For the last five years I have been part of Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation that fights food waste and social isolation by serving meals at community kitchens called Refettorios. A suitcase used to be part of my living room decor, ready to pack at a moment's notice with a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano as a gift, or to unload with souvenirs from places I had temporarily lived while opening Food for Soul Refettorio projects.
“Keeping guests calm during the #Coronavirus scare is tricky… Media hysteria is not helpful when dealing with individuals with mental health issues… How is one supposed to self-isolate when you have no place to do so?”
March 6th, 2020, Instagram @refettoriofelix
Back in 2015, Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura, the couple behind Osteria Francescana and the founders of Food for Soul, were preparing the Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan for the arrival of our first guest chef, Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park in New York. Daniel walked in while they were unloading 13 unique wooden tables, each created by a different Italian designer in the Frattino style, to bring our guests together, not only to share a meal prepared from recovered food surplus, but also to share a moment of communion. These tables represented more than a place to eat. They became a symbol for breaking bread together. As a reminder of his experience in Milan, Daniel even shipped a table to New York.
Photo Refettorio Paris
Since reading that Instagram post by Refettorio Felix in London, the coronavirus crisis has evolved in ways none of us ever imagined. On Feb 23rd, 2020, Milan was the first city under mandatory shut down in Italy. Refettorio Ambrosiano had to respect social distancing measures, and the daily operations managed by Caritas Ambrosiana needed to adapt their services. Instead of closing their doors, they served meals from noon until the evening to accommodate the same number of guests dining at different times. It was important to keep the doors open because the Refettorio had become not only a place where food surplus is transformed into delicious meals, but also a support network for the community.
That first week of lockdown, I went to the local market in Modena and witnessed a long line outside. My fear was not related to the unknown future ahead. I was having a flashback of the lines and empty shelves in supermarkets that I knew too well from my native Venezuela. The fact that this was happening in Italy made me wonder how this crisis was going to affect the most vulnerable people in different places around the world. I thought about my family in Venezuela and the guests of our Refettorios in Milan, Bologna, Rio, London, Paris and Naples. The Refettorios had become a home for many: those without a permanent address, the rough sleepers, the immigrants, and anyone down on their luck. How could we provide for them during this crisis? When our most vulnerable citizens are in danger, that is the moment we realise that food is so much more than calories. It is public health, community and dignity.
Photo Simon Owen Red Photographic
By mid-March the crisis had bled beyond Italy. I received a message from Jean Francois Rial, the businessman and environmentalist who joined forces with French artist JR in 2018 to bring to life the Refettorio Paris located in the crypt of the Madeleine Church. It read: “We will have to close for two or three months. We don’t have a choice.” I wondered when I’d be able to visit a Refettorio, or serve a guest, or hug a volunteer like Vittoria, a Milanese grandmother who always asks me if I have fallen in love yet. As an immigrant myself, the Refettorios had also become my home.
Days later, it was confirmed that not only was the Refettorio Paris closing its doors, but all of the Refettorios could no longer act as gathering places. What would this mean for our guests? While each Refettorio began to adapt to the current crisis in their own way, they never considered stopping services. The communal element that united all of them is that they all found ways to do more.
Over the past three years, we had formed a network connecting all of the Refettorio projects around the world under the idea that exchange from the different partners would be an opportunity to learn, grow, and be stronger as a unit. A virtual meeting of this Learning Network had been scheduled to take place on March 18th. With more than 10 people online, our screens were divided into small squares and yet no matter how fragmented we were, we all felt the need to continue our activities in one way or another.
We listened to how each Refettorio was putting in place a response. Food for Soul became a map of diverse responses to a singular crisis. Through the Learning Network, we had the tools to evolve and adapt our models. We were able to bounce ideas off each other and support each other in a time of crisis. We had created a net for the Refettorios, and even if transformed into Brown Bag Delivery services, this tight weave would not letting anyone fall through the cracks, nor be invisible again.
Photo Refettorio Felix
Natália Rosa, a young woman working at the Refettorio Gastromotiva, made a lasting impression during a team meeting. She said: “This is the moment in which we step out of the need mode and step into the mode of helping.” No longer able to serve meals in Rio, the Refettorio Gastromotiva dedicated their resources to collecting 17.8 tons of surplus food, and acted as a food bank for ‘Solidarity Kitchens’ and other organisations that have fed over 29,000 people during the past four weeks of coronavirus.
After Milan, the project in Bologna was one of the first to pivot services in response to the crisis. For the past month and a half, Social Tables Antoniano supported families by providing them with food items, while volunteers distributed take-away lunches to those in need. “The children are not going to school so to make them feel we are close to them is to bring food and games to their house,” explained Anna Maria Asciano, a volunteer who manages the food boxes.
Refettorio Felix at the St. Cuthbert’s Centre in London also created a take-away lunch program, while preparing extra meals delivered to the Royal London Hospital for NHS staff.
Another remarkable turnaround has been Refettorio Paris. As soon as their doors shut, they began delivering hundreds of meals to those in need, and they did not stop there. They reached out to their network of chefs, restaurants and donors to launch Action Refettorio. Led by Paris-based artist JR, the project recovers food surplus and delivers it to restaurants all over the city, where in turn meals are prepared and delivered to social assistance associations. The aim for the next few weeks is to distribute 5.000 meals per day.
Photo Emanuele Colombo
Food for Soul has been at the heart of these initiatives, providing tools and information along the way. We realised quickly that we had to do more. We launched a Community Fund to sustain Refettorios and enable them to continue to serve their communities with dignity during the emergency.
After 5 years, many things have changed. But one thing is still the same. We sit around the same metaphorical communal table: the call to help others. This is the approach of the hospitality sector, to welcome and take care, and this will never change, even with social distancing.
Photo Caritas Ambrosiana
That table from the Refettorio Ambrosiano - the same one sitting in an apartment in New York - is a symbol of connection, but also a sign of action. While restaurants are closed, chefs are taking action. Daniel Humm has transformed his restaurant into a production kitchen preparing meals for the most vulnerable. Massimo has created the Kitchen Quarantine series, connecting every night on Instagram from his kitchen in Modena to inspire people staying at home to prepare exciting family meals without wasting food. Refettorios continue to serve guests. We all might be temporarily apart but we will always be a community around that table.
Editor's Note: The payment for this article was donated to the Food for Soul Community Fund.