Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Chef Massimo Bottura’s Refettorios will soon land in U.S. cities to fight food waste and isolation, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
In the medieval era and Middle Ages, monks gathered around refectory tables—long, low slabs of walnut or oak—to take meals as a group. In Italian, the rough translation is Refettorio—and that’s also the word adopted by the nonprofit Food for Soul to describe the sleek soup kitchens spearheaded by the Michelin-starred Italian chef Massimo Bottura.
They aim to both feed and nourish, fighting the tangled problems of food waste, food insecurity, and social isolation. Launched in 2015 at the Milan Expo, the Refettorios take in surplus ingredients from local supermarkets or catering firms, using them to supply spaces they’ve outfitted as kitchens and dining halls. Last summer, an outpost in Rio repurposed excess food from the Olympic Village; another will open this year in the London neighborhood of Kensington. To date, the organization estimates it’s served over 15,000 meals. Today, the Rockefeller Foundation announced a $500,000 grant that will bring the project to the U.S. for the first time.
Under the aegis of the Foundation’s YieldWise project, which pledged $130 million to cut food waste by 50 percent, Food for Soul will spend the next year exploring ways to establish itself in U.S. cities, says Peter Madonia of the Rockefeller Foundation. Food for Soul will investigate potential partners in cities across the country, with the aim of opening two locations in 2018 and 2019. They’re eyeing opportunities in Miami, New Orleans, Detroit, and New York, where pockets of food insecurity and hunger are pernicious and persistent. In the Bronx, for instance, about 1 in 5 residents are food-insecure. Meanwhile, the borough is home to a sprawling wholesale food distribution facility; there’s more work to be done when it comes to capturing cast-off items and redirecting them to locals. Nationwide, tens of millions of tons of food are squandered each year across consumers, restaurants, and other sectors, meaning there’s room for a constellation of solutions, large and small.
With the Refettorios, the idea is to marry affordable and sprawling space—large enough, for instance, to outfit with hulking refrigerators—with community members who will become stewards of the project, says Food for Soul’s president, Lara Gilmore.
The Refetorrios launch with collaborations with celebrity chefs—a canny publicity play, Gilmore admits, but also an attempt to instill best practices early on. Elite chefs can teach cooks how to keep their workstations tidy as they go, and how to devise a menu based on whatever is laying around, Gilmore says. Since the influx of cast-off food is unpredictable, the challenge is creating nutritious, multi-course sit-down dinners with very little heads-up. It’s nothing fancy—zucchini, sautéed with some onions and mixed ground meat, becomes zucchini gratin—but, Gilmore says, it’s resourceful and delicious. She’s working on a book that draws upon three-course meals that the chefs planned on the fly in Milan, based on whatever surplus goods happened to trickle in that day.
It’s important to codify procedures early on, she adds, because once the kitchens are set up, the organization hopes the community will take ownership of them, bringing local partners and a brigade of volunteers on board to manage daily operations. In some ways, Gilmore sees an overlap with the model of the Montessori school—a kind of nonprofit franchising in which individual communities tinker with a framework and adapt it to be their own.
The Rockefeller grant will help the organization determine whether it needs to impose some limits on that flexibility. So far, each Refettorio has had a different trajectory: in Milan, the organization renovated an abandoned theater; in Rio, the city granted them a 50-year lease on a disused lot. The grant, Gilmore says, will give them the time and space to consult with community members and outside experts to investigate whether they need to standardize their procedure even more.
Food for Soul imagines the Refettorios as both kitchens and community-building infrastructure. Inside, the spaces are appointed with handsome furniture; work by local artists often hangs on the wall. Gilmore considers beautiful design to be an “indivisible good” that stokes a sense of civic pride and duty. “It sounds utopian, and it is,” she says. But she also says it’s not an empty promise, especially when it comes to fostering a sense of community. A beautiful space becomes a place where people want to be.
When the soup kitchens aren’t serving sit-down lunches or dinners, they can serve as community gathering spaces, Gilmore says. In Milan, she adds, a group of retirees asked to use the space to cook their own meals together; their apartments were too cramped to host many guests. An electrician—a recent widower—volunteered to wash dishes because he was too shy to mill around the dining room, but didn’t want to be alone at home. The Refettorio “became a second home for him,” Gilmore says.
Urban loneliness is a dangerous feedback loop: isolation begets isolation, and carries with it the threat of associated health problems. Thoughtfully designed spaces and meals, Gilmore says, are one way to begin to eat away at the problem. “If we think of food only as calories,” she says, “we’re taking all the magic out of it.”