The Revolutionary Joy of Radical Food Sharing
After working with disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—including Food Under Claiborne New Orleans (FUCNO)—and cooking for New Orleans’ Occupy encampment, Nicola Krebill noticed that many radical food share projects lacked permanent kitchen space. With this in mind, Krebill committed to making their home a place where meal prep for food shares could happen. In 2011, they founded the Community Kitchen Collective, which has served a free meal in a public space every single Tuesday since. In addition to a weekly community meal, Community Kitchen redistributes produce to neighbors and offers solidarity catering, preparing frittatas, banana bread, and other nourishing treats for meetings, protests, and events.
Krebill and I spoke about how Community Kitchen started, their influences and inspirations, the importance of seeing what local projects need support before starting something new, and the heartfelt conversations that happen when volunteers gather around a cutting board or stovetop to make a meal.
While we don’t touch on this in the interview, Krebill is also the founder of Schmelly’s Dirt Farm, which describes itself as a “compost collection company that employs graduates of local high school farm programs to connect neighborhoods, local businesses and residents to urban farms by way of their compostable trash.” I urge you to take a peak at Schmelly’s website!
How, and when, did Community Kitchen start?
A few things led me to getting Community Kitchen started in my house. One was being a part of Food Not Bombs in different cities. I would visit a city and volunteer a few times. Then in New Orleans there was a project that started after Katrina called FUCNO, which stood for Food Under Claiborne New Orleans. That project was a type of Food Not Bombs, but organized in a different way and adding a few extra layers. A day or two days before [serving food], they would schedule a group to do cooking and another group to do serving. That helped delegate responsibilities and spread the workload. I started out by helping with scheduling, and then jumping in and serving a bunch, too.
That project started when there was a tent city under this interstate overpass in New Orleans after many were people displaced because of losing their homes during Hurricane Katrina. We started serving under the Claiborne Bridge and cooking meals once a week. FUCNO operated out of a punk house and after many years of operation, none of the people who lived in the house also did the food project. So eventually there was a disconnect between the residents of the house and the food project that took over the kitchen one day a week. The organization sort of fizzled out, and the project stopped cooking and the food equipment got distributed to Everybody’s Kitchen.
That was 2009 or 2010, and I was really sad that FUCNO collectively didn’t have the strength to keep going. I thought, “Well, one remedy to the problem of it being unstable by being inside of somebody’s house is building a house that is just for our food project.” So I started looking at getting an abandoned house that was being auctioned off in a tax sale and dreaming up the idea and spreading the news and talking to people about it. That house didn’t work out because the city levied too many fines against the property, and I ended up moving into a house by myself and was like, “Well, I’ll just start this in my house because there’s no roommates to piss off.” I was working full-time at a nonprofit at that time and used the money I was making from my job to buy the first equipment and basically sponsor the project. I called everyone I knew and scheduled people to come for cooking, people to come for serving, and got somebody’s truck to drive the food down. So that’s how the project began in 2011.
In terms of Community Kitchen’s start, it’s important to note that it happened on the coattails of the Occupy Movement and so there was a lot of energy around taking over a park in New Orleans called Duncan Plaza. I jumped into that [occupation] solely doing food organizing—acquiring food from produce distributors and all the other contacts that I had because of FUCNO, and bringing food to the park. We cooked in kitchens all across the city [for Occupy] and I started doing daily food organizing with that, and then everyone was evicted out of the park for that moment in time. That energy pushed me to keep something going, so I started getting people together at my house to cook and we ended up serving in different places, but after a few months we settled on serving in that same park where we had occupied. And, through word of mouth, letting people know that there was a free food serving every Tuesday.
You’ve already touched on this a bit, but what were some of your influences when you started Community Kitchen?
Definitely Food Not Bombs as a whole—and when I say Food Not Bombs, I don’t mean the guy who sits at a table and wrote a book about Food Not Bombs. I mean the very decentralized community phenomenon that you and I know of, this collective effort that no one really claims to take ownership over and can happen anywhere.
Seeds of Peace was a huge influence, of course. Seeing what they were doing and seeing the joy that came about in the kitchen when people were all working together for this cause of making food for free, serving food for no money, taking the dollar away from the idea of food.
When I was doing hurricane relief work in 2006 and 2007 in St. Bernard Parish there was this group called Emergency Communities, and the lineage was that a group of organizers under the Rainbow Family banner came to New Orleans and started a kitchen immediately after Katrina in Washington Square Park near the French Quarter. Eventually, they were pushed out of that park and secured some land in Arabi, which is in St. Bernard Parish just outside of New Orleans, and they put up two geodesic domes and got Americorps connections and were serving 2,000 meals a day for over a year and were getting surplus food donated from Organic Valley. I was working with a little tiny neighborhood relief project about five miles down the road and I would go there with my Nissan truck and they would load up a pallet of organic eggs or a pallet of chocolate soy milk. We’d then go back to our neighborhood and drive door-to-door to distribute free food. There was excitement about the redistribution of this surplus food—that the way to tap into that surplus was basically to connect the dots by doing some organizing.
Those were probably the organizations that influenced me and the concept of . . . maybe I would call it radical food distribution, cuz I’ve always really tried to work under a model that anyone can reproduce. You don’t have to start a 501c3, you just have to find people and maybe some transportation to make it happen.
Totally. I consume a lot of food media and there’s this funny thing I’ve noticed—there are a bunch of chefs and other food professionals getting into disaster relief cooking, which is awesome. But I often hear people say, “Nobody’s doing this! We have to show people how to do this!” and I’m like, “Wow, I know dozens of people who have done this for years.” So when you mention 501c3s and that kind of professionalization—it’s awesome that folks coming from more professional places are doing this work, but it’s funny to keep hearing about radical food redistribution and disaster relief kitchens as if they’re something new.
Right. The two extremes are Seeds of Peace on one end and the Red Cross on the other, where the Red Cross has built such a bureaucracy that it’s basically spending millions of dollars on its own internal infrastructure, and a lot of people argue that that’s a total waste, versus being able to do things on … it’s cliché to use this term, but sort of the grassroots level, or a daily community level.
How has Community Kitchen grown and changed over the years?
That’s a great question, and the construction that’s happening at my house as we speak is a piece of that.
I was renting a really cheap house by myself and we had a little kitchen in the back that we used, and then we got evicted from that house cuz they sold it—when I was say we, it was me and the people who lived on the other side of the duplex, which were some friends of mine. We all committed to finding a new house together, and we found a house around the corner and kept the kitchen going there without a stop. We’ve served every Tuesday for eight years without missing a Tuesday. The landlord was pretty hands off and he let us make some modifications to the house so we could have a bigger kitchen and we have a little outdoor kitchen, too. And then after a couple years of paying rent the landlord was like, “I’m a lawyer, I don’t want to be a landlord anymore, I want to sell the house” and offered us the house. My roommates weren’t interested in committing to buying so I paid two years worth of taxes and figured out how to borrow to money to buy the house, got the house, and that’s sort of where the vision of creating a really stable, large kitchen is taking off.
For me, there’s the every Tuesday serving. The other component of what Community Kitchen does is solidarity catering, a term we borrowed from People’s Potato in Montreal. People can fill out a form and request that we help the organization or the event by cooking for it. Sometimes it might be a meeting—like a childcare collective has asked us to make food for twenty people. Or the New Orleans Anarchist Bookfair asked us to make food for two-hundred people over three days, breakfast and lunch. These projects are really easy to shoo-in because we have the equipment to cook for 200 people and can, through organizing volunteers, enable the cooking to happen for special events.
A lot can happen when space exists and is taken care of. That’s something that I really love doing—putting resources together to make a space happen, because lots of people can come together who don’t have the time commitment to, say, work ten or more hours a week on a project, but they might be able to do three or four hours of cooking every week. If they can show up and the pots and pans are there, and the food has been acquired—another shift that we do is we have a big cargo van, and someone at nine in the morning on Tuesday goes around to the produce distributors and grocery stores and picks up all the food and brings it to the kitchen so, when the cooks show up, there’s all this produce ready. I think it’s a mixing of my passion and that I can see the need for space and that enables a lot of people who would love to do this kind of work to just plug right in.
I really want to build what I call a dream kitchen—a kitchen that can be used for cooking for large groups, but also we can have meetings there, we can have dinners there, there could be a lot more neighborhood level stuff. A lot of other organizations use our kitchen—there’s a project called NOLA to Angola which is a bicycle ride to raise money for the transportation costs needed to bring families to visit family members that are in prison. They do a yearly bicycle ride—they’re actually starting to do more than one bike ride a year—and they cook food for all the participants of the ride. So having the resources available for people to do small-scale community projects—especially radical projects where people don’t have to explain their project to some commercial kitchen or some other entity, like an anarchist bookfair being like, “Who do we ask to cook food for three-hundred people on a $100 budget?”
What are some challenges Community Kitchen has faced?
The first thing that comes to mind is a challenge that’s wrapped up in an opportunity, which is the consistency of the people volunteering to make a weekly event happen. We cook and serve every Tuesday, and we generally have people who come every week to help out. Those people know the kitchen really well, they know where the key is to the van, and they know how to set up tables at the park. But there have been times when the people who know the routine can’t show up and we have a bunch of new volunteers. We don’t have a volunteer coordinator or any paid positions, so we don’t always have a routine member of the group to do those kinds of regular responsibilities (another one is going out shopping for our inventory that we need to buy, like red beans and rice, and sporks). Sometimes we run into being spread thin and not having anyone available, or we might have new volunteers show up and they’re all like, “What do we do?” and there’s someone there who’s like, “Yeah I came last week, but I don’t really remember where the oil is.” I say that’s an opportunity wrapped up in a challenge—we try to balance this line between being too organized and being flexible so that people can bring their own ideas and strengths to the table.
Once I went to Montreal and volunteered for this group called Santropol Roulant, which is a nonprofit—they cook meals for elderly folks as a way of addressing isolation. They are hyper-organized, they schedule specific shifts, and have a paid chef that’s there to show everyone what to do. It’s really well-regulated. There’s benefits to that, because you know what to expect and the workers aren’t necessarily stressed out because they don’t have enough volunteers or whatever. But the alternate is that they’re running a nonprofit and they have to write grants and run infrastructure.
We’ve discussed within Community Kitchen that we don’t wanna go the route of creating an infrastructure and trying to pay people, which would inevitably create a power structure. We would rather work on the hard route of—I guess I would call it community-level group organization. Trying to figure out how we can sustain something on very little money, and maintain that model that anybody could do this out of their house if they wanted to take on a project like this. Going that route has been stressful for us—not having the resources and the people who know what happens week-to-week. But I’ve also seen ways in which people have brought new ideas to the table. We have a walk-in cooler that we built and seeing like, “Wow, this walk-in cooler is just never getting cleaned.” And someone building a routine day every month that we get in and clean the pantry. The hard part is that people might come to Community Kitchen and be like, “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” But a lot of people see that this isn’t a space where anybody is telling anyone what to do because they have authority over anyone else, it’s a space where, over time, people see a need, they see something needs to get cleaned regularly, and it’s an opportunity to build and organize within the group. We’ve gone in and out of having regular meetings—I think we could do better having meetings for the week and all being on the same page, but yeah, it’s constantly an experiment. Some people might be totally drained by that idea, like, “Oh my god, I need it to be way more organized, I need it to follow these certain rules and a framework.” That’s kind of where I come from, I always want to come up with more organization, but I do feel the pushback from people who show up every week and cook and are like, “We kind of like that it’s a little bit loose. We wanna have that flexibility.” That’s one of the main challenges, but at the same time it’s also a unique benefit of our group.
I’m also someone who loves organization and I sometimes need to be reminded that a little bit of chaos is okay.
Right? Yeah, exactly. I think that’s one of the biggest underlying factors—we shouldn’t fear chaos to the extent that we have to hyper-organize, which brings about other detriments, you know?
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a similar project?
The first thing I often tell people is to find out what groups are already working on food-related issues and ask them if they need help. A lot of people—especially people we meet [in New Orleans] who come with some kind of social privilege where they can travel and have more leisure time to volunteer with different projects—move here and they’re like, “I really want to start this project and I want to do this idea that I have.” It ends up making people who already do community work feel like there’s people coming here and starting their own projects but they’re not first checking to see what is currently happening and could use help. I’m not saying that people should come here and first volunteer with Community Kitchen—although we can always use volunteers and love new people coming. I would love to see more food shares out there doing their own thing. But also there’s a ton of different organizations and, if somebody wants to spend their time starting an organization, the first thing they should do is get to know the landscape of mutual aid support groups and see what groups might desperately need some help. First start there.
But if somebody is like, “I’m from New Orleans, I really want to start doing some radical community food sharing and I really like what Community Kitchen is doing and I want to start one over in my neighborhood on the other side of town,” that’s when I give them advice like, “Yes! Start small, come with us to see how we acquire food, start connecting with your neighbors, start sharing food directly with your neighbors, find out if people in your neighborhood would want to help you with this project and maybe they have some obstacles to getting the food that they need, so maybe you can start understanding the needs of people in the neighborhood.” There’s lots of different ways in which food sharing can meet the basic needs of [a community]—there’s people who are either houseless or transient or don’t have the place to cook food or store food, and they can come eat with us in the park. Then there’s a lot of people who just need some food to take to their kitchen; they don’t have much money or resources or aren’t able to get fresh produce. And in New Orleans there’s tons of trashy cooked food, there’s a lot of young people eating packaged sweet foods and stuff like that. So when we bring produce to our backyard and invite our neighbors to come over every Tuesday at 11 o’clock to pick through the produce boxes and take food home with them, we meet a need of our neighbors in a certain way. I always tell people, “Start getting to know your neighborhood and figure out what the needs that people have are.” You may have an idea of how to do something but you may also find out some other needs that you didn’t even know about.
That’s really solid advice.
What’s your favorite thing to cook for Community Kitchen?
A lot of my work with Community Kitchen is around logistics and structural organizing. I do love to cook, but I often find that I get all this internal anxious energy in me when I’m cooking with a group of people, because I’m having really good conversations and finding out things from a new volunteer, hearing their story and asking lots of questions and being sort of bubbly and engaged, and I’ll be like, “Oh shit I forgot about the potatoes they’re totally burning in the oven!” My mind gets so anxious in this interesting, fun way. So I tend to serve a lot because I find it to be more grounding for my internal energy.
But my favorite thing to cook—let’s see, I’m actually going through a Rolodex of favorite things to cook. I think the most fun is often frittata. [Our mutual friend] Lyle was the first one to write down a recipe for hotel pan frittata and it’s our go-to dish when we do these solidarity catering events. A lot of time it’s breakfast that we’re cooking, and a lot of time someone from a farm in Mississippi sends us a huge donation of eggs, which is really lovely.
The close second would be banana bread in a hotel pan. We keep both our banana bread recipe and our frittata recipe from Lyle pinned to the wall. Those are probably my favorite things to cook because they’re easy to teach, they’re kind of a cool thing to learn how to make because you’re learning to make something in a hotel pan, which is a larger quantity than most people are used to who cook at home, and they are crowd-pleasers, people really love them.