Meet Ariq Barrett, a chef, dad, and the founder of Black Kidz Can Cook and Kidz Meals on Wheels.

• On the power of food: “I think that food helps, and it heals. Before my grandma passed away, she couldn’t talk, but when I fed her she would make a noise and it made me feel good because it reminded me she was still alive, and she was enjoying it.”

• More honey than vinegar: “A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh you’re nothing like Gordon Ramsay,’ and I’m like ‘Hell no!’ I don’t want to be that chef no one can talk to because you can’t reach someone if they can’t reach you.”

Ariq Barrett was living in Kensington in March 2020 when the pandemic hit and he saw something he’d never witnessed before.

“Kids were out there asking for money, I seen kids panhandling,” he said. “I was like ‘Kids should not have to be doing this to eat!’ ”

Barrett thought if he could provide just a couple of those children with two meals a day, it might do his conscience good. So with the money he made juggling manager jobs at a Burger King and Domino’s, and with his background as a chef, Barrett began making boxed lunches for kids at his home. He’d load them up in his backpack and give them away to children he met on the street.

“Then people started putting it on social: ‘This guy gave my kid a sandwich!’ and it spiraled out of control,” Barrett said. “I really needed help. I was driving from Kensington to Nicetown, West Philly to Upper Darby, to deliver these meals.”

Laura Lacy had opened her Germantown brewery, Attic Brewing Co., just eight weeks before COVID-19 shut it down. When she saw a social media post from Barrett seeking places to make his boxed lunches, she offered her taproom.

“At that time there was so much uncertainty, and it felt like the right thing to do,” Lacy said. “Having that relationship with someone else gave us some purpose and made us feel like we were connecting with other people and helping out how we could.”

Barrett called the operation Kidz Meals on Wheels and with the help of dozens of volunteers, the group made more than 12,000 boxed lunches and delivered them to the doorsteps of kids from March to July 2020.

“Some of those kids were sitting at the doors waiting for us to drop those meals off,” Barrett, 36, said. “They were so happy that someone without obligation was taking them into consideration.”

And it wasn’t the first time Barrett had done so. In many ways and for many years, Barrett has not only fed Philly’s kids, he’s taught them how to cook for themselves. Among Barrett’s grassroots efforts is his Black Kidz Can Cook summer camp program, through which more than 300 children have learned about nutrition, cooking, and community service since 2015.

But this year’s program is in jeopardy after a series of health and housing setbacks cost Barrett a foot, sight in one eye, and his home. Currently living in a Center City shelter, Barrett is unable to do what he’s always done to get through hard times — cook.

“I’ve always been able to cook my way out of stuff. If I can’t pay a bill, I cook and I can do it. If I can’t pay my rent, I cook and I can do it. If I can’t afford to bury a loved one, I cook and I can do it,” he said. “But I can’t cook myself out of this.”

Still, he remains determined the camp will go on.

“I don’t think that it’s something that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Even in my condition, I’m still going to do it.”

Raised in North Philly, Barrett said his family was big on community service and often held barbecue fund-raisers to help neighbors fund burials for their loved ones.

“That’s why it’s second nature to give back and help others, because that’s how I was raised,” he said.

As a kid, Barrett was diagnosed with diabetes so severe it sent him into comas, and he also dealt with bouts of necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease to which diabetic patients are susceptible.

After high school, Barrett worked at various restaurants, obtained his certifications, and tried to start his own catering company. But a few drug-related arrests landed him in prison in Montgomery County for five months in his early 20s. Barrett felt terrible for letting his family down but found solace working in the prison’s kitchen.

“In a place where you’re supposed to feel low about yourself, it made me feel good,” he said. “I found refuge in it.”

When he got out, he co-managed a restaurant, got his culinary degree online from Le Cordon Bleu, worked as a chef on a cruise ship, and helped new Black restaurant owners from Philly to Atlanta build, train, and certify their kitchen staffs.

“Once I got out, I took off running,” Barrett said. “I had no choice but to turn my life around.”

He also volunteered at Education Works and with the School District of Philadelphia, teaching classes to kids about the type of meals they could create if their parents got sick or if they found themselves home alone.

“A lot of time it was kids at risk, or a lot of children that were familiar with being in the system and knew what it was to be hungry,” he said.

His work with those students inspired him to create Black Boyz Can Cook out of his house in 2015. Beginning with just 10 children, Barrett taught them to cook, hold fund-raisers, make meals for the elderly, and hand out their food to those in need.

As word of the program spread, girls were invited to join, too, and the program evolved into Black Kidz Can Cook.

Mecca Robinson, founder and CEO of Forget Me Knot Youth Services, which offers transitional housing and programs for children, signed her son and daughter up for Black Kidz Can Cook. Then, Barrett started coming around to Forget Me Knot to prepare family meals and to teach cooking classes to the students there.

Beginning in January 2021, a series of hard events befell Barrett. First, the house he was renting caught fire, a blaze he said was the result of rodents chewing on electrical wiring. Shortly thereafter, his health started spinning out of control as a result of his diabetes and necrotizing fasciitis.

Over the last year, Barrett has been hospitalized for months at a time; had a third of his stomach and one of his feet removed; lost sight in his right eye; had two strokes; and required three blood transfusions.

Then, in November, his new landlord lost her house to the bank, and he again found himself without a home.

“Everybody does say that’s a lot for one person, but sometimes I don’t even think about it because it’s like you’re either going to laugh or you’re going to cry,” he said.

Barrett, who has three kids — ages 11, 6, and 4 — said his goal is to look for somewhere he can gain his independence and get his health back.

To that end, Lacy, of Attic Brewing, has started a GoFundMe to help Barrett in his recovery.

“There’s not a lot of people willing to give up everything they have to help others, and given the opportunity, he can continue to do a lot of great things for the youth in the city,” she said.

A fund-raiser and pop-up shop benefit for Barrett will also be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Jan. 30 at 54 Maplewood Mall in Germantown, where he holds his Black Kidz Can Cook program.

“I don’t see what I do as worth recognition,” Barrett said of those rallying around him. “I just see it as doing what my heart tells me to do.”

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