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The People’s Kitchen at El Compadre serves free meals and social justice to those in need

“We have so much poverty in this city, it’s a great use for this commercial kitchen.”

Chef Benjamin added the purslane to the verde sauce as the group at El Compadres Peoples' Kitchen prepared to make 200 meals for the needy in Philadelphia, Pa. on July 15.
Chef Benjamin added the purslane to the verde sauce as the group at El Compadres Peoples' Kitchen prepared to make 200 meals for the needy in Philadelphia, Pa. on July 15.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

At 7 a.m. one recent Tuesday, the crew from El Compadre already had their hands in the dirt of an urban farm in Point Breeze, clearing out fallow beds and turning the soil of their newly acquired garden plots, even gathering their lucky first harvest, a bushy green purslane left by previous tenants.

“Purslane is a very delicious weed that a lot of the gardeners don’t care about,” says Carly Pourzand, 27, an avid gardener who’s also been coordinating the transformation this spring of El Compadre into the People’s Kitchen, where these greens would soon be cooked.

A rotating crew of chefs

The restaurant, whose space had been in limbo since owners Cristina Martínez and Ben Miller relocated their renowned Barbacoa South Philly to its current spot nearby two years ago, has found a new mission during the pandemic, morphing into an ambitious community kitchen where a daily-changing roster of guest chefs cooks 1,000 free meals a week for those in need. Funded by philanthropy, driven by concern over a worsening hunger crisis and the desire to affect wider systemic change, the project has become a prime stage for a new generation of chefs motivated to cook for social justice as a result of the coronavirus.

“It was originally just going to be for two weeks, and I wanted to make sure families could get hot meals of chef-quality food delivered to them,” says Aziza Young, a private chef for several pro athletes. Idled while her clients remained out of town, she was the first to approach Miller and Martínez about using their El Compadre space. “I reached out to friends and colleagues to get it going, and it just wound up growing and expanding.”

Chefs including Kurt Evans, Joy Parham, Elijah Milligan, Corey Quigley, Gary McCoy, Mani Thillai, and many others have all taken turns creating meals from the restaurant’s ever-changing ingredient supply, ranging from vegetable korma to fried flounder with mac-’n'-cheese, apricot-glazed salmon, and chicken fajitas.

Miller then connected in April with chef José Andrés’ hunger relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen for more substantial funding to build its momentum. And that infusion has seeded the groundwork for an El Compadre makeover intended to endure beyond the health crisis: “I’m trying to create the most radical concept I can,” Miller says. “We have so much poverty in this city, it’s a great use for this commercial kitchen.”

Miller and Martínez, who also take turns cooking, definitely know what to do with that fresh purslane, wilting the leafy greens with salsa verde into tangy verdolagas, to be served with fresh favas over tender chunks of stewed beef and rice. By midafternoon the following Wednesday, 200 foil pans of that hot supper would be distributed across the city through El Compadre’s diverse network of community partners.

Some come directly to the storefront of South Philly Barbacoa, where a mountain of meals is coordinated for recipients, including many Mexican workers who have been particularly hard hit with unemployment and lack of access to government benefits during the pandemic.

“Getting these meals means one less thing my mother has to worry about,” says 15-year-old Sarahi, who also volunteers. “I come here because this is a place where I can identify with other people who are struggling like we are,” she said, as a tear suddenly began to roll down beneath her face mask. “I can help here and feel that I’m not alone, that we’re not the only ones.”

The meals also go to SEAMAAC, an immigrant and refugee support agency that distributes 50 meals a day to its largely Southeast Asian community. The meals go to the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, Unite Here Philly, which represents hotel and food service workers, as well as Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit health provider serving Philadelphia’s Latino community.

The meals are also taken to the Church of the Redeemer Baptist in Point Breeze, a predominantly African American congregation that also happens to own the Growing Together Garden where El Compadre is now farming. Church member Constance Matthews was among the first in line waiting for meals to take back to her husband and son: “Thank God’s glory for this food! Some people don’t have anything to eat, you know, so it’s a beautiful thing.”

A crisis of food insecurity

The reality of Philadelphia’s hunger emergency cannot be overstated, and it’s become only more dire since the pandemic. As reported by my colleague Alfred Lubrano, demand for food assistance has increased as much as 60% nationwide over the last year, according to a Feeding America analysis, which also projects that in Philadelphia, food insecurity — the inability to afford enough food for a healthy lifestyle — is going to rise from 16.3% to 21.2% due to the coronavirus. That’s more than 300,000 people. Share Food Program, the region’s largest hunger-relief agency, has been feeding almost one million people a month throughout the city and surrounding counties since COVID hit.

The daunting scope of the issue puts El Compadre’s effort into perspective but also drives its focus to engage members of the broader restaurant community and create initiatives that go beyond feeding people.

“We know 200 meals a day isn’t going to meet the real food-insecurity needs in the city,” says Pourzand. “So from the beginning, we asked how can we embrace this moment of getting meals to people who really need them but also support change around the root issues that are leading to food insecurity.”

The solution ultimately is political, says Chenjerai Kumanyika, a Peabody Award-winning podcaster and Rutgers University journalism and media-studies professor who is a board member of the 215 People’s Alliance. The racial and economic justice advocacy group has partnered with El Compadre on this project in hopes of using its meal programs to organize communities for political action.

“The power food culture has is the way it brings us together and plunges us more fully into each other’s lives, and by going into each other’s lives what you’re going into is politics,” Kumanyika said. “Now you have to think about the people who made the food, who in the community can and can’t eat, and how those particular vulnerabilities might be constructed.”

“The food insecurity is so vast, as well as the ways it links to budget priorities on the table in the city, and what they’re going to mean for the most vulnerable,” he said. “Cut the school budget [where many children are fed] and put $19 million into the police? ... Food culture exposes that actually these things are not separate. ... I don’t want to devalue food pantries, but food pantries don’t solve the political questions that lead to food insecurity and joblessness.”

More than a food pantry

Mobilizing El Compadre’s multicultural constituency into a broad political force will be a process, concede Kumanyika and Pourzand, who are in the “listening stage” of interacting with meal recipients. They want to build policy initiatives around issues they identify that can evolve into community dinners, Zoom webinars, and eventually affect elections.

Already, one of the People’s Kitchen’s partner groups — the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (also founded by Martínez and Miller) — can now identify 110 applicants for $800 cash payments from the Philadelphia Worker Relief Fund, a philanthropic fund disbursed by the mayor’s office that gives direct assistance to workers and families affected by COVID-19 who are left out of federal and state relief.

The addition of the garden creates another opportunity for the People’s Kitchen to make a statement about land use in the city, helping preserve open space from development while also creating a seasonal food system that serves the church’s community directly.

“Every community should have a food system like that,” says Young, who has since shifted her focus to another hunger initiative called Everybody Eats, a pop-up feeding 600-plus people at various locations around the city.

The People’s Kitchen at El Compadre, meanwhile, is off and rolling, with nearly 100 volunteers and a fund-raising push now through the 215 People’s Alliance to eventually replace the funding from World Central Kitchen, currently about $10,000 a week, with sustainable local sources to cover food, labor, and other costs.

“We’re not the long-term solution, we’re an emergency response. But there’s nothing slowing Cristina and Ben — they’re an amazing duo,” says Tim Kilcoyne, director of chef operations for World Central Kitchen, which has funded 20 million meals across the country since March at 2,400 restaurants. That includes El Merkury, Philly Tacos, Le Virtù, and Miles Table on South, which have also combined an additional 2,500 local meals each week.

Miller, meanwhile, cannot wait for the People’s Kitchen garden to take root.

“I’m excited to grow wild edibles that are indigenous around here, from squash to herbs, wild asparagus and dandelion greens we foraged from around the site and planted today,” he says. “We’re asking for seeds and seedling donations, because we have a lot of space. Cauliflowers, cabbages, garlic, and turnips. We’re going to plug cold-weather crops straight into the restaurant, grow this project, and see how far we can go with it.”