Community Organizing Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight community organizing work and hope to provide insight into the vitality of this work within our borough during the pandemic.
October 30, 2020
Trained Chef and Founder, The Connected Chef
As a professional chef who trained with world-class chefs and worked in top NY restaurants what inspired you to found The Connected Chef? Please introduce us to the work and philosophy of your organization.
My children, and parenthood more specifically, inspired and motivated the creation of The Connected Chef. After having my first son I realized that my re-entry into the restaurant world was not as I left it 6 months earlier. Simultaneously, I began to see that cooking was a major stressor for parents all around me. Over the last 5 years, we have been working with families to bring more ease and joy around food through our cooking and gardening classes for all ages and our kids’ Summer camp. More recently, we began our food relief initiative, Lifeline Groceries, in March 2020 as a response to COVID-19.
We knew far too well that there were thousands of families across Queens that were now out of work, with only a few hundred dollars to their name, and who did not qualify for unemployment or other sufficient government assistance. Our Lifeline grocery Initiative was created to support this group of individuals who were also disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
While the work of The Connected Chef has shifted over time what remains the foundation of our organization is the belief that we all deserve a positive and healthy relationship with food. This begins with access to fresh and culturally appropriate foods and continues with culinary and environmental education. Food is the basis of our being and our connection to food directly affects our connection to ourselves, our community and our planet.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic you launched the Lifeline Groceries Package Program, operating out of Long Island City and now servicing 2,885 families in Western Queens weekly with a consistent food supply. What have you learned about local food supply chains, various models of organizing food relief, and the role you can play in this landscape?
When my husband Omar and I began Lifeline, we had the idea of helping 25 people. As we scaled to over 2,000 households a week, so much was uncovered around people’s needs and access to food.
Initially, when we saw that hundreds and hundreds of people were on our waiting list we had the reaction to serve as many families as we possibly could. But then, we quickly realized that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere and the families that had begun receiving from us were not going back to work. Everyone still needed food. We also knew that the stress and anxiety that comes along with needing to figure out where your food is coming from, is all-consuming and exhausting. We heard stories of families that were rationing food, some telling their kids that they could only have a meal a day. We also knew that the communities that we were serving are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and were getting more sick by the day. So, we decided to change our goals.
We shifted and committed to every family that we took into our program, which meant that families were now guaranteed food from us every week until they were fully back to work and no longer needed the support. They didn’t have to re-register every week, they didn’t have to wait on a long pantry line at 6am and they didn’t have to even leave their house because it just wasn’t safe. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this decision was the best one we could have made because it shifted the impact we had on the families we served. We provide food security for each family on our list.
From there, we are taking it a step further so that we can provide jobs within our organizations for the community that we serve. The goal is to continue to build a food supply system that is truly rooted within our community. Our programming provides jobs for those who have been put out of work by COVID-19. With donations and grocery orders coming from families in more affluent neighborhoods, we are able to redirect those dollars directly into neighborhoods who have less. Currently, much of our efforts are supported by volunteers. Through our partnership with Astoria Mutual Aid Network and other volunteer based networks, we utilize between 20-25 volunteers daily. If we had the means to offer these positions as paid, we would be able to dramatically impact the local job economy.
Through our 7 month journey, I’ve seen how fragile our food supply chain is. How much it is dependent on big agriculture and government funding that is dictated by bureaucracy and the whimsy and quarrels of the political administration. Most larger pantries across the city distribute food that comes from a NYC or USDA food program. The other large portion of food relief distribution moves through two major non-profits. The fact that 80% of food going to food relief efforts comes through and is controlled by these 3 avenues creates major access issues. This effectively keeps food in a silo. With the onset of the pandemic, this silo was problematic because the number of people needing food skyrocketed and food was “stuck,” so to speak. Small, grassroots groups began distributing tens of thousands of pounds of food, but funding for the food they purchased dried up quickly and smaller groups, like our own, didn’t have the relationships and ability to receive food from these 3 major sources. We at The Connected Chef knew that we wouldn’t be able to depend on these systems for support, so we began our own fundraising and packaging. We began with a small Go Fund Me page, mobilized our local community of families that did have the means to donate and financially contribute, and utilized that fundraising to purchase wholesale food from farms and restaurant vendors. We then packaged those quality ingredients and redistributed it out to communities in Corona, Elmhurst and other parts of Queens that needed support.
Then, there is the question of how organizations and groups get food out to our communities. Rightfully so, and especially during a pandemic, there is a haste to get as much food out to as many individual families as possible. There are just so many people hungry that it’s hard to avoid this energy. However, it can become problematic. As the distributors, we can easily get caught in a cycle of reactivity. A literal, head down and get it out, out, out. The issue with this is that it often leads to a compromise in quality and dignity in how the food is distributed. An example of this is pantries getting access to lower quality food and distributing it because it’s all that they have to offer. This is a very real and tough decision to be faced with. Do I not distribute this food because I know it’s bad for people and will likely make them feel like a second-class citizen? Or do you distribute it because the alternative is hunger. More times than not, we would all distribute it. That is the problem with our food relief system as a whole. We are forced to feel like we have no choice. We feel we have limited choice on where to source our food, the quality of food we distribute and the speed and integrity in which we distribute it. As a result, black and brown communities, who are disproportionately and systemically impacted by food insecurity, hunger, housing and health issues such as COVID-19, have reduced access to quality food. When communities do get food, they need to stand on a pantry line for 3 hours just to be told there might not be enough when they reach the front.
It is my opinion that this feeling of having no choice in where food pantries get their food and how that food is redistributed to our communities is by design. Federal programming and food related policies are often dictated by large, industrial farming companies and are provided as a bandaid to a major social issue. It is now my goal to build a new model, a new choice. We are working with other grassroots and community-based groups to build a supply chain that goes directly from local farmers to households across NYC. This new avenue of food access and distribution will provide quality, nutrient-dense groceries with integrity.
You just launched Community Based Grocery Packages to fund and expand your ongoing operation. Can you introduce us to the program and let people know how they can join and support the program??
Our new Community-Based Grocery Packages is our answer to providing a transparent proactive choice in light of the food supply issue across NYC. This program will provide locally sourced, nutrient-dense ingredients to families across Queens on a sliding scale basis. With our community partners, we have begun to build relationships with local farms in NY, NJ and Eastern PA. We will be sourcing our ingredients from these local farms, packaging groceries and distributing across Queens. In order to ensure that everyone has access to the same quality ingredients, we have implemented a sliding scale model. This means every family who orders through our program will receive the same quantity and quality of food regardless of what they decide to pay. Families who can afford to purchase the grocery box at $49/week will be helping to maintain this system and availability to others who can only afford $20/week. Additionally, all proceeds from the Community Based packages will then be directed to our 100% free grocery box to families who cannot afford to pay at all. The best part is that whether families receive a free package or pay $49, they will all be receiving the same food.
In order to keep the costs of the boxes low, we are creating a coalition of other groups across Queens and Brooklyn to order as a group. The more we purchase from farms and local purveyors, the lower our food costs will be. By combining our efforts, we will be able to organize a group buying program that will benefit our food relief programs, the individuals being served, and the farms from whom we are buying. In that sense, this is quite different from charity-based systems, as it provides an opportunity to collectively organize our buying power equitably and invest in local systems of food sovereignty that add resliency to the entire landscape to food security.
Each box will include 6-7 varieties of vegetables, 2-3 varieties of fruits and 2 pounds of legumes and grains. We will also have additional items available that will be sourced from local businesses. Some add-on items will include corn tortillas from Maizteca in Richmond Hill, local honey from Astor Apiaries, local produce and hot sauce from Hell Gate Farm, and fresh bread from BenchFlour Bakery. Our Community-Based Grocery Package was developed to address food equity in Queens and allow families to receive fresh groceries while also supporting their local community and local agriculture.
The grocery box will be available for pick up or delivery on a weekly basis. All proceeds from the program will go directly into our Lifeline Grocery program to continue solving food insecurity for families who continue to be out of work and unable to collect unemployment benefits.
To learn more about the box and to order your first weeks worth of groceries, go to https://theconnectedchef.com/groceries/