Communal Food: The
Community Kitchen Movement
By Wendy Priesnitz
There’s something about preparing and
sharing nourishing food that encourages us to communicate with each other,
while slowing down and enjoying both the food and the company...and
sometimes even launching social movements.
In many cultures around the world, food is much
more than physical survival. Sharing food can be many things – romantic,
nurturing, sociable, community building and celebratory. English monks in
the 16th century would cook together as part of their daily ritual; for
Sikhs throughout the world, cooking together in large communal kitchens is
part of temple life; North American aboriginals have always created and
shared meals in their ceremonial gatherings.
The experience of food is as much about
growing, shopping, planning and preparation as it is about eating. Gardeners
love sharing tips and lore, and working the soil with a neighbor can be
excellent therapy for many reasons. Organize a social gathering in your home
and people tend to congregate in the kitchen. Businesses and social
movements alike have been launched around kitchen tables, their births eased
by treats of cookies and tea or more substantial meals.
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Unfortunately, as the pace of life increases
and the need for efficiency rules, the culture of eating is one of the first
things to erode. Fast food restaurants nurture neither the soul or the body.
Easy-to-prepare packaged food numbs the palette. Solo eating on-the-run
dulls the art of conversation. And heaven forbid anyone takes the time to
offer hospitality to their increasingly distant friends and family!
Of course, coupled in a chicken or egg
existence with speed eating goes environment damaging commercial farming,
globalized food system management, the marginalization of the poor and other
In recent years, some people have begun to miss
what we have lost. In reaction to “the reduction of food to consumption, of
taste to hamburger, of thought to meatball”, the Slow Food movement began in
Italy in the mid 1980s. It now has over 60,000 members in 45 countries and
offices in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and New York City. Its members
characterize themselves as “eco-gastronomes” – people who care about the
quality, sensuality and conviviality of food while respecting nature and the
Another grassroots movement is focused on group
preparation – and sometimes eating – of healthy food. Less organized and
more diverse, the communal cooking phenomenon (also called cooking clubs,
collective or community kitchens) seems to have originated in Latin America
a few decades ago, with activists organizing thousands of community kitchens
to help low-income people prepare healthy food inexpensively. But the idea
has caught on in the developed world and grown to encompass the elderly, the
disabled, people who live alone and those who simply enjoy the companionship
of getting together once a week to cook with a group of neighbors or to
teach each other ethnic dishes or other specialties. When people get
together regularly in a public space to cook, that’s a community kitchen.
Community kitchens offer the opportunity to
share skills, socialize and reduce costs by purchasing collectively.
Collective food preparation can address all kinds of social, economic and
nutritional barriers. Some community kitchens have a social service bent –
preparing donated food for street people, training unemployed people to
become cooks, etc. Other groups meet weekly to prepare a week’s worth of
food to take home to their families. Some community kitchens act as business
incubators, offering specialty food processors, farmers, and caterers a
relatively inexpensive place to license food processing activities. Some
groups work together only in the fall to preserve produce. Some are formal
non-profit organizations, some affiliated with service organizations or
municipalities. There are vegetarian kitchens, kitchens for new moms, and
kitchens that cater primarily to psychiatric consumer/survivors. Still other
groups are just informal gatherings of friends who come together regularly
to cook and eat.
One group of people that doesn’t need to be
told about the benefits of communal food is made up of those who live in
cohousing arrangements. The central sharing tradition of cohousing is that
of the common dinner, cooked in a well-equipped common kitchen and eaten in
the dining hall in the common house. Residents agree on a number of nights
per week to share dinners, then organize a cooking roster, such that each
adult will usually only cook once for every 10 to 20 common meals. These
meals not only save residents the hassle of finding time for shopping and
cooking, but play an important role in creating the social interaction so
valuable within cohousing communities.
Feeding the Poor
For many people who access
food banks and shelters, having the basic cooking and nutritional know-how,
let alone the facilities, to make healthier meals for themselves and their
families can be a challenge. Recognizing that, many of these community
organizations have set up community kitchen programs. Using produce and
other food that has sometimes been donated by local farmers and retailers,
these programs typically provide meal planning and nutrition
education as well as healthy meals to their users.
These programs vary greatly and are often quite
innovative. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Soup Sisters partners with a local
catering company to produce large volumes of nourishing soup for Bryony
House, a transition house for women and children leaving violent homes. Soup
Sisters organizes events at Kitchen Door Catering's facility where
participants pay a fee to cover expenses of ingredients for the soups, the
professional kitchen venue, equipment, supervision, and a Chef or
professional facilitator. In addition to social camaraderie, food and wine,
each event produces a few hundred servings of fresh soup a month for the
The Greater Vancouver Community Food Bank has been a
pioneer in the community kitchen movement. They believe in building
community around food and creating opportunities for people to share and
learn about food and food skills by encouraging community kitchens where
everyone participates. In addition to facilitating and supporting 26
community kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with a focus of
offering an alternate method to obtain food in a self-directed and dignified
manner that trains people in nutrition and cooking, they run workshops to
help other individuals and organizations do the same. Their website (see
resource list at the end of this article) has a great deal of helpful
information about starting, funding, and operating community kitchens.
Helping With University Costs
At the University of Toronto, the Hart
House Community Kitchen is a fun way for students to combat the rising costs
of tuition, housing and food. The community kitchen facilitates the
combining of the students’ resources to gain a purchasing strength for basic
ingredients. They then come together in small groups to prepare large
amounts of food and distribute it among themselves. The groups also build a
sense of community on the large, urban campus through planning menus,
organizing cooking and learning about food issues.
A version of the communal kitchen can be run out of
someone's home or a local church or community center kitchen. In this
version, sometimes called a batch cooking group, there is an opportunity for
both connecting with your community and living frugally. Batch cooking is
simply the preparation of a recipe in a large quantity; a batch cooking
group extends that to a group of friends or neighbors who make enough food
to split among themselves to freeze, or to donate to someone in need or a
community food bank. In her book Food and Fellowship, experienced batch cooking
organizer Andrea Belcham writes, "You’ve likely done this in some form
already, making ten jars of strawberry jam after a berry picking trip, or
cooking a big soup on Sunday afternoon that will cover a few lunches during
the week, for instance. Now imagine more hands chopping and peeling,
stirring, and scooping. Imagine bigger pots, more food, laughter, and
conversation mingling with the sounds of cooking."
Friends Cooking and Eating Together
While not really true to the communal cooking
model, a cooking club satisfies the need to avoid take-out food, helps its participants learn how to cook,
and provides an excuse for friends to get together over a meal
without spending a lot of money to go to restaurants. It is
really a glorified potluck where each person prepares one component of a
pre-planned meal from scratch, then come together with the others to eat the
meal. After one media-savvy
group of women in New York City collected their experiences into a website
and wrote a cookbook, resulting in national publicity a decade ago, many
other groups of friends picked up on the idea.
They have some tips for setting up and having fun with a cooking club. They
suggest looking beyond your best friends for participants, and inviting
co-workers or people you’d like to know better. Monthly get-togethers are
easier to handle than weekly, at least at the beginning, they advise.
The Cooking Club’s rule about cooking at home
was based on their initial
experience that “six cooks in the kitchen not only spoils the broth but also
leads to other catastrophes — such as cookie dough on the ceiling”. While
this approach may not work for all communal cooking situations, the Cooking
Club’s main principle is important to everyone: Have fun, they advise,
saying that the main ingredient in the recipe for a successful cooking club
is an ample sense of humor. “Large doses of warmth and admiration go a long
way in the kitchen, where egos can be bruised like a delicate persimmon. At
our cooking club gatherings, we always spend the first half-hour saying mmm
and patting each other on the back.” After all, the important part isn’t
necessarily the food – it’s the friendship, the members conclude.
are no rules for communal kitchens, according to those who have set them up.
They are as different as the needs they are filling and the people involved.
Many of the more formal non-profit groups run leaders’ workshops from time
Aside from good
plain fun, community cooking can accomplish many things. It has the
potential to fight hunger, stretch the family budget, reduce social
isolation, contribute to parenting skills, facilitate the social integration
of marginalized people, improve family life, and provide opportunities for
community economic development.
Food and Fellowship: Projects to Feed a Community
by Andrea Belcham (The Alternate Press)
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural
Life Magazine. She has been a journalist for forty years and is the author of twelve books.