Community kitchens are about communal food, with a variety of purposes. There’s something about preparing and sharing nourishing food that encourages us to communicate with each other, while slowing down and enjoying both the food and the company…and sometimes even launching social movements.
By Wendy Priesnitz
In many cultures around the world, food is much more than physical survival. Sharing food can be many things – romantic, nurturing, sociable, community building, and celebratory. English monks in the 16th century would cook together as part of their daily ritual; for Sikhs throughout the world, cooking together in large communal kitchens is part of temple life; North American aboriginals have always created and shared meals in their ceremonial gatherings.
The experience of food is as much about growing, shopping, planning, and preparation as it is about eating. Gardeners love sharing tips and lore, and working the soil with a neighbor can be excellent therapy for many reasons. Organize a social gathering in your home and people tend to congregate in the kitchen. Businesses and social movements alike have been launched around kitchen tables, their births eased by treats of cookies and tea or more substantial meals.
Preserving a Food Culture
Unfortunately, as the pace of life increases and the need for efficiency rules, the culture of eating is one of the first things to erode. Fast food restaurants nurture neither the soul or the body. Easy-to-prepare packaged food numbs the palette. Solo eating on-the-run dulls the art of conversation. And heaven forbid anyone takes the time to offer hospitality to their increasingly distant friends and family!
Of course, coupled in a chicken or egg existence with speed eating goes environment damaging commercial farming, globalized food system management, the marginalization of the poor, and other social ills.
In recent years, some people have begun to miss what we have lost. In reaction to “the reduction of food to consumption, of taste to hamburger, of thought to meatball,” the Slow Food movement began in Italy in the mid 1980s. It now has close to 100,000 members in about fifty countries and offices in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and New York City. Its members characterize themselves as “eco-gastronomes” – people who care about the quality, sensuality, and conviviality of food while respecting nature and the environment.
Another grassroots movement is focused on group preparation – and sometimes eating – of healthy food. Less organized and more diverse, the communal cooking phenomenon (also called cooking clubs, collective or community kitchens) seems to have originated in Latin America a few decades ago, with activists organizing thousands of community kitchens to help low-income people prepare healthy food inexpensively. But the idea has caught on in the developed world and grown to encompass the elderly, the disabled, people who live alone, and those who simply enjoy the companionship of getting together once a week to cook with a group of neighbors or to teach each other ethnic dishes or other specialties. When people get together regularly in a public space to cook, that’s a community kitchen.
Community kitchens offer the opportunity to share skills, socialize, and reduce costs by purchasing collectively. Collective food preparation can address all kinds of social, economic, and nutritional barriers. Some community kitchens have a social service bent – preparing donated food for street people, training unemployed people to become cooks, etc. Other groups meet weekly to prepare a week’s worth of food to take home to their families. Some community kitchens act as business incubators, offering specialty food processors, farmers, and caterers a relatively inexpensive place to license food processing activities. Some groups work together only in the fall to preserve produce. Some are formal non-profit organizations, some affiliated with service organizations or municipalities. There are vegetarian kitchens, kitchens for new moms, and kitchens that cater primarily to psychiatric consumer/survivors. Still other groups are just informal gatherings of friends who come together regularly to cook and eat.
One group of people that doesn’t need to be told about the benefits of communal food is made up of those who live in cohousing arrangements. The central sharing tradition of cohousing is that of the common dinner, cooked in a well-equipped common kitchen and eaten in the dining hall in the common house. Residents agree on a number of nights per week to share dinners, then organize a cooking roster, such that each adult will usually only cook once for every 10 to 20 common meals. These meals not only save residents the hassle of finding time for shopping and cooking, but play an important role in creating the social interaction so valuable within cohousing communities.
Feeding the Poor
For many people who access food banks and shelters, having the basic cooking and nutritional know-how, let alone the facilities, to make healthier meals for themselves and their families can be a challenge. Recognizing that, many of these community organizations have set up community kitchen programs. Using produce and other food that has sometimes been donated by local farmers and retailers, these programs typically provide meal planning and nutrition education as well as healthy meals to their users.
These programs vary greatly and are often quite innovative. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Soup Sisters partners with a local catering company to produce large volumes of nourishing soup for Bryony House, a transition house for women and children leaving violent homes. Soup Sisters organizes events at Kitchen Door Catering’s facility where participants pay a fee to cover expenses of ingredients for the soups, the professional kitchen venue, equipment, supervision, and a Chef or professional facilitator. In addition to social camaraderie, food and wine, each event produces a few hundred servings of fresh soup a month for the shelter.
The Greater Vancouver Community Food Bank has been a pioneer in the community kitchen movement. They believe in building community around food and creating opportunities for people to share and learn about food and food skills by encouraging community kitchens where everyone participates. In addition to facilitating and supporting 26 community kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with a focus of offering an alternate method to obtain food in a self-directed and dignified manner that trains people in nutrition and cooking, they run workshops to help other individuals and organizations do the same. Their website (see resource list at the end of this article) has a great deal of helpful information about starting, funding, and operating community kitchens.
Helping With University Costs
At the University of Toronto, the Hart House Community Kitchen is a fun way for students to combat the rising costs of tuition, housing, and food. The community kitchen facilitates the combining of the students’ resources to gain a purchasing strength for basic ingredients. They then come together in small groups to prepare large amounts of food and distribute it among themselves. The groups also build a sense of community on the large, urban campus through planning menus, organizing cooking, and learning about food issues.
A version of the communal kitchen can be run out of someone’s home or a local church or community center kitchen. In this version, sometimes called a batch cooking group, there is an opportunity for both connecting with your community and living frugally. Batch cooking is simply the preparation of a recipe in a large quantity; a batch cooking group extends that to a group of friends or neighbors who make enough food to split among themselves to freeze, or to donate to someone in need or a community food bank. In her book Food and Fellowship, experienced batch cooking organizer Andrea Belcham writes, “You’ve likely done this in some form already, making ten jars of strawberry jam after a berry picking trip, or cooking a big soup on Sunday afternoon that will cover a few lunches during the week, for instance. Now imagine more hands chopping and peeling, stirring, and scooping. Imagine bigger pots, more food, laughter, and conversation mingling with the sounds of cooking.”
Friends Cooking and Eating Together
While not really true to the communal cooking model, a cooking club satisfies the need to avoid take-out food, helps its participants learn how to cook, and provides an excuse for friends to get together over a meal without spending a lot of money to go to restaurants. It is really a glorified potluck where each person prepares one component of a pre-planned meal from scratch, then come together with the others to eat the meal. After one media-savvy group of women in New York City collected their experiences into a website and wrote a cookbook, resulting in national publicity a decade ago, many other groups of friends picked up on the idea.
They have some tips for setting up and having fun with a cooking club. They suggest looking beyond your best friends for participants, and inviting co-workers or people you’d like to know better. Monthly get togethers are easier to handle than weekly, at least at the beginning, they advise.
The Cooking Club’s rule about cooking at home was based on their initial experience that “six cooks in the kitchen not only spoils the broth but also leads to other catastrophes — such as cookie dough on the ceiling.” While this approach may not work for all communal cooking situations, the Cooking Club’s main principle is important to everyone: Have fun, they advise, saying that the main ingredient in the recipe for a successful cooking club is an ample sense of humor. “Large doses of warmth and admiration go a long way in the kitchen, where egos can be bruised like a delicate persimmon. At our cooking club gatherings, we always spend the first half-hour saying mmm and patting each other on the back.” After all, the important part isn’t necessarily the food – it’s the friendship, the members conclude.
There are no rules for communal kitchens, according to those who have set them up. They are as different as the needs they are filling and the people involved. Many of the more formal non-profit groups run leaders’ workshops from time to time.
Aside from good plain fun, community cooking can accomplish many things. It has the potential to fight hunger, stretch the family budget, reduce social isolation, contribute to parenting skills, facilitate the social integration of marginalized people, improve family life, and provide opportunities for community economic development.
Learn More About Community Kitchens
Food and Fellowship: Projects to Feed a Community by Andrea Belcham (The Alternate Press)
The Cooking Club Cookbook by the Cooking Club of America, Cynthia Harris (Random House)