On a hot day in Brooklyn, relief workers with World Central Kitchen passed out boxes of white fish with vegetables to South Baltimore residents.
Few of the recipients had likely heard of Alma Cocina Latina, the trendy Venezuelan restaurant in Canton that prepared the dishes. Nor were they likely to afford the eatery’s $15 arepas or $42 New York prime steak. The meals were free to community members because World Central Kitchen, the Washington based nonprofit, had paid the eatery $10 per dish.
While the coronavirus pandemic has lain waste to much of normal life, it may have given birth to something new. Across the country and in Baltimore, restaurants closed for the coronavirus have been preparing low-cost meals for hungry people. And some owners say it will lead to a permanent change in how they do business.
“Our way of thinking about food is shifting radically,” said Irena Stein, owner of Alma Cocina Latina. “The way we think about who our clientele is, is definitely changing.”
Together with her friend Emily Lerman, co-founder of Baltimore’s Mera Kitchen Collective, she’s planning on opening a new cafe that will serve paying customers and community members in need, and help bridge Baltimore’s socioeconomic divide through food.
It started this spring, when Stein and Lerman teamed to prepare meals for World Central Kitchen. The organization, led by famed D.C. chef Jose Andres, has distributed more than 500,000 meals in Baltimore since the pandemic began.
Many meals served in Baltimore and other cities are prepared by local restaurants in what the nonprofit calls Restaurants for the People. The program buys meals from various eateries, including around a dozen in Charm City, a win-win situation for participants that keeps small businesses alive, supports local suppliers and serves meals to communities, said Nate Mook, CEO for the nonprofit.
One key ingredient is the $10 rate that the nonprofit pays for each meal. By some metrics, that’s a high number: The U.S. government’s reimbursable rate can be as low as $3.51 for a school meal. But the number allows restaurants to pay fair wages to staffs while providing fresh, healthful meals.
“We want to get the system working again. We want to get the restaurants buying from their suppliers, who then buy from the farmers,” Mook said. “We want to keep people employed.”
In doing so, World Central Kitchen is creating “a new model of food relief,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat. Earlier this year, she helped connect World Central Kitchen leaders with school system officials in Baltimore.
The pandemic has illuminated pre-existing problems in the social structure, she said: “We knew about it before, but this has magnified the inequities a hundredfold.”
Some say it’s also providing a unique opportunity to address those problems.
On a recent morning, the patio of Alma Cocina Latina was empty of patrons but filled with potted plants and palm trees.
Lerman, her gaze intense and half covered with a mask, used both hands to carry a huge sauce pot through a side door of the restaurant. Item by item, the former aid worker — she spent five years with Doctors Without Borders, often in war zones — unloaded a minivan’s worth of food into the kitchen.
“She’s a powerhouse,” Stein said of her business partner. Staff have figured out tricks to keep food costs low while maintaining quality and flavors: using excess produce from local farms and seasoning abundantly.
For workers like Cristina Ordoñez, who Stein laid off after the pandemic hit, the work with World Central Kitchen has been a godsend. An immigrant from Honduras and mother of three, Ordoñez lacked access to unemployment and the stimulus checks that others received, even though she pays taxes. Now, she’s working regularly in Alma Cocina Latina, teaming up with cooks from Mera Kitchen Collective to prepare meals for Baltimore residents.
That day, Ordoñez poured a fragrant tomato sauce with capers and cilantro over chicken thighs. The meal would be paired with Venezuelan style plantains, a favorite snack of Stein’s when she was growing up. “All Caracas smells like plantains at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” she said.
A thoughtfully prepared meal can be a morale booster for the eater, Mook said. “It’s so much more than just the calories on the plate [of] food; it really is sort of a message: that someone cares. And maybe tomorrow will be better.”
Dores Mendoza, who lives in Armistead Gardens, said she has benefited from Alma Cocina Latina’s food distribution and has collected meals at a local pickup center. Mendoza, who normally cleans houses, has had trouble finding work during the pandemic and appreciates the donation.
”It’s good — the food in there — everything is good,” Mendoza said, adding that she has especially liked the broccoli, green beans and rice . “Oh my, it’s good.”
World Central Kitchen takes a “hands off” approach to the local restaurants it partners with, relying on their expertise and connections with the community, said Mook. “We don’t tell them what to cook. We don’t tell them what they should be doing.” World Central Kitchen orders a specific number of meals and distribute them in vulnerable populations.
While the funding hasn’t replaced the lost pre-pandemic revenues, it’s helped the business stay afloat and boosted morale.
Before working with World Central Kitchen, Stein said, she contemplated closing her Canton restaurant for good. The work this summer has re-energized her, providing a renewed sense of purpose.
The partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective and Alma Cocina Latina worked so well that World Central Kitchen soon increased orders. In total, the two kitchens have prepared more than 50,000 meals since the spring.
But how long can it go on?
“We’re four months into this pandemic now, and the reality is that funds are drying up,” said Mook. The organization relies on philanthropic dollars to finance their relief efforts. But, “There’s only so long that we are going to be able to continue this work.”
World Central Kitchen generally stays in one place for a maximum of three weeks. But the coronavirus crisis has lasted longer than anyone anticipated. “The biggest challenge that we’re facing is that as the funding has dried up … the situation has not really gotten a whole lot better.”
Stein and Lerman want to keep going.
Together, they’re teaming up on what they’re calling the MK Foundation. The two are searching for a large kitchen to prepare food for a cafe that serves the community for free and lets individuals buy healthful, delicious meals at an affordable price.
Lerman said the project is not about charity, but about creating a more sustainable model for restaurants. “Restaurants exist on the margins, which means all the workers exist on the margins. And that’s just not right.”
As businesses, food service facilities are uniquely embedded in the communities where they operate. “All the money that goes into a restaurant — it all goes back out into the community,” she said. “It touches so many people and so many things.”
As with World Central Kitchen, the focus will be on creating $10 meals. “That’s a fair price that allows us to pay living wages, that allows us to compensate everybody,” said Lerman.
Though Mook said he hadn’t spoken with Lerman or Stein about their effort to build a foundation, “It makes a lot of sense to build something... that’s local and potentially there for the long term.”
As the pandemic has exposed existing problems of food insecurity and food deserts, Mook said, it also shows how restaurants can play a role in potential solutions.
Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.