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When the coronavirus pandemic first gripped Philadelphia and the rest of the nation, it had a ripple effect on restaurants and individuals alike.
Husband-and-wife restaurateurs Benjamin Miller and Cristina Martinez, owners of the famed South Philly Barbacoa, adapted quickly to deliver takeout service, but they had to lose some staff members, and the picture wasn’t rosy for their friends and community members, either. Some couldn't access federal stimulus payments because of their undocumented status.
The pair knew they had to act.
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“It was definitely devastating and heartbreaking to see a lot of restaurants go and to see our friends suffering, and that’s how our People’s Kitchen project began – through recognizing there’s a big need out there, people are hungry and they need work, too,” Miller said.
In Philadelphia, 21% of the population experiences food insecurity, compared with the national average of 12.9%, according to the Feeding America nonprofit. The People’s Kitchen, a partnership between South Philly Barbacoa and the 215 People’s Alliance, soon began serving restaurant-quality meals for those in need.
Using the space at Martinez and Miller’s El Compadre, the sister restaurant of South Philly Barbacoa, the couple collaborates with other chefs and volunteers to serve anywhere between 215 and 300 meals a day.
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Each quarter, different chefs from local restaurants are paid to come in and run the kitchen and the crew on a daily basis, giving work to those who have needed it during the pandemic, Miller said. But the project, which is possible thanks to mostly donated food and funds from World Central Kitchen, has a reach beyond the kitchen.
In Point Breeze, volunteers pick and grow vegetables at a community garden. Delivery drivers also volunteer their own time to distribute some of the food for people who can’t access the restaurant's physical location.
The scope of the project, too, stretches far beyond solely feeding people.
“It was also a movement for us to look at what we were missing in the system a little bit too, and how our restaurants excluded certain people,” Miller said. “The best food is being prepared for the wealthier patrons, so how can we get this food and bring it to people who don’t have and try to make a more inclusive community that can enjoy the fruits of our labor?”
That bottom-up focus also includes distributing information. In the largely Latino South Philadelphia corridor, for example, volunteers encouraged people to be counted and participate in last year’s census. They also registered people to vote and partner with community organizations like the Church of the Redeemer Baptist Church and Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit that provides health care to Philadelphia’s Latino immigrant population, to distribute meals.
Miller said the People’s Kitchen has an operating budget of about $25,000 a month. The group is looking for sustaining donors to ensure the collaborative continues beyond the end of the pandemic.
“This is our opportunity to build a restaurant model that is really using our talents in the best way possible,” Miller said.