FareStart’s Catalyst Kitchens Members Rising to the Occasion Nationwide

April 24, 2020

Image Credit: DC Central Kitchen

Across the country, members of FareStart’s Catalyst Kitchens network are nimbly adapting to the quickly evolving challenges that COVID-19 has presented to their communities.

Catalyst Kitchens (CK), FareStart’s national membership and consulting initiative, was created in 2011 to help design, launch, sustain and grow similar foodservice job training programs across North America. The more than 80 member organizations span 32 states and 63 communities and train over 3,700 people a year.

When COVID-19 struck, CK members with existing food security programs started ramping up to provide emergency meals for their communities. Most paused job training to protect the health and safety of staff, students and community. About 20 percent of members continue to train students with virtual instruction, take-home assignments and online meetings. Everyone is stepping up in unique ways to support their respective communities – and we’re all learning from each other.

Hunger Relief

FareStart and its Catalyst Kitchens members have scaled up emergency meal production to prepare more than 350,000 meals a week for individuals and families in need. These nonprofit kitchens have made sharp pivots to adapt their operations in response to COVID-19 while simultaneously responding to higher demand for meal delivery. Collectively, they have more than doubled weekly meal production since the outbreak.

Catalyst Kitchens staff are tracking activity and report that member kitchens are bustling despite social distancing measures, creatively staggering staff in shifts, pivoting spaces into to-go counters, and elevating safety and sanitation protocols across the board. The result is a greatly increased volume of meals to shelters, hospitals, food banks and senior centers where vulnerable populations depend upon them to be able to isolate and survive.

DC Central Kitchen is increasing meal deliveries to local shelters, running to-go meal sites at several public schools in Washington, D.C., and has cut already discounted prices for fresh fruits and vegetables at corner stores. Second Helpings in Indianapolis pivoted from serving group meals to family-style, to-go meals “in a matter of hours” and quickly began exploring a temporary satellite operation that could dramatically increase the number of prepared meals it can provide families in need. Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, together with 550 organizations in its feeding partner network, is distributing 50% more meals than usual, with twice-daily drops at mobile sites.

While meal delivery services have expanded by leaps and bounds, other CK members are offering meal or grocery pick-up services for clients in a drive-thru fashion, such Foodlink in Rochester, NY. 

These changes have brought a need for delivery vans, to-go packaging, and at times, additional workers to accommodate increased demand. Some members have even hired displaced culinary workers to meet the demand, providing income to those who recently lost their jobs due to business closures.

As the weeks of shut-down and isolation continue, demand is only increasing. Many members are exploring food recovery options to reduce their food costs and accommodate to the quickly changing food supply-chain landscape. Employer partners with closed restaurants and school cafeterias have donated their supplies to many members to support emergency feeding efforts, reducing food waste and cost per meal.

Industry Collaboration

In many communities, partnerships with restaurants and former employer partners continue with a new COVID-19 lens. Restaurants, cafes and other retail outlets now closed to the public are collaborating with CK members to pool resources and employee time to source food for the community. Stone Soup PDX in Portland, Oregon has partnered with over a dozen local restaurants to collectively provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to 500 people in local shelters. Similarly, Light House Bistro has joined a coalition of local restaurants in Annapolis, Maryland to support the group’s shared goal of providing 1,200 hot meals per day.

The Food Education Fund in New York City has partnered with local restaurants and service providers to publish a digital food map to help those in need find publicly available meals. Similar maps have been created in Seattle and Maryland and shared by FareStart and the Maryland Food Bank, respectively.

Supportive Services

Many CK members support clients recovering from addiction and managing mental health issues. These organizations are now working hard to stay connected with clients virtually through phone calls, video meetings and online platforms to provide counseling and case management. Café Reconcile in New Orleans, Louisiana, has more than doubled their alumni outreach efforts since the outbreak. Episcopal Community Services in San Francisco continues to help students with job readiness by conducting mock interviews over the phone.

Others manage large housing facilities and are developing new strategies to keep clients safe in tight quarters, some through partnerships with local hotels to increase space for residents and others using personal protective equipment as much as possible.

Catalyst Kitchens Support

FareStart’s CK team is offering pro bono support to its members during COVID-19 and waiving or delaying fees for any organizations that have been hit hard by this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. We also created a dashboard to give us a detailed picture of how members are doing, tell us what support they need and report the impact they’re having on their communities.

We know that sometimes the very best way to help is just by bringing everyone together. We may need to be socially distant, but we are not socially disconnected.

“Convening members to share the bright spots and important lessons we’ve learned — that’s the magic of this network,” says Renee Martin, managing director of Catalyst Kitchens and vice president of national initiatives at FareStart.

“Idea groups” that used to convene monthly are now happening weekly and they are more popular than ever. On every call and videoconference, there’s a shared sense of urgency, purpose and gratitude for the free-flowing exchange of resources, toolkits and guidance that’s helping members feed vulnerable populations and continue supporting students while their training is paused. We’ve also set up smarter online communication tools such as a Slack channel that’s helping members get quick answers to their questions.

The CK team is helping members meet deadlines for payroll protection funding and other COVID-19 financial assistance. We’re helping their finance teams project the potential impact of extended revenue losses, and advising ways to step up fundraising with campaigns like the one for FareStart’s COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund.

“We’re seeing such huge signs of hope and positivity,” Renee says. “You can’t help but be cheered by all the wonderful signs of innovation and communities coming together to do the right thing.”

Learn more about FareStart’s Catalyst Kitchens initiative and where Catalyst Kitchens members are located.