A former restaurant chef, Calichio had built a cooking and gardening business that halted completely, leaving her with no income. Her husband, Omar, also a chef, continued his restaurant job, working in close quarters that put him at risk amid the spreading virus.
“My husband and I were like, at least I can get unemployment,” Calichio said. “Where there are five to 15 people that we know who aren’t going to have that.”
In an industry where people typically live paycheck to paycheck and many don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, Calichio knew many restaurant workers wouldn’t have a safety net to fall back on.
“I had a choice to either sit here in my house and be overwhelmed,” she said, “or, I can do whatever it is that I could possibly do without thinking about whether it’s going to work or not.”
So, in early March 2020, the couple started a GoFundMe with the idea of purchasing fresh, healthy groceries wholesale and delivering them directly to those in need in their Astoria, Queens, community.
Within a week, they raised $ 10,000.
“We thought the pandemic was going to be over in two weeks,” Calichio said. ‘So, we were like,’ We’ll spend this 10 grand and then we’ll go back to work. ‘ And that never happened. “
“We knew we lived in a community that … has a big disparity,” she said. “And we wanted to bridge the gap between those who had and those who didn’t.”
The Connected Chef purchases most of its food from local farms. Grocery boxes are packed and then delivered by volunteers and staff directly to recipients’ homes.
“We wanted to be able to do this in a way that was dignified and wasn’t having people wait in a pantry line for four hours to wonder if they’re even going to get food,” Calichio said.
The organization delivers free groceries to 550 households each week and has 700 more on a waitlist. A household can stay in the program for as long as they need.
“When you’re food-insecure, you’re not food-insecure just for a week and then you get food and then everything is better again,” Calichio said. “And so we wanted to make sure that we were a source of reliability.”
Calichio’s says her measure of success is the 125 households that have come off the free program. They are now in a better place where they can buy groceries on their own or opt into The Connected Chef’s sliding scale program and pay what they can afford.
Although this work started in response to the pandemic, for Calichio, it is far from over.
“We still have families calling us and thanking us, saying ‘If we didn’t have your groceries, we wouldn’t have food,'” she said. “Until we’re able to create something that is self-sustaining and can be replicated, this work will continue.”
CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Calichio about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What made you worry about your fellow restaurant workers when restaurants started to shut down in 2020?
Kim Calichio: The majority of people who are working in restaurants are living paycheck to paycheck. It is largely made up of an immigrant community as well. So, a lot of individuals do not qualify for unemployment benefits. We knew that people were in dire need. When I say in a week’s time my fridge is going to be empty, that was literally the position people were in.
There was no waiting, either. We didn’t have time to say, “Okay, let’s set this up. And let’s figure this out.” Like, people needed food yesterday. And we needed to figure out how to help them.
CNN: Why is it important to you to purchase local produce?
Calichio: We source 80% of the produce from local farms in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Food is a central point in so many ways, but it also intersects with environmental justice and labor justice. On top of building something, we didn’t want to be sourcing our ingredients from companies that were based in extraction. And we wanted to make sure that we’re, as much as we possibly can, supporting small farms.
We’re working really hard to support BIPOC farmers as well – and make sure that where we’re getting our food from is not supporting this large, big, agricultural business.
CNN: How have you set up your non-profit to work differently from other organizations?
Calichio: Our goal is to create a community-rooted food system – from where the food is grown to how it gets to families’ homes. And every step of the way in between, we need to make sure there’s equity. That includes our staff and our team doing this work. It didn’t make sense for us to build an organization where we have executives who are getting paid top-dollar. So, everybody on our team gets paid $ 20 an hour. Some of us work more or less hours than others. But the pay rate is the same. And when we get a raise, we all get a raise together.
My hope is that this work provides a model of doing things differently – for communities all over to be able to see what we’re doing and realize that it’s possible and we don’t have to do things business-as-usual.