‘Each other’s safety net’: People’s Kitchen serves up hot meals, community care in South Philly

The mutual aid organization, born at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, has stayed true to its roots of reducing food waste and serving nutritious meals to those in need.

Rebecca Ng

Rebecca Ng volunteers with The People's Kitchen, translating for Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking community members. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

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Chef Aziza Young, El Compadre Restaurant and 215 People’s Alliance started The People’s Kitchen during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years later, it is still going strong and fulfilling its mission of mutual aid and food sovereignty at a time when nearly 250,000 Philadelphians are battling food insecurity. The kitchen, a collaborative of chefs, students and volunteers, operates from its Italian Market location and fights hunger one meal at a time.

April McGreger, chef, preservation expert, and executive board member and volunteer, said the collaborative’s goal goes beyond battling hunger to envisioning a better way for everyone to share resources.

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“The idea of mutual aid isn’t just positioning us where we’re taking care of people, it is giving everyone a chance to contribute, and to be involved in creating something better, … being there for each other and being each other’s safety net,” she said.

April McGreger
April McGreger uses her expertise on preservation and fermentation to turn surplus produce into long-lasting, tasty jams and pickled ingredients. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

Between The People’s Kitchen and food rescue organizations Punks with Lunch and Food Not Bombs, around 500 hot meals are prepared weekly at the Ninth Street kitchen. The meals are distributed directly at the location or in the surrounding area. Chefs and volunteers take extra care to prepare meals that meet community members’ cultural and dietary preferences.

Rebecca Ng, a volunteer with The People’s Kitchen who serves as a translator for the Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking community members, said many people appreciate the range of meals offered.

“It’s really good, you know, they make different styles,” Ng said, noting that in the 30 years she’s lived in South Philly, she’s seen the neighborhood grow increasingly diverse — a reality that McGreger said the volunteers and chefs strive to reflect in the dishes they serve.

April McGreger and Rebecca Ng
April McGreger, left, executive board member of The People’s Kitchen, speaks with volunteer Rebecca Ng, right, outside of the organization’s storefront in the Italian Market. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

Depending on the day, community members can come directly to the kitchen’s door at 1149 S. 9th Street for a hot meal at 3 p.m. There’s also a community fridge outside that is stocked with food items.

McGreger said the central tenets of mutual aid are tied to her family roots in a small sustenance farming community in rural Mississippi.

“Food also for me was always about community, always about bringing people together, always about taking care of people,” she said. “And that was something that I was really taught as a very important cultural value. And I feel like that is what a lot of us who are involved in The People’s Kitchen are really interested in, … pushing back against this idea of winner-takes-all late-stage capitalism of ‘We don’t care if you’re dying in the streets.’”

McGreger started volunteering at the kitchen in 2020. Her experience with preservation and fermentation plays a particularly important role — the kitchen receives food donations from Shoprite and other businesses, and chefs often have to get creative to use the ingredients at hand or preserve them for extended use.

Another important aspect of the collaborative’s food sovereignty work is the community garden in Southwest Philadelphia, where volunteers tend to 30 lots at 62nd and Reinhardt streets. The produce goes first to community members, but sometimes, especially in the summer, when there is an excess of certain fruits and vegetables, it is sent to the South Philly kitchen, where McGreger uses her preservation and fermentation expertise to turn the surplus into long-lasting, tasty additions to meals.

Volunteer Jacob Slovotkin recalled one of his first shifts at The People’s Kitchen two-and-a-half years ago. He said McGreger had him peeling ground cherries for more than two hours.

Afterward, his thumbs hurt, but Slovotkin said he felt great and wanted to keep coming back for more. He now volunteers two days a week and leads the shift as the head chef some days.

Slovotkin said one of his favorite parts of the job is knowing that quality food is being used to feed people.

On a Wednesday in May, Slovotkin pounded donated pork to prepare a Vietnamese caramelized pork dish. McGreger said the donated food they use is always high-quality.

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“All of this food would be going to the incinerator, and it’s for the silliest reasons,” Slovotkin said. “And I’m so glad that places like this and others exist that are starting to exist, that are figuring this out and intercepting the food before it goes to the incinerator.”

Working in the kitchen
April McGreger, left, turns on a burner while volunteer Jacob Slovotkin, right, prepares ingredients for that day’s lunch. (Emily Neil)

McGreger said part of the mission of The People’s Kitchen is to help volunteers such as Slovotkin find community.

“We have a high percentage of data processors, or like folks who sit in a room by themselves on a computer all day, who really want to do something with their hands,” McGreger said. “I feel like that is undervalued, and how therapeutic — both just doing something with your hands, doing something that contributes to society, to others, and then also being in community with other folks who share that goal, share that mission.”

For Slovotkin, born and raised in Philadelphia, volunteering with The People’s Kitchen has opened his eyes to the city around him.

The People's Kitchen
The People’s Kitchen and their partners together prepare about 500 hot meals a week at their kitchen in South Philly. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

“It has given me an appreciation for community that I’m not sure I had before, at least not in the same way,” he said, noting that they often see regulars who come to get lunch each day, including senior citizens who will take food back for friends who are housebound.

“There’s so many unseen people who need help,” Slovtokin said. “And we get to interface with them daily here and actually deliver help to them. And it reminds me how much work there actually needs to be done … Poverty and hunger is not just the homeless person that you see on the street. It is much more pervasive than that. It’s families, it’s senior citizens on fixed incomes.”

McGreger said The People’s Kitchen depends on sustaining members who make monthly donations. Those interested in volunteering or contributing as members can visit The People’s Kitchen website to learn more.

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