­er­ally stays in one place for a max­i­mu­mof three weeks. But the coro­n­avirus cri­sis has lasted longer than any­one an­tic­i­pated. “The big­gest chal­lenge that we’re fac­ing is that as the fund­ing has dried up … the sit­u­a­tion has not re­ally got­ten a whole lot bet­ter.”

Stein and Ler­man want to keep go­ing. To­gether, they’re team­ing up on what they’re call­ing the MK Foun­da­tion. The two are search­ing for a large kitchen to pre­pare food for a cafe that serves the com­mu­nity for free and lets in­di­vid­u­als buy health­ful, de­li­cious meals at an af­ford­able price.

Ler­man said the project is not about char­ity, but about cre­at­ing a more sus­tain­able model for res­tau­rants. “Res­tau­rants ex­ist on the mar­gins, which means all the work­ers ex­ist on the mar­gins. And that’s just not right.”

As busi­nesses, food ser­vice fa­cil­i­ties are uniquely embed­ded in the com­mu­ni­ties where they op­er­ate. “All the money that goes into a restau­rant — it all goes back out into the com­mu­nity,” she said. “It touches so many peo­ple and so many things.”

As with World Cen­tral Kitchen, the fo­cus will be on cre­at­ing $10 meals. “That’s a fair price that al­lows us to pay liv­ing wages, that al­lows us to com­pen­sate ev­ery­body,” said Ler­man.

Though Mook said he hadn’t spo­ken with Ler­man or Stein about their ef­fort to build a foun­da­tion, “It makes a lot of sense to build some­thing… that’s lo­cal and po­ten­tially there for the long term.”

As the pan­demic has ex­posed ex­ist­ing prob­lems of food in­se­cu­rity and food deserts, Mook­said, it also shows howrestau­rants can play a role in po­ten­tial solutions.

BAR­BARA HAD­DOCK TAY­LOR/BALTIMORE SUN

Chef Jake Hack at Alma Cocina Latina in Can­ton places crema sauce on a plat­ter of chicken ta­male and black beans for boxed meals.

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