(Photo courtesy of Turner Johnson)

As people took to the streets of New York City following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis back in May, members of the Black Chef Movement took to their kitchens to prepare healthy meals for the protesters on the movement’s frontlines. An initial Instagram post on June 3 asking for volunteers led to an organization of nearly 100 members and an Instagram following of more than 8,000. While the movement has been a success, it’s experiencing some growing pains now that its original mission is fading along with the protests.

Anochi Odinga II, who is 26 and lives in Harlem, initially participated in the protests as a medic and bike marshal. When his friend shared the Instagram post with him, he saw an opportunity to donate a different set of skills — namely, his experience as a lead line cook and sous chef — to the Black Lives Matter movement. “When I heard that Black Chef Movement was looking for people, you know, it was pretty easy, because I was fully capable of doing this, I’m more than willing to come out, cook as much as I can, or as much as I’m able to.”

Rasheeda McCallum, who has 10 years of experience as a nutritionist and runs her own meal preparation company, launched the Black Chef Movement with the goal of providing free, mostly vegan and vegetarian organic food to fuel protesters for hours of marching. She and her volunteers would set up tables at various protest locations to hand out sandwiches, wraps and other snacks. As Black Lives Matter grew and evolved over the course of the summer to include meditation events to accompany marches, the Black Chef Movement matched this multifaceted approach by bringing home-cooked healthy meals to groups at Occupy City Hall, as well as vegan yogurt cups to candlelit vigils at parks.

“There’s something to be said, I think, about giving quality food to people that are protesting injustices,” said Turner Johnson, another volunteer chef. “I think it, in a way, gives legitimacy to it. Because it feeds into the organization.”

Johnson is originally from Georgia, but he moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie. Now 24 years old and living in Brooklyn, Johnson started his own baking company earlier in the year. He began taking part in protests after George Floyd’s killing, and he met members of the Black Chef Movement while he was participating in a “meditating for Black lives” event at Herbert Von King Park in Bedford-Stuyvesant — the sort of event that shows BLM is “also about mental health and taking care of one another and ourselves,” he said. 

After learning more about the Black Chef Movement, Johnson started donating snacks such as cookies and cucumber-and-hummus sandwiches to the group and handing them out to protesters. 

Like many food industry professionals across the country, McCallum and some of her volunteers had lost work as a result of the pandemic. Odinga, who had been working as a line cook at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, had been out of a job for a couple of months and was looking to extend his services as a community chef. 

In the spring, Anna Crockell lost her position in a country club’s kitchen in Pittsburgh, where she had attended culinary school, and returned to Brooklyn, where she had graduated high school in 2014. She decided to join the group as a means of getting involved in the protest movement as well as to hone her vegan cooking skills.

She moved into her sister’s apartment in the Bronx and turned the kitchen into a production site for dozens of buffalo chickpea tortilla wraps. “I feel like the reason why people aren’t really into being vegan is because a lot of vegan food is, like, flavorless,” Crockell said. “So I like to create a regular dish and just make it vegan, find a way to jazz up vegetables and stuff like that.”

(Photo: Anna Crockell)

Though all of the meals provided by the Black Chef Movement are free of charge for protesters, the costs are higher for Crockell and the other volunteers. Because she doesn’t have a permanent living situation in New York City as she waits to figure out her next move, she has to move around to various relatives’ apartments to prepare the meals. Johnson says he often took Lyfts to get to protests and struggled to carry the boxes of food by himself.

“Those were humbling experiences too as a chef, because you kind of learn that even if you can make all the food, there’s more involved in getting the food places,” Johnson said. “Feeding people is more than just cooking well.”

Odinga has spent time serving free food to people in the city, filling up community fridges and donating to Our Food NYC, a community food support group. At his last job at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, he would bring the leftover food to shelters, and if it got too late and the shelters were closed, he’d leave the food on trains and hope someone in need found it. He doesn’t mind going out of pocket to help others stay fed, especially since he experienced firsthand what it’s like to go hungry while he was growing up in Harlem.

“My experiences have led me to a point where I know for a fact that people are hungry. I’ve had moments where I’m not eating,” Odinga said. “I’ve had nights where I’m going to bed hungry, or even weeks where I’ve only eaten once.”

Because of his past, he was eager to get involved with the Black Chef Movement and provide free food to anyone who needed it. As he got more involved, he became a volunteer lead, which meant that he helped McCallum run events and keep the group organized. He then became the group’s community outreach leader, connecting with other activist groups and coordinating transportation for volunteers. However, as the Black Chef Movement grew, he felt that the group was moving away from its initial volunteer-based business model and was becoming more of a brand.

“I think once it shifted from being, you know, ‘We’re here for the movement’ to ‘This is a brand, we can make money,’ that’s when things started to shift,” Odinga said. “Because that’s not, that isn’t what we should be doing. You know, in my opinion, if we’re going to be doing this mutual aid work, then no, like, it’s not a business.” 

Because of the group’s size and popularity, Odinga says people in need now have to speak to several people within the organization before they receive help. He preferred the group’s structure when it was more reflective of a mutual aid group rather than a hierarchical corporate structure that included a tiered leadership system and a public relations person. “You shouldn’t be looking at it as this corporate structure — it should be the complete opposite — because that’s what got us into this mess. You know, it’s these big corporations, it’s these CEOs like the Koch brothers, the Monsantos, who set up their individual lives to be this.”

Odinga also felt he and other volunteer chefs weren’t being valued as much as the group expanded and began relying more on donations. The Black Chef Movement did not respond to a request for an interview.

Odinga ultimately decided to leave his leadership role within the organization about two months ago and continue providing free meals to the community on his own, although he’s still happy to donate meals to the movement when necessary. On his last day working an event on behalf of the Black Chef Movement, Odinga volunteered to guide bike-riding protesters on a five-borough ride that was organized in part by Girls on Bikes. He spent the whole day keeping protesters safe and on the right path, and he also got the chance to talk to and get to know the people he was protecting.

“That day in particular, it was really helpful because I got to see everything in a different way,” Odinga said. “And I think one of the biggest things was the protection of Black women. I think that also helped me to be more compassionate with Rasheeda as she’s leading this organization. I understood that our conflict doesn’t mean that things can’t work out.”

(Photo courtesy of Anochi Odinga II)

As the Black Chef Movement gained momentum and became more well-known, what started out as a temporary grassroots collective of local Black chefs has now shifted its gaze toward an international audience. With features in Buzzfeed and the New York Times, and nearly 100 volunteers now, the Black Chef Movement’s leaders see the group’s potential and now aim to establish a permanent space in New York City where chefs can come and cook. It’s also attracted people from all over the world.

“It’s so funny, doing the Black Chef Movement, you meet so many people,” Crockell said. “During my last event, I wasn’t with anyone from New York City, everybody was from a different state or a different country. I met this one girl, she’s from Boston, and then another girl from New Mexico and then another girl was from India.”

The group has also begun bringing food to events that aren’t specifically related to Black Lives Matter protests, such as catering to poll workers on Election Day and providing meals to those in need during the holidays. For Thanksgiving, Johnson teamed up with two other chefs within the movement to bake 30 pies to deliver to Our Food NYC.

Being involved in the Black Chef Movement has helped Johnson make new contacts and grow his Instagram audience for his own baking business, but he continues to split his time between baking for the community and baking for profit.

“A lot of people are kind of out of luck,” Johnson said. “That’s why I try and do donations and stuff. Because I was definitely also very much a bit out of luck in my life a few times. So it’s like, just because I start to make something for myself, that doesn’t mean that I gotta turn my back on those people.”

As the Black Chef Movement continues to consider next steps for its own growth, Odinga is looking to continue his work as a community chef on a larger scale. He’s working on developing space that will be used as an education and youth center to teach people how to cook and support community chefs like himself so that they don’t have to pay for materials out of pocket.

The Black Chef Movement’s own goals don’t look so different from his as it works to create its own network of Black chefs and provide communities with cooking lessons and accessible nutritious meals in food pantries. While the Black Lives Matter movement changes shape and incorporates more people, Odinga and other volunteer chefs will be waiting to feed those new activists — “and, you know, make that difference that it won’t just be someone going out to hand you a sandwich on Tuesday,” Odinga said. “It’s like, this person is giving you a box on Tuesday, and it’s going to be good for a month. And every month, you’ll be fine.”