Community Kitchens

Community Kitchens can save you money! One of the best ways to save money on your food budget and still get wholesome, nutritious meals is to join a "cooking group" or 'kitchen', as they are known.  Years ago as the coordinator of the Kelowna Community Kitchens program, here in the central Okanagan, we routinely made meals for $1.00 or less a serving. those were delicious dinner meals with healthy sized servings.

It’s still possible to keep your meals low cost by cooking with a group and sharing the costs. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else in the group pays for your meals – generally each person pays for the number of servings they order. One great part is that the work load is shared and in a few hours you may have 4 to 5 different meals to take home to feed your family. 

That's me sprinkling cheese on a Vegetable and Cheese Pie during one of our groups. (They just gave me the wrong name!)

What are Community Kitchens?

What are Community Kitchens? The simple explanation is that community kitchens are groups of people who plan, shop and cook together on a regular basis, usually in a public kitchen, to provide their families with nutritious, low cost food.

History has shown that meal preparation and planning is a social activity. Often cultures in smaller communities have community gardens and cook together insuring meals for everyone, no matter their age or ability.

The trend today is individual housing, many without garden space to grow even the smallest amount of food.

Add to that, the trend to fast food and pre-packaged prepared foods becoming more a part of daily meals, many people have gotten away from cooking their own meals  and many have lost or never learned food shopping, preparing and cooking skills.

As families have dispersed and the population ages, many more people live alone or in restricted surroundings and economic levels.

High cost of housing, boom-or-bust riches (article oil field) and a multitude of low paying jobs plus rising unemployment and layoffs, on top of a rising cost of living create a situation where family budgets are stretched to the limit.

Different Models Meet Different Needs

There are probably as many variations of how a 'kitchen' group works as there are people and communities that run them.

Anything from a group of friends or family members that cook together to well organized program with additional components to help meet the needs of the participants.

Here is a outline of some of the more common models:

1. Standard: group of people get together to plan, shop and cook healthy nutritious , low cost meals, usually preparing meals to take home; sometimes with additional learning opportunities or more hands on facilitation; or with end goal of food production for skill (job learning) development and/or food production for sale

2. Group of people get together to plan, shop and prepare a meal to share and eat right there, for themselves or others.

3. Community Food Centre program: established staffed kitchen with or without volunteers using food donations prepares food to be distributed to low income families.

4. Life Skills Learning Environment: Job skill or life skill learning environment. Program could be formalized in partnership with a certification program. Provides basic life skills for children or adults; a good component added to an adult or youth employment program.

These are the basic individual models or structures for running Community Kitchen programs. A larger more encompassing program could facilitate or oversee multiple versions or adaptations of these models or act as a resource centre or training centre as well.

Of course, in reality these are just the basics. Community Kitchens can be adapted to meet just about any needs.

A group you form would be shaped to meet individual needs – in fact, to do whatever your group decides.

Community kitchen groups or programs are as versatile and varied as the recipes chosen to use.

Almost something for everyone!

What Are the Benefits?

Since Community Kitchens address a multitude of needs beyond poverty issues, the benefits are as varied as the individuals who are part of a cooking group.

Here are some:

1. Low cost meals

2. Learn how to choose and prepare nutritious food safely.

3. Learn how to manage a food budget.

4. Learn new life long-skills.

5. Develop new friendships and understanding in communities.

6. Offers an opportunity to volunteer.

7. Learn new recipes.

8. Break isolation

9. Diminish stress for individuals and families.

10. Strengthen family bonds.

11. Build self-esteem and confidence.

12. Share your skills with others.

Lucky Benefit #13. Have lots of fun!

That Lucky Benefit # 13, by the way, was way more than just laughing at the tears running down my face in every cooking group! Somehow, as the coordinator, I always ended up chopping a good 5 pounds - or more - of onions!

One super 'kitchen' I worked with was a youth group. These 16 to 25 year olds were part of a youth employment program. The coordinator of the program called one day to inquire about the Kelowna Community Kitchen program. She explained that being near to a popular downtown park on Okanagan Lake meant that during the warmer weather months, members of her program would often leave at lunch time and not return for the afternoon session. Someone suggested the kitchen program to her. She thought if the kids had lunch in their facilities, they might not leave. Could I please come in and explain the program to the kids?

I agreed and soon after found myself in a roomful of young people with some serious issues. Life had not been easy for them. Frankly I thought they would rise up in frustration against me when I started explaining my program. Checking store fliers for specials, choosing recipes and then cooking lunches probably wouldn't have any interest. How could that be important when they  had big problems - one young man even ended up living on the street during the summer when he was cut loose from his Social Service worker after turning 18? Others had even more serious problems and a few greatly disliked each other.

I admit I was more than a little nervous but hours after my presentation, they all agreed to give it a try. Indeed, they gave it their all.

This group of young people were so anxious to get going, they wanted to start cooking immediately. I quickly found a local church kitchen that allowed us to cook once a week and have lunch there while we cooked. First thing was shopping and then we met at the church.

As time went on I was astonished at the skills, dignity and compassion these kids developed for each other. Some, who grumbled at eating certain foods, would be gently encouraged to "just try a bite". They really wanted to make this program work.

The custodian from the church set up long tables in the gym for their meal and they set the table so attractively, even with jugs of water placed down the length of it. That first lunchtime I opted to stay in the kitchen watching over all the pots. After 5 or 10 minutes, the kids called me out and said, "Lunch is ready, are you coming?"

Knowing full well, they had paid for all the food out of extremely limited resources, I said, "Oh, no, That's your food, I'm just here to help you."

Their voices raised in unison as they said, "If you won't eat our food, we won't do this."

I whipped off my apron and sat down to a wonderful wonderful company.

Here are some of their comments.

My experience with this group and many others made me understand just how much can be accomplished when people of any age get together to cook their meals. One heart, one mind.

I also learned, as you might, too, if you start your own group, that barriers can dissolve over a big soup pot, everyone feels needed, everyone's contribution is valued, old feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, disconnect and isolation ease away.

In their place were smiling faces, laughter, a growing sense of self worth and hope for the future. Friendships were made, the helping hands from cooking sessions sometimes reached out to other aspects of their lives. It was easy to see how when feelings of connect to each other grew within the group, those feelings expanded to include the bigger community around them.

They were ripe for the next level of how-to's - goal setting, job search information, problem solving to name a few - as many suddenly started to find ways to get jobs, build careers, or go back to school.

So getting red faced over hot ovens or having tears from chopping onions filled tummies, made happier families, and created new futures.

There are many ways to get nutritious meals that make the most of even a very restricted budget, cooking groups or kitchens are one of the most effective of them.

Community Kitchens: Return To Homepage

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