Winnipeg chef helps serve up nutritious meals for those in need during pandemic

A Winnipeg chef is helping to make sure people have access to nutritious food during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the meals being served are intended to not only nourish the body, but also feed the soul.

“We believe that food is a basic human right,” said Ben Kramer, a Winnipeg chef and caterer. “It’s kind of the foundation for people to feel safe and to feel secure and to feel kind of loved.”

Last May, the advocacy group Community Food Centres Canada launched a program called Made With Love. It paired local chefs with front-line organizations to create nutritious take-home meals for people living in low-income communities.

The program was only intended to run for a few weeks to bridge the gap when food banks and community food hubs were forced to close due to the pandemic.

“Initially it was emergency triage for people who desperately needed food and couldn’t access it,” said Kramer, but  donations from the community has allowed it to keep going.

“It’s just grown since then. The need obviously is not shrinking — there’s more and more food insecure people every day, so as the need grew so did our desire to help.”

WATCH | Nutritious meals for those in need:

A Winnipeg chef is helping to make sure people have access to nutritious food during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the meals being served not only nourish the body but feed the soul at the same time. 2:26

Since May, Kramer and his team have prepared more than 25,000 meals and distributed them to Winnipeg organizations like the NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre, Main Street Project and Agape Table.

Kramer has been cooking the meals for more than nine months.

“We’ll keep going until the money runs out,” he said. Donations to the Made With Love program are being accepted through Kramer’s personal website, or through the NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre.

The program is now feeding over a thousand people a week, and keeps Kramer’s team working while catering opportunities are scarce because of restrictions on gatherings and restaurant closures.

“It’s kind of a win-win for both” workers and those receiving meals, he said.

The group spends three days a week prepping, cooking and packaging the vacuum-sealed meals, which are then distributed by community groups. Each meal costs about $10 to produce.

“The whole purpose was to create fully cooked, nutrient-dense meals that can be easily reheated regardless of what kind of equipment you have,” said Kramer.

Made With Love offers up hundreds of take-home meals every week for those who rely on community food centres, which can no longer serve meals in-person due to the pandemic. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The weekly offerings rotate between six different meals, including vegan shepherd’s pie, baked pasta, and chicken and rice.

Demand for meals increasing

The NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre in Winnipeg’s Gilbert Park neighbourhood picks up about 400 meals a week from Kramer.

Before the pandemic, the centre offered four healthy sit-down meals a week to people in the community. It’s since switched to a take-out model, and uses the Made With Love meals to help keep up with increased demand.

“Pre-pandemic, we were doing approximately 85 meals per service, and we’ve now gone up to anywhere from 150 to 200 meals per service,” said NorWest’s Sharon Burns.

The meals are distributed to other family centres in the area, low-income seniors, and to hotels where people are isolating due to the coronavirus, Burns said.

“I think a lot of people are experiencing food insecurity for the first time in their lives and a lot of people who are living in poverty are feeling that crunch even harder right now,” she said.

“People are having to make those dollars stretch a little bit further.”

The meals people get, she says, are “beautiful — they’re full of vegetables, they’re all cooked from scratch. It’s been a really great partnership to work with them on.”

They feel extra special to those who receive them because they know the meals were made by a well-known Winnipeg chef, Burns said.

Shannon Burns says the NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre distributes the meals to other family centres in the area, low-income seniors, and to hotels where people are isolating due to the coronavirus. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Kramer’s food has been served at the likes of RAW:Almond — the massively popular pop-up restaurant on the frozen river at The Forks — and Table for 1,200, an outdoor event that featured one of the longest dining tables in Canada.

Burns said while the centre is doing all it can to continue to provide meals, it’s also important to stay connected to the community it serves.

“It’s been really hard to not have people come and sit together and be able to come together over food. It’s such a huge part of what we do here,” she said.

“We’ve really made an effort to try and keep that going as best we can through masks, and through all hard times, and still trying to connect with people using good food as the vehicle.”