This summer time program featured a free four-meal worldwide feast for 375 Oakland households

Kitchens around the world send meals home from Tay Ho, Mela Bistro, Ming’s Tasty, and Rico Rico Taco to children visiting Oakland’s Town Camp. Photo courtesy Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development

One last afternoon that summer, after Michelle Taylor, an Oakland City Police Department officer, finished a 12-hour night shift, she saw her husband and two sons walk into the house with a large paper bag of takeaway food.

“I was like ‘Whoa what’s this?'” Taylor said.

Inside the bag were packets of meals – enough to feed four people – made by Oakland’s Mela Bistro, Ming’s Tasty, Tay Ho, and Rico Rico Taco restaurants. The dishes they ate included lentils and injera, an assortment of dim sum, vermicelli with grilled chicken, and enchiladas.

“It was a 10 out of 10!” Taylor’s 10 year old JJ said about the food he ate that night. “My favorite part was the chicken.”

A break for the parents

A town camp participant at Franklin Center holds a bag of meals from kitchens around the world to share with her family.  Photo courtesy Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth DevelopmentTown Camp participant, Kainoa, age 6, at Franklin Recreation Center in Oakland holds a bag of meals from kitchens around the world ready to share with her family. Photo courtesy Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development

Taylor’s family received meals thanks to a program called Kitchens Around the World, a joint effort by the city and two partners: the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation, which funded the meals, and Community Kitchens, which coordinated with the four participating restaurants. Kitchens Around the World offered a free family meal from each restaurant to children participating in Town Camp, a city-run program for youth in the Bay Area (ages 5-12) that operates 19 resorts across Oakland each summer. By the end of the 2020 Town Camp sessions last week, Kitchens Around the World had provided 375 families with free, high quality restaurant meals.

Maribel Lopez, a recreation manager at Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development, said parents were initially shocked and even a little concerned about getting free food in the restaurant. “[Parents] I want to make sure the restaurants get paid first, “said Lopez.” So we assured them that this is part of our plan. “

The nonprofit partner Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation secured donations for the meals. There were also scholarships to roughly 85% of the children who attended the Town Camp, which cost $ 540 for the three-week experience, said Ken Lupoff, executive director of the Oakland Park and Recreation Foundation.

The parents thanked them for the meals, especially for the break from cooking. “To make food – and it’s good food – it’s one less thing to worry about,” said Taylor. “I could just sit down and enjoy the kids a little more before I go to work.”

A father and son from Town Camp at Montclair Recreation Center take home a bag of kitchens from around the world.  Photo: Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth DevelopmentAustin and his father, Marcus of the Montclair Recreation Center, are taking home a bag of kitchens from around the world. Photo: Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development

Support for restaurants

Perhaps the four restaurant owners who participated this summer valued kitchens the most around the world. Since the dine-in service was banned during on-site orders, the guarantee of selling around 100 meals a week over the summer was a consolation and lifeline for them. The companies distributed their groceries to different resorts each week so that the families received one meal per camp session.

The guarantee of selling around 100 meals a week in summer is a convenience and a lifeline for the four participating restaurants.

Sunny Huang, owner of Ming’s Tasty in Oakland Chinatown, which specializes in handmade dim sum, said her restaurant has been hanging by a thread since March. Until the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce affiliated them with the “Kitchens Around the World” program, they relied solely on take-out orders to keep their doors open. Then, a few weeks ago, people robbed their restaurant and had to close it for repairs. Now, like many other businesses in the area, Ming’s Tasty windows are boarded up.

“The last month has been very difficult for me because the business failed and I had to pay to fix the restaurant,” said Huang. She said the meals she sold to kitchens around the world helped her pay the rent.

Ming’s Tasty sent campers home with puffy baked pork rolls, crispy spring rolls, and deep fried pumpkin balls, a sweet dim sum dish that fascinated many, including Ellington, a four-year-old town camper.

“I had a pumpkin ball!” Exclaimed Ellington. “I’ve never had a pumpkin ball.”

Something new to try out, learn

Getting children to try new things and learn about different cultures is a fundamental goal of the Kitchens Around the World program. There was a placemat at meals with information about the areas around the world the kitchen is from, with links to music from each country.

Danielle Flewellen, Ellington’s mother and staff developer at Alameda County Social Services, said she learned something new from the placemat: she never knew injera was used as a plate and utensil.

“I always wondered when we were getting Ethiopian food – why did they give us so much of this injera? But now I understand! ” She said.

A placemat for kitchens around the world containing facts about the cultures of the participating restaurants.  Photo: A town camp participant at Franklin Center holds a bag of meals from kitchens around the world to share with her family.  Photo courtesy Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth DevelopmentA placemat for kitchens around the world decorated with information about the areas around the world the kitchen came from with links to music from each country. Photo: A town camp participant at Franklin Center holds a bag of meals from kitchens around the world to share with her family. Photo courtesy Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development

Adiam Tsegaye, owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Mela Bistro, was particularly enthusiastic about the educational aspect of the program, as she has two children herself and in the course of the business regularly picks up on adults wrong ideas about Ethiopian food.

“A lot of people come into the store and ask me, ‘Do you sell African food? ‘Africa is a continent,’ said Tesegaye, who often has to explain that the continent is home to a multitude of cultures with many different cuisines.

For Lopez of Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development, cultural exchange also teaches children that “value is in being unique, value in being different,” which is what builds a community.

Tackling food insecurity is an ongoing community problem

Review of a cuisines around the world meal by a town camp kid.  Photo courtesy of Community KitchensA review by Michael, age 10, a town camper at the Franklin Recreation Center. Photo courtesy of Community Kitchens

As Kitchens Around the World wrapped up the program this summer, Maria Alderete, owner of Lukas Taproom & Lounge in Oakland and founder of Community Kitchens, wants restaurants to continue to participate in other community initiatives that address food insecurity when and when they return become profitable.

“When the COVID crisis is over, the housing crisis will still be there,” she said. “There is a need for food.”

Alderete founded Community Kitchens to bring together donors who want to help in troubled restaurants by paying for meals that feed vulnerable and vulnerable people in Oakland during the pandemic.

In addition to incubating kitchens around the world, Community Kitchens has partnered with organizations such as the East Oakland Collective, Berkeley Free Clinic, People’s Breakfast Oakland, the Village, Kerrys Kids, and Love and Justice in the Streets.

Alderete hopes that at some point the East Bay restaurants that have benefited from partnering with Community Kitchens will be able to give back to the nutrition programs that have helped them and the communities they have served during the pandemic. It is currently financially supported by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Alderete recently submitted forms to establish community kitchens as a nonprofit.

“I hope the relationships I have forged over the past few months will become a long-term commitment for restaurants to continue serving our entire community,” she said. “It could be powerful to do it together, and I hope Community Kitchens can.”

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