Meet the formerly incarcerated women who started a worker-owned business providing meals in response to COVID-19

When the reality of COVID-19 began to set in for Chicagoans this past March, many small-business owners closed shop and braced themselves for the financial loss that was sure to soon follow. The worker-owners of ChiFresh Kitchen, however, had a different agenda.

“The pandemic absolutely blessed us at ChiFresh,” said owner Edrinna Bryant.

The co-operative was set to open in June, but during mid-March, the owners watched as members of their communities were laid off or unable to access unemployment. Realizing their mission of increasing food security was suddenly more urgent, the owners decided to open months earlier to begin feeding those in need.

“It was very scary in the beginning, opening up when everyone else was closing. What we thought we were going to do changed in like a blink of an eye the first day we opened,” said Bryant. “Then the contracts started coming in, and we knew, ‘This the route to take, we're gonna be okay.’”

One of their first partnerships was with Chicago’s

ChiFresh Kitchen has blossomed widely in its first months of operation, having already nourished hundreds in their communities with fresh, local food. And they’re giving more than just meals by offering gainful employment to formerly incarcerated women of color, as well as showing a model of worker-owned co-operative business in action.

The worker-owners of ChiFresh Kitchen (source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

The worker-owners of ChiFresh Kitchen (source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO CO-OPERATE

Food is at the heart of the operation, so it may come as a surprise that it was one of the last aspects of the business model to enter the frame. Founder Camille Kerr explained that from the inception, the end goal in sight was a co-operative business owned by formerly incarcerated people of color (primary women) that could pay liveable wages. 

Kerr is the economic justice organizer and developer who conceived of the project last year. After working as a consultant to worker-owned businesses, she decided to launch her own and became ChiFresh’s first investor. One of her first moves was to bring on other Chicago co-op organizers and researchers like Angela Yaa Jones, Joan Fadayiro, and Amiel Harper.

“We wanted to create a lot of really good jobs and a liberating space for formerly incarcerated primarily Black women,” she said.

Their recruiting method? “We just had flyers saying ‘Do you want to own your own business?’” said Kerr. “Five people showed up, and it’s those same five people who have been with us the entire time.”

The core group consists of five formerly incarcerated people of color, four of them women, three of them with experience in food service, all of them enthused new business owners divesting resources into their communities. “Our team is badass,” she said.

Two other business ideas were discussed before the group landed on food contracting: laundry service and a cold storage logistics business. Some felt that laundry was not uplifting employment for formerly incarcerated women, and logistics were seen as too efficiency-focused to match the strengths and goals of their group. Food was something that everyone could get excited about. “We thought, ‘Let’s do something that we love,’” said Kerr. 

ChiFresh Kitchen founder Camille Kerr hands off a box of fresh meals to worker-owner Daniel McWilliams (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

ChiFresh Kitchen founder Camille Kerr hands off a box of fresh meals to worker-owner Daniel McWilliams (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

Since no one had direct experience managing a large-scale food service business, a food management consultant was also brought on to advise. But beyond that, the worker-owners do most of the heavy lifting. 

“One person goes to the store, one person preps, I plan and set up the menu, we all taste and make decisions and help cook,” described worker-owner Bryant on how they divide responsibility. She shared how the strain of opening a new business has been eased by the mutual work ethic the five-share. 

“The truth is, at the end of the day, it’s

TURNING OLD FOOD SYSTEMS UPSIDE DOWN

It takes some passion to launch a business in the throws of a pandemic, which has made the work feel more personal to those at ChiFresh Kitchen. And they say they’re beginning to see a real potential for good in feeding their communities, as well as a need for improved institutional food options. 

ChiFresh Kitchen sets up at the Hope House, where they distributed their first batch of meals mid-shutdown (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

ChiFresh Kitchen sets up at the Hope House, where they distributed their first batch of meals mid-shutdown (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

They didn’t need to look far from home for inspiration. “My son never eats his school food, he’s 14. He just throws it into the garbage,” said Bryant, who added, ”We don’t know everybody’s struggles, but we want people to be able to know that once you leave school, you’ve eaten a meal. That should be able to hold you over until your mom makes dinner.” 

Internationally, Americans don’t have the highest of standards for institutional food - be it in schools, hospitals, care facilities, shelters, or detention centers - few are expecting gourmet or farmers market-fresh. It’s hard to quantify a collective aesthetic distaste (although many

“It kind of makes you want to gag in your mouth, right?” Kerr said, wasting no time beating around the bush. “There are all these rules now about school food and institutional food being nutritious, but none of that matters if it’s being thrown away,” she added.

The problem of institutional food waste is much bigger than just Bryant’s son’s school cafeteria.

ChiFresh Kitchen imagines a world where institutionalized food service contracting is “something different, something that means that we're feeding our own communities, and we're feeding them more nutrient-dense food that they actually want to eat.” Kerr described.

Worker-owner Edrinna Bryant plans each week’s menu (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

Worker-owner Edrinna Bryant plans each week’s menu (Source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

What’s on the menu this week? “Today we’re having pizza. Monday was chicken caesar salad. Then fish po-boys, fried chicken and french fries, and chicken fettuccine on Friday.” said Bryant, who is in the middle of plans for next week’s menu. “Tuesdays and Thursdays we have a group of kids we feed, so we try to do fun foods on those days,” she said. 

The owners of ChiFresh know that breaking up the million-dollar contracts between schools and food contractors is

With the massively influential social media campaigns this past month to end police contracts in schools,

ChiFresh Kitchen received early support from

(source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

(source: ChiFresh Kitchen Facebook)

Starting with just one contract a few months ago has developed a robust roster of partners. The group now works with schools, shelters, and care facilities like Instituto del Progreso Latinos, Peace House Englewood, Academy for Global Citizenship, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, and iGrow Chicago. And who’s to say who’s next?

MAKING PERMANENT CHANGE IN THE CHICAGO CO-OP COMMUNITY

Looking at all of the long strides ChiFresh Kitchen is taking, it’s hard to fathom that the project would’ve been legally impossible only this time last year. That’s because Illinois law had no statutes in recognition of worker-owned cooperative businesses until the

The new law defines worker co-operatives with the title LWCA, which you can think of as the co-op version of an LLC. This makes Illinois the 14th U.S. state to recognize worker co-ops. However, in the way it combines LLC with co-op, Kerr said Illinois' law is “the first of its kind.”

The LWCAA contains another small victory for co-ops, in the form of a securities exemption which will allow them to crowdsource funds directly from their communities. 

Legislators celebrate the passing of the LWCAA in August, 2019 (Source:  Chicago Food Policy )

Legislators celebrate the passing of the LWCAA in August 2019 (Source: 

ChiFresh Kitchen founder Camille Kerr was part of the team that got the law passed, and she believes it’s “a good start:” While it’s “nothing game-changing,” it does provide the “foundational element that we need to keep moving” she said. For example, the law critically provides a framework for what a co-operative exactly is in the state of Illinois. That means cooperatives can be recognized at the city, state, and county levels, who can then provide incentives for co-op structured businesses. 

At the press conference for the LWCAA, bill leader Representative Carol Ammons stated that “the business model removes barriers for communities of color, especially for undocumented individuals and formerly incarcerated individuals to participate in dignified work.”

Employing formerly incarcerated people of color, primarily women is a key pillar of ChiFresh’s mission. Black women face rates of unemployment of around 46%,

“Can we create a different economic system that is based around our best selves?” asked Kerr. Soon, co-operatives like ChiFresh may show the community that the answer to this question is yes.