Meet the Chicago Chefs Using Food for Community Empowerment

One in seven people in Cook County will experience food insecurity this year. In some Chicago communities, more than half of the inhabitants are food insecure. Many more are only one lost paycheck away. According to the Greater Chicago Food Depository,  food insecurity is “a lack of consistent access to adequate, nutritious food.” 

Covid-19 has made existing food insecurity in Chicago even more severe. To survive the pandemic together, some Chicago restaurants have pooled their resources to take care of their communities. These team-ups have proven both effective and inspiring. 

Restaurants uniting for a common good

The Community Kitchen+ Canteen is a project initiated by Public Media Institute, Marz Community Brewing Co., Kimski, and Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar. Additional partner kitchens include Wherewithall, Dmen Tap, Iyanze Bronze, Whiner Brewery, and Snakes and Lattes

Ed Marszewski is the mastermind behind it. In addition to being a restaurant owner, Marszewski is an artist, publisher, and entrepreneur, and his dedication to his neighborhood has earned him the title of “unofficial mayor of Bridgeport.” He believes that Bridgeport is the Community of the Future

Community Kitchen + Canteen is the latest in Marszewski’s history of grassroots efforts to empower the talented inhabitants of his community, which have also included publishing, art galleries, radio, and breweries.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year, Marszewski explained the goals of this project: “We just want to show that this community kitchen thing, it can work. We’re trying to keep that ecology going and keep this moving. We’re going to do it through the winter, try to keep people employed and try to feed people. The need for food in Chicago isn’t going to end.”

To run the project, he’s brought together a team of collaborators, each with their own set of skills and passions to bring to the table:

Chef Won Kim runs the Kimski kitchen and oversees Community Kitchen pickup dates on-site. Mom’s chefs/owners Kelly Ijichi and Randi Howry help with meal deliveries to facilities including Senior Suites locations and Pilsen Community Center. D-Men Tap, aka Donermen, make the rest of the deliveries with their food truck.

Chef Beverly Kim of Wherewithall [pictured] has been using her restaurant as a North Side pickup location, offering 150 meals each week. Kim told the Tribune: “Meal relief is one of the things that, as chefs, we can really promote and be a part of. For me, [it’s been] one positive way to use my energy… It’s a lovely program that I hope can help stimulate the neighborhood and help people at the same time.”

Beverly Kim’s participation in Community Kitchen goes hand-in-hand with her own efforts to empower working mothers.

With The Abundance Setting, Kim is on a mission to make motherhood sustainable in the professional culinary and hospitality industries. Along with professional mentorship and educational resources for working mothers, The Abundance Setting provides a meal relief program of its own. 

Kim distributes about 300 meals weekly combined with the two programs, as well as the help of the American Indian Center. She hopes the programs can grow. ‘I’d be happy to add more days per week at Wherewithall,’ she said.”

Chef Won Kim told the Tribune about the transformative emphasis on collaboration over competition: “It doesn’t feel like competing in the neighborhood, vying for people’s business right now. It’s not sustainable for anyone or any neighborhood during these times...This is an experiment, but it’s a social experiment that doubles as a functioning, charitable-type venture.” 

And Marszewski wants to continue the experiment for as long as he can use it to make a difference. According to Won Kim, “Ed is one of those people who likes to run with an idea as far as you can go, until it’s 100 feet in the ground, and only then will he give up on the idea.”

To help this idea run farther, they’ve partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Pilsen Food Pantry, and Love Fridge, among other distribution organizations.

New restaurant partnerships are ongoing as well. Earlier this week, Community Kitchen announced via Instagram that Afro Joe’s Coffee & Tea had joined the team, serving 50 free meals to customers and donating additional meals to the Amani House interim shelter. 

Beverly Kim hopes that this program will continue to expand, too, but in the spirit of collaboration over competition, she also welcomes imitation: “Our industry here hasn’t really seen something like this before… I’ve been feeling proud of the networking that we’ve been able to do so far. And as a chef, it’s kind of changed my life. We hope if this program expands, maybe we can share that with other people, and they say, ‘wow, this is a good possibility,’ and they copy-paste it.”

The future of collaboration

True to Kim’s hope, similar organizations are running with this idea as well. Here in Chicago, it’s been used to great effect in the co-op business sphere, where the collaborative, community-oriented ideals are part of the business structure from the very beginning. 

A co-op is essentially a business that is partially or totally owned by its employees.

The benefits of these kinds of businesses have been studied by Fifty by Fifty, an economics research initiative founded by Jessica Rose and Marjorie Kelly. The goal of Fifty by Fifty is to make employee-owned companies a major part of the US economy. Their vision of the future is “an inclusive, community-based economy, where millions more families enjoy financial stability, increased income, and greater retirement security, and where more Americans can control their economic destiny.”

Co-ops joining forces against food insecurity

The power of the co-op for food distribution can be seen here in Chicago, as well as its far-reaching benefits for other social issues. An initiative called ChiMeals is empowering multiple co-op businesses, and feeding hungry Chicago residents as well.

This spring, three Chicago food cooperatives announced a new initiative against food insecurity. The new project is the joint effort of three co-ops, including ChiFresh Kitchen, Cocina Compartida de Trabajadores Cooperativistas (CCTC), and Cooperativa Visionarias.  

ChiMeals will let these organizations “work together to share resources and expertise, expand their networks, raise money and support each other in their shared goals of creating wealth-building opportunities while improving access to healthy food.”

Kimberly Britt is a founder and worker-owner at ChiFresh Kitchen. She explained to Block Club Chicago, “Our collaboration is about co-ops coming together so we can keep each co-op strong and help the community at the same time… We all have the same passions… and help each other so that we can continue to grow and succeed and make living wages for each other as well as serve our community.”

According to Camille Kerr, a consultant who helped start ChiFresh Kitchen, “The collaboration will help each of the co-ops extend their reach and be sustainable as a long-term solution to the food insecurity that has impacted Black and Latino communities even before the pandemic.”

Kerr continued, “We wanted to build a longer-term coalition that could address food insecurity and healthy food access needs in our communities long-term. We’ll be stronger together. We’ll have a whole approach that’s about food sovereignty in our communities.”

In their independent efforts to address food insecurity, ChiFresh Kitchen provides up to 500 free meals per day, distributed by partners like the Montessori School of Englewood, the Grace House for formerly incarcerated people, and Black Youth Project 100. They also supply healthy, affordable meals to organizations including La Casa Norte, YMCA of Metro Chicago, and local senior centers.

According to Kerr, “The formal partnership creates opportunities for the co-ops to do professional development and trainings together. The groups are also fundraising together, allowing them to make more free meals for their partners’ mutual aid efforts.”

Intersections with other issues of equity

Like Ed Marszewski’s dedication to grassroots art and Beverly Kim’s efforts to support working mothers, Kimberly Britt’s work uses collaboration to address multiple issues simultaneously.

Kerr told Block Club Chicago: “We were looking for a way to create access to employment, primarily economic security and creating a liberating workplace environment for formerly incarcerated Black women.”

In 2020, ChiFresh Kitchen was awarded a $100,000 grant from the American Heart Association’s Social Impact Fund to recognize their approach to improving health inequalities that have been highlighted by the pandemic. This funding allowed the co-op to scale up and expand their efforts. 

According to Raymond Guthrie, managing director of the Social Impact Fund, “The company was selected since it tackles multiple issues of equity with an approach that empowers people directly affected by those issues.”

“We are always intrigued and encouraged when we see new models trying to get at old problems as opposed to just trying to fund the same things over and over again and hoping for a different solution.”

According to Block Club Chicago, “When ChiFresh Kitchen launched during the pandemic, the formerly incarcerated women who own and run the company made it a priority to provide relief for the people with the most need. West Side native Kim Britt was living in a transitional home at the time, and the food service provider for the women returning from incarceration was forced to leave due to Covid-19. There weren’t many grocery stores in the area, and the ones that did exist had shortages.”

Britt explains, “We were left to fend for ourselves to find meals to eat. I know that it was a struggle for me to get meals on a day-to-day basis. Knowing that I could provide one meal a day for people who were experiencing what I had experienced would make a difference in the community.”

The worker-owners of ChiFresh Kitchen have not only made a difference in their community, they’re also experiencing the benefits of having an economic stake in their community:

“All of our rules and guidelines were created to accommodate each person… Owning a share of the business also means the women get a cut when ChiFresh Kitchen is profitable. That results in a dignified workplace where employees are motivated to do their best because they have a stake in the company and because they believe in the work - not because they’re being hounded by a supervisor,” Britt said.

“Everybody’s heart is involved in it because of different experiences that we have had throughout our childhood, throughout our lives growing up on the West Side of Chicago. It’s heart-involved more than work-involved. More than looking at it like, ‘This is just a business.’”

Kerr explained why this is mutually beneficial for the employees and their communities: “Our members are powerful and brilliant and have so much insight… and a lot to offer to what a company that’s serving their communities should be like.”

“People want a fair economic system. People want to see what the alternative is. And I think people’s imaginations are limited for what’s possible.” 

She elaborates: “Worker-owned businesses that address crucial social needs like health disparities can open up people’s imaginations of what is possible, so that when we’re thinking about large-scale policies that restructure how our economy works, we think about these alternatives.’”

The leap from food to social justice and economic equality isn’t as large as it seems. Food is a basic biological necessity, but in almost every human culture, it’s also an expression of love and community. So it’s only natural that these efforts to make Chicago more well-fed intersect with many other social causes.

Initiatives like Community Kitchen and ChiMeals are using food distribution as the foundation of a larger plan to create healthy, empowered communities. Their intersectional efforts are feeding hungry Chicagoans and our local economy, but above all, they’re feeding change. 


Inspired? Learn more and get involved!

To check out new partnerships and initiatives from Community Kitchen, visit their website and follow them on Instagram. You can also make a monetary donation here, or contact Ed Marszewski if you’re interested in helping to expand the program. 

To help support ChiMeals, visit their website, follow ChiFresh Kitchen on Instagram, and CCTC and Cooperativa Visionarias on Facebook.

To learn about other grassroots efforts to fight food insecurity in Chicago, check out our post on community gardens!

At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.

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Image credit: Beverly Kim

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