Community kitchen outreach work continues even during pandemic

The Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener-Waterloo carries on its outreach work even during the pandemic. When food columnist Andrew Coppolino visited this week, it was full of the scents and flavours of Sudan.
Four volunteer cooks from the African Cultural Cooking Project at the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo (CKCKW). From left: Maha Elmahi, Merfat Abubakar, Raja Osman, Nuha Hashim. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

When I visited the commercial kitchen at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in downtown Kitchener this past week, I found Noha Hashim in charge of a team preparing Sudanese dishes as part of the African Cultural Cooking Project, an initiative of the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo (CKCKW).

Amid the clatter of cooking, ventilation hoods humming and instructions being shared back and forth, the chickpea falafels, with their nutty aroma, along with the rich, earthy lentil soup and its touch of cumin aromatics, were glorious.

But Hashim sang the praises of her kitchen-crew volunteers as they ladled soup and fried the batter.

"This is my team from my culture, Sudan, and we are proud to come and cook a dish of falafel and soup and give back to the community," Hashim said. "This is the time of the year when winter comes. It's cold and we need something to warm us up."

Sudanese dishes of lentil soup and falafels were prepared as part of the African Cultural Cooking Project, an initiative of the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo (CKCKW). (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Hashim along with Maha Elmahi, Raga Osman, Merat Abubakar, and several other volunteers, were putting together food packages for delivery to 25 new Canadian families in Waterloo Region, mostly from Africa.

The CKCKW is a not-for-profit "food incubator" that has a two-fold focus, says board chair Anne Ramsay.

"We bring together people to encourage social cohesion and economic development in the community. We do that by sharing cooking skills, local food and cultural dishes," said Ramsay.

Though it has limited its reach in delivering more broadly to the community due to COVID-19, the CKCKW continues to support individuals and families from marginalized populations through food-based programs.

Running until December 10, the African Cultural Cooking Project is a new program that pops up in the certified church kitchen on Thursdays, says chef and CKCKW kitchen co-ordinator Cori Yule.

Chef and kitchen co-ordinator Cori Yule at the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"We're only one week in, but we're delivering freshly cooked food to new Canadian families experiencing food insecurity. Our focus has always been community and trying to get people together through food and addressing food security in the process," said Yule.

For the project, a lead cook from the African Women's Network heads up the kitchen. This week it was Hashim; next up will see a cook with Somali background followed by a Kenyan cook in the lead.

Food, according to Hashim's team-member Maha Elmahi, is an important part of a cultural whole that guides us.

"Culture is a cognitive map of behaviour. It's food, it's song, it's dance, it's everything. In our map of behaviour, we have falafel and we eat lentil soup. When we find any kind of dishes related to Sudan, that is our map to follow," Elmahi said. 

The co-op has other important initiatives, too, according to Ramsay: the preparation of approximately 200 to 400 meals and food packages weekly for distribution to A Better Tent City, Kitchener City Hall in partnership of Food Not Bombs, the African Women's Alliance and Laurier's Martin Luther Seminary, among others.

Lentil soup is among the Sudanese dishes being prepared as part of the African Cultural Cooking Project at of the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

As a food incubator, and when COVID-19 allows, the CKCKW also facilitates the sharing of commercial kitchens with emerging food entrepreneurs so that they can create food businesses.

More than just the physical kitchen, the organization provides mentorship, training, help with bulk purchasing, brand creation, access to financing and developing sales markets. They also draw on local food producers. Gmach Gardens, a Cambridge farm for instance, helps by supplying produce.

The co-op is not exclusive to new Canadians, says Ramsay.

"Really, we're looking at anybody who would like to develop a food-business idea, but [who] depends on access to commercial kitchens in the future," she said.

They receive funding from the United Way Waterloo Region Communities, the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo and the Anglican Foundation, among others.

Two cooks from the African Cultural Cooking Project, Raja Osman (left) and Nuha Hashim stir lentil soup at the Community Kitchen Co-operative of Kitchener Waterloo (CKCKW). (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The non-profit also accepts membership fees from community members who want to support or volunteer.

"In the future, we will need volunteers and helpers for our community dinners and cooking workshops," said Ramsay. "It's about social cohesion and economic development through food and expanding understanding of what food means to different cultural groups."

That is abundantly clear today, in both the energy and the aromas coming from the kitchen. Hashim and her team of cooks are preparing their take on Sudanese food and are hard at work because she says they recognize the impact that COVID-19 has had on everyone.

Ni'imaa Ahmed, volunteer from the African Cultural Cooking Project, packages falafel for distribution. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"In my neighbourhood, there are people who don't have family and the elderly who don't have anybody to cook for them. It's difficult for everybody," she said.

"I see tears. We have each other here, but some people don't have anybody. I appreciate this team and the effort. Since we are Canadians now, we need to give back."


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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