By Dominique McIndoe
A rising tide floats all boats. That is to say, that the efforts of a few to help those in need can have a positive impact on a community as a whole.
This is a mantra that Old School Kitchen lives by. As a collaborative project that’s been in the making for a year, Old School Kitchen is as its name suggests: a labor of love, food, hospitality and giving. Their goal is to combat food insecurity in Prince William and the greater Northern Virginia area. The commissary kitchen in Haymarket was officially founded by Zandra’s Taqueria, Georgetown Caterers and QBE Foundation.
Making a Way out of No Way
It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in spearheading the creation of Old School Kitchen. In early March of 2020, the big catering kitchen located behind Zandra’s Haymarket location — in what used to be the Pace West School building — became available and was subsequently incorporated into their expansion. Miguel Pires, owner of Zandra’s and cofounder of the Old School Kitchen, says they were initially going to use the space as a centralized location to distribute food to all of Zandra’s locations — Manassas and Fairfax, along with Haymarket. Then the pandemic hit American shores and production came to a screeching halt.
“The idea came about one afternoon in late March, early April, as a business grappling with what to do and how to adjust to the whole pandemic,” says Pires. “We were sitting with our landlord, QBE Foundation, and we’re saying, ‘We have to come up with a way to help out.’ And we started seeing a need for local organizations and food.” Thus, the Old School Kitchen was born.
Sharita Rouse, owner of Tummy-Yum Yum Gourmet Candy Apples, was also an early inspiration for the Old School Kitchen initiative, because in the earlier days of the pandemic, she’d been feeding hot meals to those in need from her home’s doorstep. So, Old School Kitchen offered to help prepare these meals. That was the first collaboration and partnership that really got the Old School Kitchen project going.
A Threefold Mission
The Old School Kitchen’s overarching mission is threefold. One objective was to put restaurant workers who were let go during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis back to work.
“Our objectives were to help out our team,” says Pires. They were able to bring staff back on from Zandra’s who’d been laid off. The Paycheck Protection Program, an SBA-backed loan that helped businesses keep their workforce during the crisis, helped them achieve this goal.
The second part of Old School Kitchen’s mission is to utilize and repurpose high-quality food that would have been otherwise wasted. That’s how one of Old School Kitchen’s biggest collaborators, Prince William Food Rescue, connected with them. PWFR specializes in partnering with food retailers and nonprofit organizations to bring healthy food directly to those experiencing food insecurity, and they also strive to break the link between poverty and poor health by bringing healthy options to the table of families in need.
“The Prince William Food Rescue was one of the initial donors of the food, and they would bring us palettes and palettes of food that we would transform into meals and distribute to families [with the help of volunteers]to the food pantries and church groups, and the community leaders,” says Clarke Congdon, Executive Chef at Zandra’s Taqueria and partner in Georgetown Caterers and Old School Kitchen.
In addition to dropping off food ingredients, like fresh fruits and vegetables, PWFR also helps with the distribution of the hot meals once they are prepared.
Old School Kitchen’s third objective is to produce mass quantities of prepared to-go meals to target those in need. Since starting the project in April 2020, they have made and distributed over 45,000 meals — and counting — to those considered food insecure and people affected by the pandemic in particular. The highest demand occurred in the summer of 2020, when approximately 1,600 meals were distributed every week. Recently, the focus has shifted to helping the Haymarket and Bethany Food Pantries.
Eighty percent of Old School Kitchen’s operations benefit Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. Centreville, Chantilly and Fairfax County, among other northern Virginia jurisdictions, also benefit from their services. Congdon and Pires attest to the fact that, without the help and collaboration of their community partners, they would not have been able to accomplish this feat.
“It takes a village,” Congdon says. “There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of cogs in the wheel that work together to generate everything that needs to get done in order to get those meals to the folks out there… It’s really a broad umbrella of all the different pegs in the board, if you will, that really help to create the organization that we’re a part of… It’s very well-orchestrated and [we]all work together.”
While the food and labor procurement is primarily carried out by Zandra’s and Georgetown Caterers, QBE Foundation acts as the nonprofit arm of Old School Kitchen. They handle logistics, accounting and administrative support. Much of their food resources come from Aaron Tolson and the Prince William Food Rescue team. House of Mercy, Ovoka Farm, Park Valley Church, Going Gainesville, Haymarket Food Pantry, Sharita Rouse of Tummy-Yum Yum and volunteer teams from Wakefield High School are the pieces to Old School Kitchen’s puzzle, as well. Through the kindness and generosity of these groups in the donation of food, time and assistance, they, along with sponsors and donors, all qualify as resident food heroes.
“I always think we’re better together,” Pires says. “The community is definitely the bedrock. I love working and seeing all of these different groups come together to help those in need.”
Moving forward, Old School Kitchen hopes to continue to find ways to sustain, broaden their reach and collaborate with seasoned leaders who have been assisting the community for years.
“Food insecurity is always there, and it’s not just in a pandemic,” Pires says. “We’re still a part of that larger network that’s out there assisting people every day. So, I think we’re going to continue to contribute as much as we can and as long as our businesses are around.”
To donate or learn more about Old School Kitchen, visit oldschoolkitchen.org. Prospective volunteers can contact Clarke Congdon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. One hundred percent of donations goes towards ensuring a safe environment to produce healthy meals and toward food containers for distribution.
Dominique McIndoe (email@example.com) is an assistant production editor at Rowman & Littlefield and a longtime writer.