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Before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Chef Q. Ibraheem ran an upscale catering business and underground supper club in Evanston, Illinois. She was able to charge $250 per person for ambitious, farm-to-table, multicourse meals served in an intimate setting. After years of working to launch her business, it was finally taking off.
But when Covid hit, everything came to a halt.
“I didn’t know where my next penny was coming from,” said Ibraheem, who had to close down her business. “I didn’t know if I would be able to pay any bills.”
Pre-pandemic, Ibraheem had volunteered for years with youth programs in the Chicago area, teaching young people facing food insecurity how to grow and prepare vegetables from local community gardens.
As schools shut down and many people in the community were laid off or furloughed from their jobs, she started receiving phone calls from families of children she taught.
“Parents were calling to see if we were doing our ‘young chef’ camps, and at first, I thought they were looking for activities for their kids. But I quickly realized they were looking for a meal,” she said.
As a result of the pandemic, it is estimated that food insecurity has tripled among US households with children, according to the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. It is projected that 42 million Americans, including 1 in 6 children, may experience food insecurity this year, according to Feeding America.
“At first many people were too proud to say they needed help. They would say, ‘Hey, I’m fine,’ but you would hear the sound linger in their voice that said they were not fine,” Ibraheem said. “I told them how I lost my business and I’m not fine. Once you talk to people and see them every week, they open up.”
So, she started a free meal program that she called Kids with Coworkers – referring to all the children who were then home with their parents. She began by cooking healthy meals and making daily deliveries to nine families in need.
“Initially things started very small, it was very simple,” Ibraheem said. “But the need for food is so unbelievable. It just surpassed what we ever thought it would be. It’s not a class or gender or race thing. We’re in a pandemic. Everyone had lost some form of being able to take care of themselves.”
Word of her efforts quickly spread, and donations started arriving, which enabled her to expand. Early on, she hired a furloughed school bus driver to help deliver the meals, and her team operates out of a donated commercial kitchen space.
Since March 2020, Ibraheem says she has provided more than 60,000 meals to more than 600 people.
“To see people, especially families and seniors not have food is not acceptable,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that people were able to put food on the table.”
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Ibraheem about her efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation
CNN: What types of situations are the people you are helping in?
Chef Q. Ibraheem: A lot of them are single parents, a lot are seniors. You have people that don’t have sick days, people that work [minimum wage jobs] where once that last check comes, the last check comes.
When the pandemic hit, so many families were struggling with childcare, finances, and, of course, food insecurity was major. Families were struggling with putting food on the table. In the beginning, one of the first parents that I talked to literally said they only had a couple cans of soup in their house, and they had five children. And that struck my heart so heavy, because I come from a single-parent home.
I know so many of these families and the kids, and you don’t want to see your neighbors hungry. So, it was really easy for me to say, “Let me cook.”
CNN: What’s unique about your approach to the food you’re serving the families?
Ibraheem: Cooking is my ultimate expression of love. You want to make someone happy. I got into cooking because I was always around food. My dad had a halal poultry shop. (And) there was my mom. And my mom was, like, “Hey, we cannot (afford to) travel all the time, so we’re actually going to travel through restaurants.” So twice a month, every paycheck, we would go to a different kind of restaurant.
It was really important for me to make sure that the meals were healthy and nutritious, because you know that you need these people to eat healthy right now. These are home-cooked meals. Everything is made from scratch. We prep every single thing. It takes a lot of time. We always make sure that there is something fresh on the plate. We’re very veggie-centric.
I wanted it to be the highest quality food I can get. So, we source a lot of food from the community gardens that we work with. I’m working with local farms and local producers, local artisans, to make sure that I could put the best food on the plates of our dinner guests.
We go really creative with the food. We try to do the most beautiful plating that we can do. We play with the textures. It’s very important for us to expose our dinner guests to different cultures, different food, edible flowers, fresh sorrel, just so they understand, “Hey, there is so much out here.”
CNN: What are your future plans?
Ibraheem: My dreams have changed. Of course, I’m going to do underground supper clubs. But long-term, I’ve realized the need for food and I’ve realized how big of a problem food insecurity is. So, I’m looking at taking all the components of what I do and hopefully opening up a community kitchen and take some of the youth that I actually train and hire them. And I’m just going full circle with sustainability and keep it in the community once again. I want to cook really good food. I want to take care of people. I also want to invest even more in the community.
There’s been a problem with food insecurity in our country, but the pandemic has shined a light on this major issue. I witnessed that people are literally a paycheck away from not eating. That’s heartbreaking. That’s unbelievable, but it’s so very real. And it’s continuously happening. And it’s important that we just face that issue and make sure that people eat. So many people go without and there are people that we still can’t serve. Each day there were more people calling.
I’m inspired to keep going because the need has not stopped. It’s a great feeling to know that I’m able to ease the burden, if just a little bit. I’m giving them a sense of understanding that we are in it together. A sense of knowing that people in your community do care.
Want to get involved? Check out the Kids with Coworkers website and see how to help.
To donate to Kids with Coworkers via GoFundMe, click here