and Food

By: Amber Tamm Intersectional Community Strategist

2020 has been a heck of a year, especially for us farmers.

If farming with masks on wasn’t weird enough, the weirder part seems to be that this has been the year where our voices, our narratives are not only being heard (finally) but are especially being sought after. Because of Covid-19 our peers, community members, friends, family have finally recognized that we as farmers are important, that we hold the skills that will keep bringing the people, our people, the abundance that is food.
But on the other side of this food industry, there are those whose voices are filled with pain & weary, from the lack of access they have to the work they love, the work they need to do as a way of survival. These are our folks in the restaurant industry, these are the chefs, servers, hostesses, & baristas. Studies show that Covid-19 has impacted the restaurant industry the hardest, resulting in 5.5 million chefs, waiters and cashiers now unemployed nationally. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In places like NYC restaurants must close at 10:00 pm and indoor dining has been shut down again, forcing restaurants to do take out only. This still leaves tons of talented folks without a way to make a means in terms of income and without a pathway to get into the work they love to do.

But there is hope y’all…

I got a chance to sit down with Anochi Odinga II, a young, black, chef from New York City cooking for his community there. He spoke about the origins of his work as a Community Chef, community fridges, and what he needs regenerative farmers and community to know.
When asked about how Chef Anochi got started doing this work as a Community Chef, he shared that it started off with trying to organize from inside of a restaurant that wasn’t paying him for his work…

My first time organizing within the context of me being chef, was two years ago. I was working at a very popular restaurant in NYC.

“At this place they were giving myself and other chefs fraudulent checks, all of them bounced, making the only people getting paid were the people that were on salary which was not us, the chefs. So I took upon myself, to start a union, which was a lot harder than I thought but it taught me a good lesson. It taught me how to bring people together which is why I call this the start of life as a community chef.”
Anochi then went on the share about another restaurant experience that opened up his eyes and his heart to this work.

The next restaurant I worked at wasted pounds and pounds of food a day – it was insane!

“It would really make my stomach hurt how much food they were wasting. Because this place was so big, it had 200-300 employees, food waste was something that was looked at as if it was nothing, as if it were normal. One of my co-workers created a system, where he would take whatever he could carry to shelters, his neighbors, and whoever he could find in need of food and one thing he would always say is ‘ I know what it’s like to be homeless, I know what it’s like to be hungry and if I can help other people at least with hunger than that’s something I will try to do.’ This is what got me started, I started doing pretty much the same thing, I would travel to shelters I knew. This was the first time I started to realize the power of being in a community network as a way of getting food to where it needs to be.”
Anochi made it very clear the biggest difference between being a chef and a community chef is who you’re cooking for. Anochi spent his summer using his skills to make meals for vigils, protests, and community gatherings to make sure his community was well fed while fighting for the justice they need. He emphasized that due to being unemployed he had the time and space to support others through cooking, although he did not have the funds. Throughout the summer he used large portions of his unemployment checks to “keep the people fed and the movement going”. Now that north winds blow, and winter has fallen upon us in NYC, protest and gatherings have slowed down.
Anochi now finds himself all over NYC, cooking in available restaurant spaces, for the community fridges popping up all over the city. These fridges started off holding produce and other foods for people to take home and cook but due to the rate of homeless surging, you can now find to go meals made by his hands from his heart. He says nothing brings him more joy than “applying the fine dining training to feed people who need it most”.

Now as beautiful as all of this is, here’s the reality check — most of the produce that Community Chefs are using in their kitchens are from conventional farms and are most likely GMO. When asked about where the food comes from Anochi told us,

A lot of it is coming from the USDA, which is horrible and as much as we as chefs hate it — it’s our only option …

These USDA boxes come with huge looking veggies that we know are lacking in nutrient density but if we as Community Chefs steps back and decide not to cook because we can’t get our hands on organic or regeneratively grown food, people will starve. The reality is people are hungry and they’re gonna eat what’s put in front of them. I met someone last week who said that the gas went out in their building, therefore his stove wasn’t working and he didn’t have access to one close by, so he was saying how much he depends on these community fridges as a source of food.”
Anochi went on to talk about doing food distribution through a program called Farm Link. This program brought him and other community chefs together to figure out what to do with 40,000 lbs of purple potatoes from Maine. He explained the only reason they were able to receive so much was because “these were potatoes the farmer didn’t want to use and couldn’t sell”. This was the first time the chefs knew where some of their produce was coming from and found disappointment in the large food miles it took for these potatoes to get in their hands.
Anochi went on the express the call to farmers surrounding cities with community fridges, pantries & chefs…

Right now, community fridges are serving as waste management for big farms far away…

“…and local communities giving whatever scraps are in their fridge or foods about to go bad. The majority of the food I’ve made for fridges is plant based and if we can provide people with the food grown organically & regeneratively — it would definitely make a difference …. Right now we’re only been able to create a network of community chefs and fridges so if this network grows into local organic farmers, that’s going to shift the model completely! It would be amazing to have CSA shares for community chefs.” He continues…

We would love to have a direct link to farmers.

“If we had access to chard, and different types of squashes, pumpkins and kales — that would get people, the community, more invested in these fridges. With this type of diversity we could make different meals. People are frequenting these fridges and they’re really only eating potatoes, carrots and cabbage because that’s where our access is at and has been since these fridges went up.”
What a silver lining to see community chefs like Anochi keep their passion for feeding people in the midst of their income and kitchen spaces being swept away due to Covid-19.
Those of us who are dedicated to the regenerative movement need to keep in mind that although conventional foods have proven to be lacking in nutrients, it’s what lower income, Black and Brown, city folks can afford – especially when it costs them nothing.
So the question Anochi brings to regenerative farmers & community is:

How can that regenerative organic food reach the hands of low income folks?

How can this produce get into the hands of folks like community chefs who are trying to feed low income peoples?

How do we include equity in the regenerative farm models?

Is it even possible for regenerative agriculture to feed those with low income?

With Covid in mind, food is our preventative medicine yet in this pandemic, not all have access to the food that will actually keep them healthy. It’s truly up to us to connect the dots and like Anochi said “to create and extend the network” so we can keep us fed & keep us as community healthy.

Want to support these efforts? Here’s how:

1. Support NYC Community Fridges

2. Connections? Resources?

Reach Anochi here: [email protected]

3. To keep up with Community Chef Anochi Odinga II you can follow him at:

@youalreadynoch and you can donate to him via Venmo at @Anochi-Odingaii

4. Share this far and wide to continue the dialogue and inspire action:
Copy/paste to share!