Published June 18th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
A 1953 Spartan Aircraft Trailer Coach parked outside a warehouse near Southwest Trafficway is the newest community kitchen to join the fight against hunger in Kansas City.
The 35-foot trailer is flanked on its sunny side by a set of yawning 14-foot pit cookers big enough to cook 60 pork butts at a time. On the shady side, a half-dozen cooks skin and slice vegetables, shuck the soggy outer leaves off wilting lettuce heads and whirl overripe bananas into smoothies.
Inside the mobile kitchen, chef Brandon Winn stirs a large pot of polenta with an industrial-size whisk and a few minutes later pulls a casserole improvised from donations of shredded pig’s feet and greens from the oven.
Last week Winn and his crew were on target to prepare 2,000 meals. The meals go out in foil catering trays to social service organizations throughout the area. Through the summer, Winn will test the mobile kitchen’s capacity to distribute 10,000 meals per week, with the goal of eventually moving into a catering kitchen with the capacity to serve 50,000 meals per week.
For Winn, the daily scramble to create nutritious and affordable meals for those who are food insecure during a pandemic has been an oddly exhilarating challenge.
“We’re chefs. This is what we do. We solve problems all day long,” says Winn, who left the executive chef position at Webster House in February with plans to recharge his batteries by traveling and working on remodeling projects while doing the odd catering job.
A month ago, Winn signed on as a team member of Chef Collective KC’s Community Meals Project, an effort that has grown out of community kitchens led by The Rieger’s Howard Hanna, who has served more than 65,000 meals through Crossroads Community Kitchen, and Black Sheep’s Michael Foust, who created of a pay-it-forward model that has served 7,500 meals.
Lines have been forming outside The Rieger’s front doors at the corner of 19th and Main streets since mid-March, but the community kitchen will close after Sunday service so the staff can begin to focus on reopening the restaurant in early July.
“We’ll end that (front-door-is-open) piece of our mission,” Hanna says, but he plans to continue to send out an estimated 600-900 meals a day until reopening. “Everyone on my team wants to continue (the community kitchen) in some way. It’s really fulfilling, and we feel really in touch with what it means to feed people and give hospitality.”
The future may include a Sunday-only version of Crossroads Community Kitchen or they may continue to cook standing orders for a few partner agencies.
But it’s clear the output of meals for the hungry and homeless will dwindle to a couple hundred meals a week rather than a couple hundred a day. That’s where Winn’s commissary kitchen approach takes over the effort to plug holes in the food system that have been amplified by COVID-19.
“When the Rieger turns back into the Rieger, how do we solve the line of people standing outside the door?” Winn asks. “Not every restaurant has the capacity to do something like a community kitchen, and even if you do, if someone gets sick you have to shut down. We wanted to have more branches if something terrible like that happened.”
Kansas City entrepreneur Jon Taylor of REACH Collaborative calls the work community kitchens have been performing “heroic” but unsustainable. Amid the economic devastation of the restaurant industry, he saw an opportunity to develop a for-profit network of chefs, food industry partners and a community of growers to create a more centralized approach to growing, processing and distributing meals.
Taking cues from World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit charity started by celebrity chef José Andres to serve meals in the wake of natural disasters around the world, Chef Collective KC seeks to create a long-term model that will also tackle ways to curb food waste and channel nutritious food headed for the compost bin – or worse, the landfill — to those in need.
Taylor envisions expanding non-pandemic community kitchen efforts into a nationwide model that could produce 100,000 meals a day. Bank of America has provided the initial funding of $240,000 for the current Community Meals Program, and Taylor has hired a professional fundraiser to line up contributions of $1 million.
These days Taylor peppers his conversation with the word “evangelize,” as in “I’ve been out evangelizing out there, because you can’t solve problems if you can’t imagine a new system.”
Before the pandemic, The Rieger and Black Sheep featured dishes highlighting sustainably raised meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and other specialty items such as herbs, microgreens and edible flowers provided by small networks of local farmers.
But lately Foust — who has dedicated a decade working on food system issues — has been relying on five-pound bags of onions and potatoes, cartons of cabbage, cauliflower and pineapples and commodity milk, cream cheese and butter.
The donated food is part of the Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Family Food Box Program, a COVID-19 relief program. Using a combination of commodity food and ingredients purchased from his regular farmers, Foust was able to create a signature meal — grilled cheese, tomato soup, salad and a cookie. Depending on the amount of donations, the meal rang in at 25-75 cents.
“We’ve always had stressor points in our food system. We just didn’t know when they would be breaking,” Foust says. “The goal now is to figure out how to do the most with what we have, without wasting anything, to feed the most people.”
Foust will reopen the Black Sheep dining room on June 17 for reservations only and continues to offer curbside and takeout, but he also has plans to keep the community kitchen going by day.
“Instead of looking at hunger as a light switch that can be turned on and off, we hope to learn how to tweak the knobs instead,” he says. “We want to be able to recognize the need every day as it changes.”
Jhy Coulter, a sous chef at UMB Bank’s executive suite kitchen, lent a hand prepping the vegetables. She’s unsure when she will be able to return to work.
“I didn’t want to be sitting at home,” says Coulter, a former Webster House employee who volunteered her time. “With COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and all the things happening in our community, I wanted to try to help out in some small ways.”
Brett Lofton, a chef/consultant, is thankful to be working for pay at the community kitchen. “We’re doing a good thing — saving food waste, helping the community and employing people in the restaurant industry. It’s a win-win-win situation. I am thankful to be a part of this,” he says while working the blender to make smoothies.
The leftover fruit and vegetables were donated by Kanbe’s Markets, a non-profit business that distributes 20,000 pounds per month to convenience stores in neighborhood food deserts east of Troost Avenue.
Up to 75 percent of the plates Winn and his crew have prepared feature vegetables — some misshapen, blemished or on the verge of over ripeness, or what fruit and vegetables distributors call “seconds” or “thirds” instead of the pristine specimens typically found in supermarket produce sections.
To extend the life of perishable products, the chefs rely on preservation methods such as pickling, drying or smoking or freezing to extend shelf life, a process which Foust has dubbed “pausing perishability.”
Chef Collective KC is also working with the Culinary Center of Kansas City on producing grab-and-go meals that in the future could help stock freezers at food pantries as well as create a chef co-branded retail meal with proceeds earmarked to fund hunger relief.
“We’re trying to be really intelligent about what we’re doing to get maximum nutritional density,” Winn says. “Getting food in front of people is one thing but getting what is nutritionally dense to get them nourishment they need is another.”
Every donation (what do you do with 5,000 pounds of deli turkey donated by Butterball?) and every demographic (a day care, a summer school classroom, a battered women’s shelter or senior center) has required the chefs to make another pivot.
And with each pivot, the many faces of hunger have come into sharper focus.
“Yes, you have to feed the homeless. But just because you have a roof over your head doesn’t mean you don’t live in poverty,” Winn says. “That could be half of the people employed at Webster House (which has announced it will not reopen) who relied on family meals or took home food at the end of the night. So many people are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s across the board…These are things you don’t think about when your head is stuck in the sand of your restaurant.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Harvesters – The Community Food Network and Black Sheep. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.