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You never think that it’s going to be you. But one day, everything goes topsy-turvy, and suddenly you find yourself doing the unimaginable: searching for information on how to access donated food or meals.

Thousands of individuals and families in Spain have found themselves in this difficult position during the Covid-19 pandemic. City councils in Catalonia have seen double the normal number of petitions for assistance in the last month or two, while that figure has tripled for Cáritas, the large Catholic charity in Spain. And the Creu Roja (Catalan Red Cross) has received around 10,000 new petitions per week since Spain’s state of alarm began, over 60,000 in total.

The flood of new cases joins those who were already struggling, for whom this period is particularly challenging. The country’s homeless population is finding it even more difficult to get shelter, a shower and a hot meal when many of the social services and volunteers have been reduced to a minimum to stop the spread of the virus. And the families that were still feeling the effects of the last economic crisis in 2008 have, in many cases, watched their precarious jobs dry up, leaving them without any savings or economic support.

With this crush of need, charities and social services were overwhelmed and running out of resources very quickly. And in middle of the tsunami, the healthcare system was also stretched thin – frontline workers were exhausted with no time to eat or sleep, working day and night to treat the deluge of Covid-19 cases.

But, as Viqui Sanglas, one of the promoters of the Comer Contigo (“Eat with You”) initiative, says, “The worst situation brings out the best in people.” In the midst of these trying times, the Creu Roja received 4,000 volunteer applications. And, across Spain, new solidarity kitchens sprang up, helmed by chefs of all kinds, to cook for and help feed the most vulnerable.

In Barcelona, the four main groups are Health Warriors, the first independent initiative that was established just three days after the state of alarm began; Comer Contigo, a project launched by the national newspaper La Vanguardia that eventually built up to serving 1,000 meals per day, cooked in eight kitchens around the city; World Central Kitchen, the NGO of chef José Andrés that set up kitchens in different Spanish cities and is continually bringing new chefs and companies on board; and Food for Good, another independent project that collaborates directly with local NGOs, currently providing them with more than 5,000 meals per week.

Frances Terns, the owner of Mr. Green, a small chain of delivery-focused vegetarian restaurants, was one of the first in Barcelona to react to the crisis, creating Health Warriors almost immediately with the initial aim of feeding frontline healthcare workers. The independent organization consists of 40 professionals from different fields (restaurateurs, photographers, taxi drivers and more), like Nacho Ballesta, the owner of the digital food communication agency The Food Tellers, who came on board early on to help with communication and logistics. They later transformed the stylish cooking events space Roc35, with the help of chef Ascanio Pamutti and Nùria Font, into their headquarters in the Poblenou neighborhood; it quickly filled with boxes of food and the constant activity of masked collaborators.

“We created from scratch a project that now is giving a thousand meals per day, and it is exciting to see its evolution.”

“The reaction of the restaurants was incredible, I couldn’t believe it,” Frances tells us. “In one week about 40 restaurants joined and many food companies started to send product.” Today they collaborate with 102 restaurants, the majority of which are humble neighborhood spots. “One of the most wonderful and beautiful aspects of this project is that the 95 percent of the restaurants that take part are neighborhood businesses, offering traditional cuisine or new traditional cuisine,” Nacho says. “We only had one Michelin-starred place [join] when in Barcelona there are 24. This is not a critique…but it is true that it could have been great to have some more with us to help with visibility. Or to pick the phone and help get more product from providers.”

If originally the idea was to feed overwhelmed healthcare workers, the scope has since greatly expanded. Currently they produce 1,000 direct meals a day and distribute food for different national and international organizations including Open Arms, various health entities that prioritize nursing homes, and diverse local organizations. It’s the latter – particularly the small, somewhat underground collectives – that know and help families and old people on the edge, the ones who are normally overlooked by larger organizations. As Nacho explains, “Currently we have many families who are running out of savings and will be in a critical situation soon. One of our focuses right now is locating the ‘underground collectives’ that nobody knows about, people that never had access to Caritas or the Red Cross.” Frances sums up the challenges in reaching such people: “There is a stigma” attached to asking for help.

They also collaborate with other entities, particularly local agricultural associations and cooperatives. But it’s not just a matter of soliciting donations – they approach it as an exchange of resources. “Forget money!” declares Nacho. “I have broth, you have a vegetable garden, you have chickens and you have solar panels, let’s barter.”

Comer Contigo has a similar aim but slightly different origins: The initiative was started by Canal Comer, the food section, helmed by the journalist Cristina Jolonch, of the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, after the state of alarm went into effect. They immediately entered into talks with Romain Fornell, head chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Caelis and the renewed classic Casa Leopoldo, to establish a team with Lluis Prats, commercial director of Gramona, an old family winery in Sant Sadurní D’Anoia, and Viqui Sanglas, founder of All Those Food Market.

“It’s beautiful and super interesting,” Viqui says. “We created from scratch a project that now is giving a thousand meals per day, and it is exciting to see its evolution.” She explains that, from the beginning, they teamed up with other initiatives in Barcelona to help feed healthcare workers as well as other collectives serving the city’s vulnerable population, like the Arrels Foundation, which has looked after Barcelona’s homeless since 1987. “We are in constant contact with the entities we want to help and their feedback is, ‘Hey, people really value that you are giving well-cooked meals, not just a sandwich or leftovers from airports but real food, homey and nutritious,’” she adds.

They began with just one kitchen, which chef Romain Fornell ran at Casa Leopoldo in the Raval neighborhood, but have since expanded to eight kitchens, each staffed with a number of different cooks. “We greatly appreciate the work of the chefs and volunteers that were involved, because, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, who wanted to leave his home to come to a kitchen and work with 20 other people?” Viqui says.

Over time, they won the praise of many local and celebrity chefs like Albert Adriá and Carmen Ruscalleda, and saw a large increase in contributions from numerous companies and providers ranging from international or national food businesses to more local ventures. The latter is especially important to Comer Contigo because, as Viqui explains, they believe “small shops, restaurants, bars and groceries are the soul of the city.”

As the severity of the Covid-19 crisis ebbs, more restaurants in Barcelona are opening for takeaway and delivery. As we inch toward the “new normal,” we ask Viqui if their output will decrease. “Of course, now as things begin to deescalate, kitchens like Frankie Gallo Cha Cha Cha [a pizza restaurant] that were contributing during the last weeks are opening up again for takeaway and delivery,” she explains. “But other kitchens are intending to continue helping as much as they can, like the restaurant Llamber, which is combining their normal work with their contribution to Comer Contigo.”

Even if Comer Contigo was born out of a need to help during these unprecedented times, the intention is to create a foundation to keep working on these issues in the long term, although the exact vision that is still a work in progress. “We are clear that we want to keep cooking from Casa Leopoldo and donate food to Arrels Foundation – they are the first kitchen and the first entity we worked with,” Viqui says. “We want to keep it going, and Roman Fornell has committed to continue dedicating part of his day to this type of work. It’s important to keep giving value to cooking as a way of helping people at risk of social exclusion.”

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Paula Mourenza and Comer Contigo

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