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On a recent afternoon this summer, after finishing a 12-hour overnight shift, Michelle Taylor, a police dispatcher for the city of Oakland, saw her husband and two sons walk into the house with a big paper bag of takeout food.
“I was like ‘Whoa, what is this?’” Taylor said.
Inside the bag were packages of meals — enough to feed four people — made by Oakland restaurants Mela Bistro, Ming’s Tasty, Tay Ho and Rico Rico Taco. Dishes they ate included lentils and injera, a selection of dim sum, vermicelli noodles with grilled chicken and enchiladas.
“It was a 10 out of 10!” Taylor’s 10-year-old JJ said of the food he ate that night. “My favorite part was the chicken.”
A break for parents
Taylor’s family received the meals thanks to a program called Kitchens Around the World, a joint effort between the city and two partners: Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation, which funded the meals, and Community Kitchens, which coordinated with the four participating restaurants. Kitchens Around the World provided one free family dinner from each restaurant to children who attended Town Camp, a city-run program for Bay Area youth (ages 5-12) that operates 19 recreation sites across Oakland every summer. By the time Town Camp’s 2020 sessions ended last week, Kitchens Around the World had fed 375 families free, high-quality restaurant meals.
Maribel Lopez, a recreation supervisor at Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development, said that parents initially were shocked and even a bit concerned about receiving restaurant food for free. “[Parents] want to make sure the restaurants are getting paid first and foremost,” Lopez said, “so we assured them that that’s a part of our plan.”
Nonprofit partner Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation secured donations to cover the meals. It also gave scholarships to around 85% of the children attending Town Camp, which costs $540 for the three-week experience, said Ken Lupoff, Oakland Park and Recreation Foundation’s executive director.
Parents have expressed gratitude for the meals, primarily for the break from cooking. “To have food prepared – and it’s good food – it’s one less thing that I have to worry about,” said Taylor. “I could just sit down and enjoy the kids a little bit more before I go to work.”
Support for restaurants
The four restaurant owners who participated this summer perhaps appreciated Kitchens Around the World most of all. With dine-in service banned during the shelter-in-place orders, the guarantee of selling around 100 meals a week through the summer was a comfort and a lifeline for them. The businesses distributed their food to different recreation sites each week so that families received one meal per camp session.
Sunny Huang, owner of Ming’s Tasty in Oakland Chinatown, which specializes in handmade dim sum, said that her restaurant has been hanging on by a thread since March. Until the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce connected her with the Kitchens Around the World program, she relied solely on takeout orders to keep her doors open. Then, several weeks ago, people robbed her restaurant, requiring her to close for repairs. Now, like many other businesses in the area, the windows of Ming’s Tasty are boarded up.
“Last month was very difficult for me because business went down and then I had to pay to repair the restaurant,” Huang said. She said the meals she sold to Kitchens Around the World helped her cover rent.
Ming’s Tasty sent campers home with puffy baked pork buns, crispy spring rolls and deep-fried pumpkin balls, a sweet dim sum dish that captivated many, including Ellington, a four-year-old Town Camper.
“I had some pumpkin ball!” Ellington exclaimed. “I never had a pumpkin ball before.”
Something new to try, learn
Getting kids to try new things and learn about different cultures is an underlying goal of the Kitchens Around the World program. The meals came with a placemat decorated with information about the areas around the world from where the cuisines originate, with links to music from each country.
Danielle Flewellen, Ellington’s mom and a staff developer for Alameda County Social Services, said she learned something new from the placemat: She never knew that injera is used as a plate and a utensil.
“I always wondered whenever we get Ethiopian food — why did they give us so much of this injera? But now I get it!” she said.
Adiam Tsegaye, owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Mela Bistro, was especially excited about the educational aspect of the program because she has two kids herself and regularly fields adults’ misconceptions about Ethiopian food in the course of business.
“A lot of people come to the store and then ask me, ‘Do you sell African food?’ Africa is a continent,” said Tesegaye, who often has to explain that the continent is home to a variety of cultures with many different cuisines.
For Lopez of Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development, cultural exchange also teaches kids that there’s “value in being unique, there’s value in being different,” which builds community.
Fighting food insecurity is an ongoing community issue
While Kitchens Around the World wrapped up the program this summer, Maria Alderete, the owner of Luka’s Taproom & Lounge in Oakland and founder of Community Kitchens, wants restaurants to continue to be involved in other community initiatives that address food insecurity, if and when they become profitable again.
“When the COVID crisis is over the housing crisis is still going to be there,” she said. “There’s a need for food.”
Alderete founded Community Kitchens to connect donors who want to help struggling restaurants by paying for meals that feed vulnerable and unsheltered people in Oakland during the pandemic.
Along with incubating Kitchens Around the World, Community Kitchens has partnered with organizations like East Oakland Collective, Berkeley Free Clinic, People’s Breakfast Oakland, The Village, Kerry’s Kids and Love and Justice in the Streets.
Alderete hopes that the East Bay restaurants that have benefited from the partnership with Community Kitchens will eventually be able to give back to the food programs that helped them and the communities they served during the pandemic. She is currently under fiscal sponsorship of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Alderete recently filed forms to establish Community Kitchens as a nonprofit.
“It’s my hope that the relationships I’ve made in the last couple months turn into a long-term commitment by restaurants to continue to support all of our community,” she said. “To do it collectively could be powerful and that’s what I’m hoping Community Kitchens can become.”