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'The next meal is handled': Tulsa Kitchens Unite to keep local families fed, restaurant workers paid during COVID-19 crisis

'The next meal is handled': Tulsa Kitchens Unite to keep local families fed, restaurant workers paid during COVID-19 crisis

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Chris Bernard has done countless interviews about food insecurity across the state during his time as executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma, but it wasn’t until recently that he’s been more liable to cry.

“It’s been a lot,” Bernard said of launching Tulsa Kitchens Unite, a program meant to bridge meal gaps for Tulsa families while providing income to local restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s been really fun and really cool to see all of these people who want to help.”

Bernard spent Wednesday morning driving a cargo van full of boxes of pre-chilled, adult-sized meals between Tulsa Public Schools sites. And although he and others in his organization have spent many long days and late nights planning and organizing the effort, it’s the others who have stepped up to the plate that have blown him away.

The cargo van? It was loaned by a local catering company. The to-go boxes? Made possible by a partnership with the food bank and a leveraging of their contract with a food supplier. The meals were prepared by employees of 10 local restaurant partners across Tulsa, with some of them even chilled in a hotel kitchen that offered its space.

When one calls on Tulsans for help, they answer, Bernard has seen, and that list doesn’t even mention the volunteers who give their time to help distribute the meals. It also doesn’t include the numerous donors who have made the start of the program possible. And it’s not near capacity.

In just one week of operation, TKU provided nearly 9,600 free meals to recipients, and it aims to serve about 30,000 a week in the coming weeks.

Bernard said he thinks it will take about four weeks to get to that point operationally as more restaurants and partners sign onto the effort, but he also emphasized the continued need for support.

The program, designed to run for 12 weeks, has been funded for six with a little more than $1 million from prominent foundations in Tulsa, Bernard said, which leaves about $500,000 to be raised.

Any donations will support TKU’s three goals: keep local restaurants open, keep workers paid and keep local families fed, Bernard said.

Hunger Free Oklahoma doesn’t normally function as a direct service agency, Bernard said. Its role is to advance policy and collaboration among agencies, but with Tulsa Public Schools seeking more resources to provide for their students as well as their caretakers and local restaurants looking for a way to help while keeping their workers employed, there was an immediate need to be met.

Bernard said one business partner told them TKU is going to save their operation. They thought they were going to have to shut their doors forever.

“This program is bringing immense hope in such difficult times,” said Rob Stuart, co-owner of Chimera and a TKU partner, in a news release. “Our cooks get to cook, our business stays busy, and families in need are fed. We’re grateful to live in a community that mirrors our ideals and values, and especially grateful to foundations and others who will invest in programs like Tulsa Kitchens Unite.”

The gratitude on recipients’ faces is also unbeatable, Bernard said. The first week’s meal was grilled chicken with glazed carrots and rice pilaf. This week’s consists of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans. Next week features spaghetti and meatballs with a vegetable medley.

Scarcity and perceived scarcity can severely affect peoples’ functioning, Bernard said. When you’re a parent, possibly out of a job, and the kids are at home, it can be even worse.

“If my four-year-old sits there and yanks on my pants saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ as he does, and I don’t know how I’m going to feed him dinner, my patience level is going to be much lower than normal,” Bernard said. “If we can play a small part in easing some of that toxic stress in a family for one day, that’s awesome — to be able to help them and give them the comfort of at least knowing the next meal is handled.”

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Kelsy Schlotthauer


Twitter: @K_Schlott


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Staff Writer

I write because I care about people, policing and peace, and I believe the most informed people make the best decisions. I joined the Tulsa World in 2019 and currently cover breaking news. Phone: 918-581-8455

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