Free healthy grocery deliveries kept her community fed through the pandemic, but this chef’s battle against food insecurity is far from over

Calichio, a former restaurant chef, had built a cooking and gardening business that ground to a halt, leaving her with no income. Her husband, Omar, also a chef, continued his work at the restaurant, working in cramped quarters that put him at risk amid the spread of the virus.

“My husband and I thought, at least I can get unemployment,” Calichio said. “Where there are five to 15 people that we know that are not going to have that.”

In an industry where people often live paycheck to paycheck and many don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, Calichio knew many restaurant workers wouldn’t have a safety net to fall back on.

“I had a choice between sitting here at home and being overwhelmed,” she said, “or I can do whatever I can do without thinking about whether it will work or not.”

So, in early March 2020, the couple started a GoFundMe with the idea of ​​buying fresh, healthy food in bulk and delivering it directly to those in need in their community of Astoria, Queens.

Within a week, they raised $10,000.

“We thought the pandemic was going to be over in two weeks,” Calichio said. “So, we thought: ‘We’ll spend this 10 thousand and then we’ll go back to work.’ And that never happened.”

They immediately realized the need extended far beyond their restaurant community and the program quickly grew to serve anyone in Queens. And so the non-profit organization The Connected Chef was born.

“We knew we lived in a community that … has a huge disparity,” he said. “And we wanted to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

The Connected Chef buys most of its food from local farms. Grocery boxes are packed and then delivered directly to recipients’ homes by volunteers and staff.

“We wanted to be able to do this in a way that was dignified and not have people waiting in a pantry line for four hours wondering if they’re even going to get food,” Calichio said.

The organization delivers free groceries to 550 households each week and has 700 more on the waiting list. A household can stay in the program as long as they need.

“When you’re food insecure, you’re not just for a week and then you get food and then everything is better again,” Calichio said. “And so we wanted to make sure we were a trusted source.”

Calichio’s says its measure of success is the 125 households that have opted out of the free program. They are now in a better place where they can shop for groceries on their own or opt into The Connected Chef’s sliding scale program and pay what they can afford.

While this work began in response to the pandemic, for Calichio it is far from over.

“We still have families calling us and thanking us, saying ‘If we didn’t have your food, we wouldn’t have food,'” he said. “Until we can create something that is self-sustaining and can be replicated, this work will continue.”

CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Calichio about his work. Below is an edited version of her conversation.

CNN: What made you worry about your fellow restaurant workers when restaurants started closing in 2020?

Kim Calichio: Most people who work in restaurants live paycheck to paycheck. It is also largely made up of an immigrant community. So many people do not qualify for unemployment benefits. We knew that people were in dire need. When I say that in a week my fridge will be empty, that was literally the situation people found themselves in.

There was also no waiting. We didn’t have time to say, “Okay, let’s set this up. And let’s figure this out.” Like, people needed food yesterday. And we needed to figure out how to help them.

CNN: Why is it important for you to buy local products?

Calichio: We source 80% of our produce from local farms in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Food is a focal point in many ways, but it also intersects with environmental justice and labor justice. Aside from building something, we didn’t want to source our ingredients from companies that were based on extraction. And we wanted to make sure that we are, as much as possible, supporting small farms.

We’re working really hard to support BIPOC farmers too, and make sure that where we get our food from doesn’t support this big, big farming business.

CNN: How have you set up your nonprofit to function differently from other organizations?

Calichio: Our goal is to create a food system rooted in the community, from where food is grown to how it gets into families’ homes. And at every step in between, we need to make sure there is fairness. That includes our staff and our team that does this work. It didn’t make sense for us to build an organization where we have executives who are paid a lot. So everyone on our team is paid $20 an hour. Some of us work more or fewer hours than others. But the pay rate is the same. And when we get a raise, we all get a raise together.

My hope is that this work provides a model for doing things differently, so that communities around the world can see what we are doing and realize that it is possible and that we don’t have to do business as usual.

Do you want to get involved? check The Connected Chef website and see how to help.
To donate to The Connected Chef through GoFundMe, Click here

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