Penn State Center Philadelphia collaboration is providing meals during COVID-19

January 20, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — Food insecurity for many people was not created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis is exposing it as a global issue and in many cases, making it worse. In Philadelphia, the People’s Kitchen is a community-driven program that was co-created during the COVID-19 pandemic as a response to food insecurity, unemployment, immigration and land use and development. The Penn State Center Philadelphia, a service of Penn State Outreach, is a collaborator on the project along with the Food Decisions Research Lab in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, 215 People’s Alliance and South Philly Barbacoa.

Shivaani Selvaraj, director of Urban Engagement for the Penn State Center Philadelphia, said more than 200 volunteers came forward to support the People’s Kitchen.

“In supporting the evolution of this project, we worked closely and remotely with various teams to absorb these volunteers into more than 10 working committees,” Selvaraj said. “Our focus this year is co-designating curriculum to help volunteers take greater leadership in the project and, ultimately, their communities. Consultation and technical assistance to community networks and individual organizations is a service the Penn State Center Philadelphia provides, along with the means for understanding opportunities to co-create sustainable initiatives that address emerging issues.”

The People’s Kitchen supports restaurant workers who have fewer work opportunities because of COVID-19 and employs them to cook meals that are distributed to Philadelphia residents for free. More than 20 multi-racial chefs and restaurant owners participate in the People’s Kitchen and more than 1,075 healthy and culturally appropriate meals are served each week. Meals are provided to people by pick-up at El Compadre, the kitchen run by the owners of South Philly Barbacoa, which is located at 1149 S. 9th Street. Initial funding was provided by World Central Kitchen, but the initiative is now funded by donations and grants.

Erendira Zamacona is an organizer with the People’s Kitchen and the Popular Alliance for the Rights of Undocumented Workers (PAUWR) and a member of the 215 People’s Alliance and the Alliance of Domestic Workers.

“I admire the unity that exists between all the people, the solidarity, mutual support — a way to help others without looking at whom — no matter the color, the status, religion or language,” Zamacona said through an interview via email with assistance by Google Translate. “At first I had no knowledge of the use of a computer and I do not speak English, but my desire to support the community was greater than my fear and I am still standing here and motivated with great faith to continue learning along the way to be a good guide and maintain this great food project even after the crisis caused by COVID-19.”

Kurt Evans, a chef with the Everybody Eats initiative, volunteers to create dinners for several programs including the People’s Kitchen and the Right 2 Work Dinners at South Philly Barbacoa.

“Everybody Eats is a collective of Black chefs raising awareness of food insecurity in Black communities in Philadelphia,” Evans said. “My most memorable experience was serving 1,000 people in a West Philly neighborhood I grew up in; my second was the ‘Fuel the Polls’ event with the 215 People’s Alliance. We fed over 1,500 people at the voting stations in Philadelphia, using food to nourish and bring political education to our communities, providing them with the tools they need to be self-sufficient.”

Laura Guay is a senior majoring in biobehavioral health and French and Francophone studies with a minor in global health in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State and a 2020 UNESCO Fellow. Guay said that while she was learning from a global perspective about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting youth around the world, she wanted to work on an initiative closer to home and joined the Penn State Food Decisions Research Lab and the Penn State Center Philadelphia as a team collaborator and started working with the People’s Kitchen.

“As a team collaborator, I facilitated a phone survey and talked with a woman who explained how food insecurity was an issue before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it worse,” Guay said. “This was a powerful message and I feel that this allowed me to better assist with the mission of the People’s Kitchen and how efforts to bring food to the community are necessary during a crisis. It also showed me that real change will come with seeing food as a social justice issue and influencing policy can determine how funds are distributed across different sectors.”

Guay said she learned a lot about community organizing around social movements as a team collaborator with the People’s Kitchen and worked closely with Selvaraj and Carly Pourzand, community engagement specialist for the Penn State Center Philadelphia. Selvaraj and Pourzand also serve on the advisory committee for the People’s Kitchen.

“I have continued working with Shivaani, Carly and three other Penn State students to try and create a student group for those interested in social justice issues and community organizing,” Guay said. “This experience allowed me to learn even more about the determinants of health, again showing that applied learning experiences outside of the classroom that aren’t theoretical, lead students to develop a better understanding of their field of study and expose them to potential career options.”

If you are interested in participating in the placement program through the Penn State Center Philadelphia, apply here.

  • People's Kitchen food prep

    Kurt Evans works with other chefs to prepare meals for the People's Kitchen.

    IMAGE: Penn State Center Philadelphia
  • People's Kitchen Volunteers

    Philadelphia Councilperson Kendra Brooks and Erendira Zamacona are both volunteers with the People's Kitchen.

    IMAGE: Penn State Center Philadelphia
  • People's Kitchen Garden

    Volunteers transformed unused land to grow fresh ingredients in more than 70 raised garden beds in a community farm owned by the Church of the Redeemer Baptist.

    IMAGE: Penn State Center Philadelphia
  • People's Kitchen Salads

    The People's Kitchen serves 1,075 healthy and culturally appropriate meals each week.

    IMAGE: Penn State Center Philadelphia
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(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 04, 2021