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Solidarity Kitchens: Rallying Communities to Give Back and Inspiring Youth Through Food Education

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered businesses across all industries, and the foodservice industry is no exception. For Jean-François Archambault, CEO & Founder of La Tablée des Chefs, the pandemic meant more than just helping his industry navigate through the unknown – it meant being on the front lines, giving back to communities, and helping those in need. Shortly into the pandemic, Archambault launched Solidarity Kitchens, an initiative that helps people in need by supplying meals to charitable food banks and distribution hubs across the country.

A passionate chef and humanitarian, Archambault founded La Tablée des Chefs with one mission in mind: to fight against food insecurity and educate young people about food autonomy. “What we realized [during the pandemic] was that there were less community kitchens open,” Archambault said. “With dining rooms closed, we had the opportunity to keep chefs active and employed while serving the community and feeding those in need. This initiative really helped mobilize the industry during a time of need.”

At the start of the pandemic, suppliers, farmers, restaurants, hotels, and large venue sites approached Archambault about donating food that would otherwise go to waste. La Tablée des Chefs then worked with distributors to deliver the food to revived kitchens where the food was cooked and frozen. It wasn’t long after that this important movement became what is now known as Solidarity Kitchens. “Solidarity Kitchens is an ecosystem of support,” Archambault said. “We are able to fight waste and feed people at the same time.”

Jean-François Archambault, CEO & Founder of La Tablée des Chefs

At the start of the pandemic, suppliers, farmers, restaurants, hotels, and large venue sites approached Archambault about donating food that would otherwise go to waste. La Tablée des Chefs then worked with distributors to deliver the food to revived kitchens where the food was cooked and frozen. It wasn’t long after that this important movement became what is now known as Solidarity Kitchens. “Solidarity Kitchens is an ecosystem of support,” Archambault said. “We are able to fight waste and feed people at the same time.”

Although Solidarity Kitchens started in Quebec, it has since expanded to four other hubs across the country—Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg—thanks to funding made possible by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Archambault explained that Solidarity Kitchens connected with food banks in these key markets so they could deliver meals to the community as quickly as possible.

In 2021, it’s estimated that the growth of Solidarity Kitchens will help produce more than 500,000 meals for food banks across Canada. “Although we’re a young organization, we’re very dedicated to what we do,” Archambault expressed. “We want to take what has been so successful in Quebec and multiply across other provinces because we know it’s needed.” Case in point: Quebec food banks and community organizations across the province had two million meals cooked and delivered from April to December 2020 thanks to Solidarity Kitchens.

While the impacts of COVID-19 will leave an indelible mark on the foodservices industry, more and more restaurants are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Over the next year, Achambault predicts that many restaurants will get back on their feet, causing more chefs to go back to work instead of working on the front lines. However, he stressed that just because some sense of normalcy will resume, it doesn’t mean that the need to prepare meals and feed people in need will vanish. Archambualt is currently in talks with chefs to continue building the program post-pandemic. “Producing meals drives social impact,” Archambault said. “There’s a lot of pride in doing what we do, and it feels good to give back.”

Archambault can trace the importance of giving back to his youth. He admired his father, who was also a chef. “Because of my dad, I was in contact with chefs growing up and witnessed their pure generosity and passion for what they were doing,” he said. “With Solidarity Kitchens, I knew that I could mobilize chefs behind the cause.” Archambault explained that when he shared his vision for Solidarity Kitchens in the early days, chefs were eager to help and “jumped right in.”

Archambault hopes this deep-rooted passion will be instilled in the next generation of chefs as well. With The Kitchen Brigades, a new initiative by La Tablée des Chefs, he aims to do this. The Kitchen Brigades is a 24-week extra-curricular program offered in high schools, which reaches young people aged from 12 to 17 through workshops on basic cooking techniques and healthy eating habits. And, it’s led by chef-trainers, just like Archambault. Currently, the program is present in over 200 high schools in Quebec—and even operated virtually during the pandemic. La Tablée des Chefs has plans to scale up to 100 schools outside Quebec over the next three years, including launching in Indigenous communities.

“There’s no space for food education in high school system, so we wanted to take those old home ec[onomics] classes and get them back in action,” said Archambault. “Through the program, we are able to break the ice on cooking, build healthy eating habits, and educate about a sustainable food approach. The Kitchen Brigades gives kids the tools and the space to do that.”

Through the program, students have the opportunity to compete in an inter-school competition, similar to the popular show, Iron Chef, which, according to Archambault, is the highlight. There’s also a strong multicultural component through a food fair, where students prepare a dish from another culture and share it with their peers. “It’s great to see kids who are part of this program really flourish,” Archambault said.

During the pandemic, many chefs exited the foodservices industry, which left a gap in culinary school recruitment. Archambault mentioned that The Kitchen Brigades aims to help the next generation discover the industry and inform what it will become. “It’s a good time to reflect on work conditions of our industry and attract the next generation of youth early on,” he said. “We have to work together to get people interested in our industry.”

While the future is looking bright for La Tablée des Chefs and its various initiatives, there is still work to be done. However, Archambault has a clear vision for how Solidarity Kitchens will continue to evolve and help surrounding communities post-pandemic: “What started as an emergency program will morph into a social movement of kitchens dedicated to helping communities and doing their corporate social responsibility through La Tablée des Chefs,” he said. “There’s so much pride in doing what we do together, and it feels good to give back.”

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