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Community Kitchens
Julia Levitt, 3 Jun 09

Collaborative solutions that will make our communities resilient in the 21st century don't need to wait for some version of the future, or conform to some outdated hippie ideal. Case in point: the community kitchen. This smart, practical program promotes local food security, not only by ensuring that participants have access to affordable food, but also by completing the picture -- giving people the time, equipment, guidance and assistance necessary to prepare healthy meals in a busy world.

Photo credit: Karen M. Winston
Here's how it works: first, a community of people plans a menu. They work together, or elect an organizer, to procure food. Sometimes the members themselves simply divide the cost, enjoying the savings that come with purchasing food staples in bulk. Sometimes the group gathers donations, or makes use of food from local food banks or similar institutions. No matter where the food originates, however, one important detail sets the community kitchen apart from soup kitchens or other feeding programs: the practice of preparing and sharing food communally. The people who will eat the food are the same people who help to cook the food, and by those rules, all participants are equal.

One Kitchen in Action

I recently had the pleasure of joining the Rainier Valley Community Kitchen, which recently started here in Seattle. The neighborhood-based group meets monthly to cook a variety of freezer-friendly dishes in massive quantities, so that participants, who pay $25 apiece (if they can) to attend, each take home four- to five-person servings of each dish. This particular community kitchen is sponsored by Seattle-based co-op PCC, which allows kitchen organizers to purchase ingredients for their menus from the market at cost.

About a dozen of us met in the commercial-sized kitchen at the Rainier Valley Community Center. The menu for the month had been planned in advance: Thai coconut curry soup, vegetarian risotto, potato-cheese croquettes and vegetarian minestrone soup. Sacks of vegetables spilled onto the counters amid bulk tubs of cheese and spices and massive cans of coconut milk. We divided into teams around each recipe and set to work chopping, peeling, sautéing and boiling. Even in a big kitchen, that many people working at once creates a kind of friendly mayhem, and of course there were spills, misplaced tools, and corresponding solutions improvised at the last minute. Still, by the time two hours had passed, the finished products tasted good, the kitchen was clean, and we had more than enough for each of us to fill a shopping bag to the brim with steaming containers to carry home.

More Than Meals

Photo credit: Kala Mayer
Cooking several family meals' worth of food on such an affordable budget, and with such minimal time spent in the kitchen, is reward enough for most. But the dozen or so people who frequent the Rainier Valley kitchen describe reasons for coming that transcend economy. People like to cook together, and they enjoy turning cooking into a learning experience, whether their aim is to learn basic cooking skills, new recipes, ideas for healthy menu planning, or even topics entirely unrelated to food. When your hands are busy, discussions seem to flow more easily, even among relative strangers.

"I think it's an entry point for community organizing," says Diane Collis, manager of Vancouver, B.C.-based Fresh Choice Kitchens, the community kitchen program of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society. "We can talk about politics and nutrition, what doctor did you use when your kid was sick – all sorts of things go on in community kitchens that aren't about cooking. It's about social support."

At Fresh Choice, Collis helps provide informational materials, health and safety training and other support for the large network of community kitchens in the Greater Vancouver area. She has also helped develop community kitchens outside her hometown, extending her reach from other Pacific Northwest cities like Seattle, to as far away as Australia. When she first started working on the program 13 years ago, it was known as the Vancouver Community Kitchen Project, and it was an initiative designed specifically to serve low-income residents by helping them stretch their food budgets while creating healthy meals. In 1999, they turned recipes from the project into a cookbook, which they sold in local retail stores.

"It attracted different people than we originally thought it would," Collis says, "and it became obvious that community kitchens could benefit anyone – young people, old people, people living with health concerns. We started to market community kitchens more broadly."

Photo credit: Karen M. Winston
Now, she says, British Columbia's many community kitchens have adopted a wide variety of focuses: for example, teaching new immigrants about English and Canadian culture through food; specific dietary management of chronic diseases like diabetes; baking techniques; kid-friendly foods; ethnic foods; nutrition. Collis has even seen Vancouver agencies use the community kitchen model for job training, allowing participants to earn their food-safe certifications while cooking for local day care programs, and sending them on to jobs in cafes, restaurants and institutions. "Community kitchens are grassroots programs," she says. "They are supposed to reflect the needs of the people who are involved."

Food and Security

Community kitchens are also resilience-building institutions, contributing to the food security of a neighborhood or social group. Not only does the practice encourage new relationships and foster useful knowledge of basic cooking, nutritious meal planning and health safety, but also, it teaches very practical skills that protect participants in an emergency situation. "People who are involved with community kitchens become used to working with others in a way that is shared equally, and benefits everyone," says Collis. "Someone who is involved with a community kitchen would find it much easier to pull their neighbors in; they'll understand how to scale recipes to accommodate the larger group, and they'll have comfort in community organizing. It's a basic skill that dates back to people in the agricultural era of the 20s and 30s – they used to stretch their food all the time. When there's an earthquake, we might get so much food from the state, but if everyone pitches in and understands sharing, we can make the food last long enough to sustain ourselves."

Read other related posts in the Worldchanging archives:

Lunch at the Langar: Exploring a Free Kitchen in Delhi

Seattle to the World: Fare Start

Food and Community

Recession and Innovation

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Well said. I personally believe community kitchens are one of the best ways to involve yourself with food culture. But there is also the issue of the wider issues it addresses, such as the possibility of city wide food production management, through hundreds of these kitchens working together, sourcing their own produce within a ten minute walk of each kitchen.

More info on this:

Posted by: Jordan Lloyd on 4 Jun 09

Check out Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley.

Posted by: Green Guy on 4 Jun 09

I've heard of church groups doing community kitchens, and have even seen a couple of local businesses that do this on a for-profit basis, but I've never encountered this model before. It seems like a natural partner for community-supported agriculture groups:

Posted by: e.r. dunhill on 4 Jun 09

I look forward to reading stories like this. I am working towards this goal with my work. The road to food security should include a stop in the kitchen.

Posted by: Melissa Danielle on 4 Jun 09

Interesting development, good story.

Don't understand the need to kick one's antecedents though:

>>> "conform to some outdated hippie ideal."

I think this is bad intellectual history. "Hippie" is not a good way to describe the period, since it involved many different groups - political, religious, lifestyle, etc. Many things were done then which are now re-surfacing. I partook in activities which could be considered as forshadowing Community Kitchens.

American consciousness has a black hole as far as the period of 65-75 is concerned. The period is much more complicated than the stereotypes -- and it has much to teach people interested in sustainability today.

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 4 Jun 09

We do this all the time in cohousing, it's often referred to as the glue that keeps the community together. I know when I haven't been to a community meal in a while I feel more isolated.
I like seeing how many of the things we're discovering are healthy or good for the environment are the things that are already integral to cohousing.

Posted by: Malcolm on 5 Jun 09

This article shows how important community structure are and creating people connections.

This world is about people and the connections we have together.
Community kitchens are a good example of people coming together for a common purpose and as the story indicates it does not have to be complicated

Ian Cleland
The walking man

Posted by: Ian Cleland on 5 Jun 09

Good post indeed! Thanks for sharing such nice information.
Custom Cabinetry

Posted by: Custom Cabinetry on 5 Aug 09

Thanks for sharing such a nice post.
Kitchen design New York

Posted by: Kitchen design New York on 28 Aug 09

i would like to join your group,please contact me at ,thanks ralph

Posted by: ralph on 5 Nov 09

Everyone loves to eat and joining community kitchen activities is a fun way of bonding with different kinds of culture and sharing information. Happy eating everyone! :)

Posted by: Kitchens Sunshine Coast on 16 Jul 10

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