Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa have a vision for Philly: one where peach trees grow along Broad St., hungry people have access to free nutritious meals, immigrant and undocumented workers have good paying jobs and opportunities in the community, and where the people work collectively to make changes that help the most marginalized among us. And with the power they’re building with neighbors, workers, and activist groups in the city, they’re making real progress towards realizing that vision every day. The Philly Liberation Center had a chance to talk to Ben at The People’s Kitchen as he filled in for a chef that was away in Mexico visiting family. He shuffles between cooking and lending a hand to other workers as they prepare meals for the community for the day, and answering our questions about building multinational working class solidarity in Philadelphia, never missing a beat.
The South Philly Barbacoa Story
South Philly Barbacoa started with Cristina making weekend meals out of their home for neighbors. After receiving such a positive response, they soon started serving Cristina’s Barbacoa style lamb tacos and consomme from a food truck parked outside of a Mexican bakery in South Philadelphia. Since then, their business has grown to become a world famous brick-and-mortar eatery in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market. But they didn’t stop there. Cristina and Ben saw a way to use their success to help others and influence change in an unjust system where people go hungry and immigrant workers are harshly exploited. This has manifested in The People’s Kitchen at El Compadre, The People’s Garden at Church of the Redeemer Baptist, a vast multinational network of guest chefs who utilize the kitchen to cook free meals for the community, and a partnership with the 215 People’s Alliance that helps connect the work of feeding the hungry to political education and political power.
“We’re strategizing every week about how we can be the most impactful with the meals. Our group has studied the work of the predecessors of this work like the Black Panther Party, who were organizing the community politically through food.”
Multinational Workers Solidarity
Cristina is an undocumented immigrant, a fact that she is open and vocal about. Her own experiences as an undocumented worker have inspired South Philly Barbacoa to focus on uplifting undocumented workers both in their business and their political work. They’ve partnered with the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health to form worker committees like Comité de Trabajadorxs (Latinx Worker Committee), a group of immigrant workers, including undocumented workers, focused on building a restaurant industry that is safe for everyone. Workers from the committee cycle through as paid employees at The People’s Kitchen. But they don’t consider themselves frontline activists in this work, just people with a platform who feel a responsibility to use that to reach people and influence change.
“If chefs can change the way people think about sustainable agriculture and eating locally, then they can also change the way people think about labor. We’re experts on this, we deal with it every day. We’re forced into situations where we have to either hire people under the table, or look the other way on some fake papers, or find weird ways to pay people. And ultimately people can take advantage of that situation and abuse the workers. So we want to close that hole and encourage chefs to use their platform to talk about some of the realities of the industry. We have the power to pressure lawmakers to look at some of this stuff, because we’re at the center of the culture. So that was our kind of unique way where we could use our platform to build in our community.”
The Pandemic Response
Like many other Covid era Philly mutual aid projects, The People’s Kitchen saw their community in need, and when a request came from chef Aziza Young to use the kitchen to cook meals for low-income elders in Philadelphia, they saw a way to use their kitchen to help meet that need. Since then the project has grown through collaborative effort with other chefs, established community organizations, and grassroots organizers in the city, and has served over 60,000 free meals to Philadelphians in need since March 2020. The People’s Kitchen employs 20 to 30 chefs from different cultural backgrounds, restaurant workers, student apprentices, and community leaders to prepare 215 free and healthy chef-prepared meals to community members a day. The meals are distributed through a vast network of community organizations including 215 People’s Alliance, SEAMACC, Juntos, Food Not Bombs, Church of the Redeemer Baptist, Domestic Workers Alliance, Puentes De Salud, and UNITE HERE Philadelphia. But it’s not just about providing food, it’s about connecting with the community and building power.
“We’re trying to build a movement and build a base. Instead of knocking on doors and giving out leaflets we are giving meals. That’s our way to start a conversation with people about what’s going on with them.”
Towards a Sustainable Model
Although the program began with strong funding through large donors and grants from organizations like Central World Kitchen, over time that funding has ended. The People’s Kitchen hopes to be able to not only meet their current funding needs, but even grow and expand the project through grassroots fundraising and recurring small donations from community members.
“If we can be autonomous in that model and figure out the funding, then we will be able to open these up across the city. Just from people kicking in $10 or $20 a month we can put out a massive amount of food. This started as a response to the pandemic, and as it was going on we realized that we were kind of getting ourselves into an arena where there has been a hunger epidemic even before Covid. We realize that this is beyond just being an emergency response now, it has to become permanent. We have to make this permanent somehow.”
In another step towards that sustainable model, the restaurant also maintains 50 plots in a community garden at Church of The Redeemer Baptist, where fresh produce is grown for use in the meals distributed by The People’s Kitchen. Two hundred volunteers help maintain the garden using compost made from restaurant waste. Even the corn for their tortillas is grown locally, at a small farm in Lancaster with seed sourced from a Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico. Through efforts like these, they hope to build a sustainable and ethical model that will allow them to continue this work autonomously, long after the pandemic has ended.
By using their space, voices, and community relationships, South Philly Barbacoa has been able to serve their community and affect political change.
“I feel like Cristina and I have been able to have a good impact with the community and pull some things together that were remarkable. But this project has taken it to another level because it’s way beyond just our vision now. It’s completely collaborative.”
We at the Philly Liberation Center believe that only through such collective work and solidarity can we hope to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the capitalist system and build the power necessary to create a world that puts the needs of the people over profits.
If you’d like to contribute to The People’s Kitchen sustainer campaign you can do so here: