As restaurants across the country grapple with surviving the crushing economic and social implications of the current pandemic, many are beginning to question what the role of the restaurant is when our society settles into a “new normal”. For some, that involves taking a step back and surveying the pre-pandemic landscape of their community.
The moment Irena Stein, owner of Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, MD, shut down on-site dining operations at the restaurant, she began catering for the food insecure populations of Baltimore. In partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective—an organization that hires refugees and immigrants for catering programs—and World Central Kitchen, Stein and her team began a Community Meals initiative that has since served over 50,000 balanced and nutritious meals to Baltimore residents. Many restaurants across the country began or participated in similar initiatives as a way to provide immediate relief from the pandemic. For Stein, a trained anthropologist and social worker from Venezuela, it was an opportunity to examine how restaurants can play a more consistent role in food justice for communities.
“I’m used to looking at society as a whole and where I stand in that and where our business stands in that,” says Stein. “We don’t want to do charity. Charity is great in times of crisis but this is an ongoing crisis,” she continues, referring to the fact that Baltimore has a high rate of food insecurity.
Stein began to develop a plan for how Alma Cocina Latina can play a committed role to help develop food policies and eradicate hunger in its surrounding communities. “It’s like taking the city’s reality into our restaurant and saying how is that going to pan out?” Stein explains. “What can we do to change the habits of malnutrition? What can we do about the fact that there is no access to good food in our own neighborhoods?”
To start, Stein managed to raise enough funds to hire her entire kitchen staff back at $15.75 an hour on a full-time basis to cook for both the community meals program as well as the restaurant. Every member of the kitchen staff is currently receiving training on food costs and nutrition. Each cook gets an opportunity to lead weekly tasks on a rotational basis, giving everyone involved equal voices and ownership of the system. “Our goal is to foster empowerment through this cooperative model,” Stein explains. “Since we began our partnership in March, we have watched our team members take ownership of the project, going from quiet prep cooks to creating menus and leading the kitchen team.” The objective for Stein is to create an environment where her staff only needs to hold one job and can come to work each day knowing they’re in a safe, democratic space.
In addition to the community meals program, Alma Cocina Latina is also offering patio dining. Stein is uncomfortable with the thought of potentially putting her team or customers at risk by launching indoor dining at the moment. Rather than reopen for service at 50% capacity, Stein decided to plan for an entirely new approach of social gastronomy, i.e. using food to drive social change. “There is a divide between what’s happening with food policy—the intellectual part of it and the practical part of it,” Stein explains. “I believe that if restaurants like ours get involved, we can go much faster in the opportunity to transform our city. This is where I want to go. This is an opportunity to change.”
For the past four months, Stein has been in conversation with policy makers and educators, trying to raise awareness and funding for this new model of restaurant while also pushing for better food redistribution systems so that farms and companies that have excess food products can either donate or sell at a lower cost to areas that are food apartheids. Her own team is currently using redistributed products, and budgeting each community meal at $10. A document detailing the project provides the following details on the decision to set that budget:
Existing programs that donate food to schools, senior facilities, etc, only have a budget around $2 to $6 per meal.
These budgets make it impossible to make good, quality balanced meals while also paying the staff a living wage and benefits. $10 per meal allows us to do so, without cutting corners on quality of meals and supporting our teams.
Our project is economically sustainable because at $10 a meal, we can create and deliver meals with a domino
of positive effects; it is socially sustainable because not only does the community on the receiving end benefit,
but it allows us to support our employees, growers and all of the actors in the food system. It is environmentally
sustainable because we encourage local production and a diet that is overall better for our planet.
Stein’s long-term goal is to transform Alma Cocina Latina into a permanent space for food education and food distribution while also functioning as restaurant that provides ready-made meals for takeaway, similar to a café or arepa bar. “Gastronomy in service of society,” Stein calls it. “When you are bridged together, there’s much more awareness, much more commitment, much more empathy, much more compassion, there’s much more understanding. All of that, that’s what I mean about changing the realities of the economy and the way people make business. I think that we have to go to that point. We do have to engage in that kind of future, we do.”
To learn more about Alma Cocina Latina’s social gastronomy efforts in partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective, please visit: https://www.mera.kitchen/foundation