Brooklyn rescue mission; NY chefs’  new role during COVID19 By Madeline Kemble & Michael Campanile 

This week, we bring you a guest blog post by Madeline Kemble & Michael Campanile

I am currently an unemployed chef, spending years of my life catering to those who can afford the high-end restaurant experience, grinding within the mechanics of an industry that now seems to have left me to shelter alone. In this loneliness, community calls out–cutting away at the ego I’ve built over all these years. Now, months into the covid-19 pandemic, I stare into an empty can of sardines and my leaking savings account.  I feel the need of the folks I haven’t been feeding. I see the people I had been serving having a very different experience of this pandemic. Many have fled our city. Those who’ve stayed have access to much higher quality foods and the money to continue to afford home delivery and options. Without a way to work from home or have “service” in the sense I’m used to, how can I take my skills and apply them? How can I serve all people who want delicious and nutritious food, particularly those that need to be supported now more than ever?

As we are absorbing the new world that is revealing itself to us, many inequalities that have existed for many years are becoming more disturbingly apparent. Now that the cogs of capitalism have come to a grinding halt, we realize a majority of us cannot live without the machine running. Particularly those that live in dense urban environments. We are utterly dependent on a faulty food chain that places us in harm’s way often by design. In what ways does our diet affect our ability to survive this pandemic? The World Health Organization, in an article on nutrition in COVID, says:

“Proper nutrition and hydration are vital. People who eat a well-balanced diet tend to be healthier with stronger immune systems and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases. So you should eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day to get the vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, protein and antioxidants your body needs. Drink enough water. Avoid sugar, fat and salt to significantly lower your risk of overweight, obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer.”

Also, to quote the Harvard School of Public Health:

We have known for a long time that nutrition is intricately linked to immunity and to the risk and severity of infections. Poorly nourished individuals are at a greater risk of various bacterial, viral, and other infections. Conversely, chronic or severe infections lead to nutritional disorders or worsen the nutritional status of affected people. Therefore, it is imperative for all of us to pay attention to our diet and nutritional status during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the clinical course of COVID-19 disease tends to be more severe among older individuals and among people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer that are partly related to nutrition.”

Clearly, access to proper nutrition and knowledge of how to eat are essential not only to our long-term health, but also in preventing viruses that may be out to kick us while we’re down.

Difficulties in accessing medical care and a poor distribution of proper nutrition (an issue that exacerbates and creates medical issues to begin with) highlight a disturbing lack of priority for the lower class and urban minority communities. What we eat and who has access to good nutrition are questions historically tangled by income inequality and further muddied by social issues related to race, class and immigration status in this country.

In the age of COVID-19 in this country, we have seen frontline workers, often people of color and particularly women and immigrants, thrust into the position of keeping our food chain intact: using their bodies as bonds and sacrificing for little personal profit and often without proper protection. We have seen the headlines: “Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.” This is the time to pause, a time to step back and reflect on the world. This is the time to reflect on what we have been a part of and how we can look to make it better in the future. Not by blaming the machine we are within or the people who benefit from it and paid our bills in the past, but by acknowledging there’s an underlying issue that’s surfacing and seeing how our system is negligent towards so many.

Look no further than the massive amount of food waste we’ve witnessed in the past weeks. From dairy farmers to vegetable farmers unable to divert goods that had been meant for the school system and restaurants destroying stock, while those students still need good nutrition and food pantries struggle with distribution chain issues. In a NYT article from early April entitled Facing Food Insecurity on the Front Lines, a crushing demand and lack of resources are spotlighted for local food banks and pantries saying, “Social distancing guidelines have brought on tremendous logistical challenges to food banks as well… because of precautionary measures and because many volunteers are older and vulnerable to the virus.”  Now that most New Yorkers are heading towards months of unemployment,  what’s actually available for them in terms of food stability? The rent for homes and store fronts are not the only things being gentrified, nutrition is also becoming an inaccessible essential to many stranded in food deserts around the boroughs. As stated above, low income people who already had poor access to nutrition are more susceptible not only to the economic ramifications of the viral pandemic but also to the devastation of the virus itself.  “Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that African Americans accounted for 33% of the hospitalizations despite being 13% of the population. April 10th.”

Let’s take an empathetic look into our local bodega and grocery stores.  Let’s say you’re a mother of two, you’ve been unemployed for months now due to COVID.  How can you stretch your meals now that oxtails are $15 a pound and local vegetables are more expensive than a  family sized dinner at the chicken spot? Not to mention the additional labor of processing these foods yourself. There’s a reason the fast food and frozen food industries helped to spur social revolutions in this country. People finally had time untied to the often unseen labor of maintaining the table. Unfortunately, we have become totally unfettered from our food system as a result. The ‘table’ is non-existent in our disposable to-go culture and we are even further removed from how our food actually gets to our gut in the process. Everything that is organic, non gmo, local, and nutritionally dense is inaccessible or too expensive to justify. What is left are over-preserved, over-processed,  food products designed to feed rather than nourish, bottom-lines fencing us in like cattle. Because of this viral pandemic, food supply is showing its weak underbelly to the public in real time.  Mass production farms and processing plants crippled by COVID, and the people who work them are torn between a paycheck and possibly catching the virus. The $5 rotisserie chicken will become harder to come by, leaving animal proteins left only for folks who can invest in a $50 grass fed steak or those who can get creative.

Recent article from Forbes magazine notes that the trend towards artisanal and organic products might be a thing of the past:

“On April 23, right as meat suppliers started issuing serious warnings about an impending shortage, analysts at the New York-based Marcum public accounting and advisory firm dove deep into how U.S. food systems are reacting to COVID-19 and how we might expect to shop and eat in the future. Though they didn’t make this point themselves, their messages coalesced to suggest two conclusions: 1) corporate consolidation in the food chain has led to some of our most severe present-day problems; 2) in the “new normal,” Americans will likely revert to eating packaged comfort meals bought in huge grocery chains run on automation.”

People who don’t have the income or access to nutritionally dense foods will have no other choice than to rely on what food banks are offering.  So that raises the question on what else can they lean on besides the scraps of mass food production?  The antidote to this dependency could lie within the strength of the communities and utilization of our urban gardens.  Turning focus towards the dirt in our own backyards to provide us with raw and nutritionally rich fruits and vegetables.  Food to extend and enrich that of which the pantry provides.  Adding braised collard greens to your can of beans will give you days worth of vitamin A, potassium, fiber, and vitamin c.

That amount of nutrition can be brought to the urban kitchen without the use of packaging and jet fuel. Through education, we can relearn the vanishing art of revitalizing soil and curing compost.  transforming our backyards, stoops, and fire escapes into bountiful harvests. The government scrambles to bailout the food giants as more and more under supported workers are falling victim to covid. There’s no guarantee our modern privileges will ever return to “normal”.  The future of nutrition may end up having to be our problem to fix.  NYC has over 600 gardens in the five boroughs, and more are continuing to be built, according to grownyc and green thumb.


“GrowNYC has built more than 125 new gardens, including GreenThumb community gardens; gardens in public housing developments, daycares, and senior centers; and our urban farm on Governors Island.”

These groups should be the ones we’re putting our focus on, rather than the mass agriculture we currently support.  An industry that not only does harm to our health,  but the future of our planet’s soil.  Foodprint did an article on the effects of industrial agriculture.

“In soil-based agriculture, soil health is the most important foundation of a healthy farm ecosystem. Yet most of the common farming techniques employed in industrial crop production, such as synthetic fertilizer application and monocropping, can degrade soil over time, causing a cascade of problems necessitating the use of even more man-made inputs, which in turn contribute to climate change.”

So being an ex-chef, knowing that my industry is being stretched so thin during this current crisis. Reverting to takeout services that can barely bring enough revenue to properly pay staff.  I see this current pandemic changing the role of the chef in society.  Maybe less of an investment in providing a service, and more into leading the food education of a community.  Teaching neighbors how to pickle vegetables, bake bread, being resourceful with what you have, and how to get the most meals out of your budget.  I’m honestly sick of working 12+ hour shifts, providing a forgettable experience to a jaded “foodie”, I’d rather focus my energy on the nutrition of my neighbors.