Community canteen puts chefs to work connecting struggling locals with free food.

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volunteer placing pasta in a food box for donations
Credit: rustam shaimov

Back in March when the pandemic first reared its ugly head, two things quickly became apparent: First, the nature of this crisis was going to be especially difficult for restaurants. Second, an unprecedented surge in unemployment meant that far too many folks were suddenly at risk of going hungry. 

While that struggle for survival eased a bit over the summer months, the inevitable resurgence of Covid-19 across the country this fall has brought those same challenges back with a vengeance. But as one recently opened restaurant project in Chicago shows, perhaps there's a model for how restaurants and patrons can work together to both keep the lights on and keep struggling communities fed. 

That's the premise by Community Canteen, a recently opened operation that'll let folks order prepared food to go. What makes it different from other restaurants forced to adopt that model this spring is that Community Canteen will operate on a totally pay it forward system. According to the Chicago Tribune. Guests can contribute whatever they want when they pick up their food, but anyone in need can grab and go a meal for free—no questions asked. Alongside help from donations and grants to subsidize produce and other supplies, whatever revenue does come in will ensure that Community Canteen can meet its goal of serving up to 2,000 meals a week throughout the winter. 

In addition to the tangible impact of feeding locals in need, Community Canteen, which has so far rallied more than 50 chefs and restaurant employees across Chicago to the cause, wants to prove that this sort of mutual aid model is viable. 

"We just want to show that this community kitchen thing, it can work. We're trying to keep that ecology going and keep this moving," Chicago restaurateur Ed Marszewski, who co-founded Community Canteen precursor the Community Kitchen Project earlier this year, told the Tribune. "We're going to do it through the winter, try to keep people employed and try to feed people. The need for food in Chicago isn't going to end."

For participating chefs like Wherewithall co-owner Beverly Kim, the effort is a way to put their time, talents, and energy to good use in a moment when they might otherwise just panic and spin their wheels. 

"Meal relief is one of the things that, as chefs, we can really promote and be a part of," Kim told the Tribune. "For me, (it's been) one positive way to use my energy. Instead of fighting for indoor dining, focusing on the needs of the community, and if I can put a few people back to work … and offer people some free meals, that's super helpful. It's a lovely program that I hope can help stimulate the neighborhood and help people at the same time."

For now, Community Canteen plans to operate in five-hour pickup windows on Tuesdays through Saturdays. Those far from Chicago can help the project with a donation via their website.