Ashish Shrestha of Amistad talks with a group of homeless individuals Thursday at Portland’s Deering Oaks after bringing them meals prepared by Union restaurant as part of the Cooking for Community effort. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic was in its early stages. Restaurants were closing. People were losing jobs. Others were going hungry.

Ellie Linen Low, sitting in her Falmouth home one day in early April, thought there must be a way to help them. Thus was born Cooking for Community, a grass-roots initiative based out of Portland that raises money to fund restaurants, which in turn provide meals to those dealing with food insecurity. The effort also uses goods from local farms.

“It came about organically and magically,” said Low. “I woke up one day and put together the dots. We had restaurants that were closing their doors and laying people off. We had people that were hungry and unemployment numbers were rising. … It occurred to me, and others at the time, that we needed to connect the two.”

The result has been staggering. In five weeks, Cooking for Community has raised over $215,000 in donations, growing from two restaurants to nine and serving meals to people from eight different social networks. It went from serving 450 meals the first week to 2,215 last week. On Thursday alone, the initiative provided 665 meals from four restaurants.

“We grew up in Maine and understand not all communities are fortunate enough to have easy access to food, especially at a time when public schools are closed and there are so many kids at home,” said Dylan Gardner, the co-owner of Nura restaurant in Portland’s Monument Square. “We see this as being very valuable for Mainers, in and outside of Portland. It definitely hits close to home.”

Christian Kryger of My Place Teen Center of Westbrook picks up 190 meals prepared by Nura restaurant in Portland. Mike Lowe photo

Nura made its first contributions to Cooking for Community on Thursday, providing 190 meals – a mix of falafel pockets and bowls and chicken shawarma pockets and bowls – to the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, which has seen its meal requests go from 60 on March 17 to about 250 per day now. The center now serves families, not just teenagers, in response to the pandemic.

“It’s a nice support, for sure,” said Christian Kryger, who cooks most of the meals at My Place Teen Center and was picking up the meals from Nura. “Today takes a lot of pressure off.”

Cooking for Community provides meals in southern Maine to those who have been recently unemployed, homeless people, disabled individuals, immigrants and older adults.

“We’re not just trying to target one population with our food,” said Low. “We’re trying to reach anyone who’s hungry.”

And, in some sense, provide hope.

“I feel a tremendous amount of hope,” said Low. “I feel a tremendous amount of pride for our community, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the word. I think that Maine is setting a real example of what is possible.”

A WIDE-RANGING COLLABORATION

Cooking for Community came together rapidly.

Once Low began formulating her plan, she reached out to Leslie Oster, who has long been involved with the Portland food scene, especially food insecurity, and is now the director of the Blaine House for Gov. Janet Mills. Within a week, Oster helped to secure the financial sponsorship of Catholic Charities of Maine. All that means, said Low, is that it allows Cooking for Community to operate as a nonprofit. “But they have nothing to do, practically, with our initiative or program,” said Low.

Oster contacted social service programs and discovered that many could no longer provide hot meals to clients because of social distancing and safety guidelines. They reached out to Penny Jordan of Farms for Food Equity.

Low contacted friends who ran restaurants in Maine, such as Ian Malin of Little Giant restaurant in Portland’s West End, and discovered they supported the idea as well. Malin now oversees the day-to-day operation of the meal program.

Then Low sent out emails to about 50 close friends and neighbors, explaining what they hoped to do. “And within a week we had $50,000,” she said.

That provided seed money for the first week, when Little Giant and Chaval restaurant in Portland provided 450 meals. Then the initiative took off. Donations, which can be made on the Cooking for Community website, continued to come in. More social services asked for help. More restaurants wanted to help.

And why not? Not only were the restaurants cooking again and getting paid – according to Malin, restaurants recover the direct costs for labor and food and receive $5 for each meal they prepare – they are bringing back employees who had been laid off and helping those in need.

Josh Berry is the executive chef at Portland’s Union restaurant, one of nine restaurants taking part in the Cooking for Community effort. “We’re a restaurant city. I think it really hits any chef when you talk about … any person not getting food. … I couldn’t sit by and not do it.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“They’re our neighbors, everybody here,” said Josh Berry, the executive chef at Union restaurant at the Press Hotel in Portland. “We’re a restaurant city. I think it really hits any chef when you talk about … any person not getting food. It resonates more to chefs. And it’s just the right thing to do. I couldn’t sit by and not do it.”

Malin, who calls Little Giant “a neighborhood restaurant,” also saw this as chance to give back.

“It made perfect sense to use it, not only for everybody who was needy already but also for people who never thought they would find themselves in that situation,” said Malin. “It is more of an obligation of my role in the community.”

Beyond the meals, the restaurants involved are asked to use locally produced foods as much as possible, helping farmers as well as meat and fish providers. While this is early spring and local farms have yet to yield many crops, Malin said, “There will be a trickle-down effect to the suppliers.”

FEEDING THE HOMELESS

On Thursday, Ashish Shrestha, a peer outreach worker for Amistad and Portland Downtown, and Katie Junkert of The Opportunity Alliance picked up 100 meals of seafood and chicken jambalaya from the Union restaurant. They took half of the meals to Amistad, to be distributed at its peer support and recovery center, and then gave out the rest to the homeless on Portland’s streets. While offering the meals, they also check in on the homeless, making sure they have everything they need to stay safe.

Katie Junkert of The Opportunity Alliance and Ashish Shrestha of Amistad went to Maine State Pier on Thursday, searching for homeless people to distribute meals prepared by Union restaurant in Portland. The free meals were arranged by Cooking for Community, a grass-roots effort to help alleviate food insecurity during the pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Shrestha remembers the first meal he brought to them: fried chicken from Little Giant. “To me, that is such a comfort food,” he said. “And coming into the streets in a pandemic, bringing comfort food, felt amazing. That first time, no one knew what the boxes were for, Cooking for Community hadn’t really been established. So I said, ‘Hey, you want fried chicken?” They responded, ‘Hell yeah.’

“A lot of times, outreach food is a cold sandwich. And that doesn’t seem appealing. But when you say, ‘I have this amazing food,’ they want it.”

Katie Junkert of The Opportunity Alliance hands a plastic fork to a homeless man at the Maine State Pier on Thursday. Junkert and Ashish Shrestha of Amistad were giving out free meals as part of the Cooking for Community effort. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Having access to food is so important, especially for people with limited resources right now,” said Junkert. “When we bring food they’re surprised and excited. Home-cooked food was something they really liked.”

Cooking for Community provides 140 meals each Tuesday to Bath Housing, a housing community for older adults and those with disabilities. They are mostly people who are in the high-risk category when it comes to COVID 19.

“This isn’t necessarily about people who don’t have food,” said Debora Keller, the executive director of Bath Housing. “We’re trying to minimize the amount of time and places people have to go to keep them safe.”

Meals have included soups, shepherd’s pie and meatloaf, along with bread and salad. Keller said the restaurants also consider dietary restrictions of some of the recipients. “The depth of appreciation by people can’t be (overstated),” she said. “People just feel cared for.”

Mark Swann, the executive director at Preble Street, has benefited from Cooking for Community. “They didn’t forget us and the people we serve,” he said. “And it’s a nice change, the meals they bring from meals we can usually provide. It gives our staff a break and allows us to stretch resources a little more.”

Those who run Cooking for Community are already looking to the future. They want to continue the initiative once the pandemic is over. To do that, they need to continue to raise funds.

“The money goes fast at 2,000 meals a week,” said Malin. “It’s a real challenge in making sure we can sustain it.”

The organizers and committee members of Cooking for Community believe it can last. They will soon begin buying in bulk, saving money and providing a weekly foundation for what types of meals are produced.

“This was a way, in our small community, to test a model that could be a worldwide model,” said Oster. “We wanted to try it in a small city first. If  we can get this to succeed, Lewiston-Auburn, here you go, Bangor, here you go. … Let’s put the pieces together and and hope it lasts long after the pandemic. Let’s infuse the community with another way to feed people, so that it becomes a weekly part of their process.”

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