The next chapter for Cook It Forward

A program fighting food insecurity in Madison with chef-made meals has a slightly new model for 2021 to become a 'permanent fixture.'
Photo courtesy of Cook It Forward

When Joshua Berkson, Patrick Sweeney and Francesca Hong launched Cook It Forward in June 2020, their first order of business was serving food insecure households in Madison as soon as possible. They were getting out chef-created, individually packaged meals across the city before donations came in. But after a nimble start and promising support, Cook It Forward is looking to tweak its model to really move the needle, says Berkson, president of Rule No. One Hospitality Group.

“We would need just significantly more meals to really make a difference,” says Berkson. Berkson cofounded Cook it Forward with Sweeney, the CEO of Rule No. One and managing partner of two of the hospitality group’s restaurants, Merchant and Lucille; and Francesca Hong, co-owner of Morris Ramen and Madison’s 76th Assembly District representative.

In 2020, Cook It Forward created more than 15,000 chef-made, individually packaged meals. Donations came in at $325,000 from 620 unique sources. Restaurant partners were paid $10 per meal, totaling $154,100 ($51,000 went to employee labor at local restaurants and $51,311 went to local purveyors and farmers). Delivery providers from community outreach programs that are “85% Black- and brown-led” — including FOSTER, Urban Triage, Me to We, Freedom Inc. and EOTO+ — received $64,722 for their services.

Berkson says they anticipate quadrupling the number of free meals created by switching the model. The group hopes to expand its network of participating restaurants and nonprofit community kitchens, and instead of restaurants being a recipient of donor contributions, they would become contributors. These changes, plus aggressive new donation goals, Cook It Forward’s leaders say, will help them establish the program as a “permanent fixture for restaurants to fight ongoing food insecurity.”

“We anticipate many restaurants will get on their feet with a second round of stimulus, and the restaurant industry will increasingly get stronger as vaccinations become more prevalent and infection rates decrease,” a news release reads.

A big grant from the City of Madison, other community funding partners and aggressive fundraising goals will help, too. Cook It Forward met its $100,000 individual donation goal in 2020, so now that goal is at $200,000 for 2021.

Ahead of launching Cook It Forward, Hong had already turned her restaurant, Morris Ramen, into a community kitchen after getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan in mid-April.

“I saw what World Central Kitchen was doing and I was like, ‘We have this money, food insecurity is just going to get worse, we have to do our part in this,’” says Hong, who owns the King Street noodle shop with partner Matt Morris. 

Instead of reopening for takeout right away, she would bring her employees back and transform the restaurant into a community kitchen, because the need was not for Morris Ramen takeout meals, but instead free meals for people suffering amid a pandemic. She reorganized the kitchen, trained staff and worked with places like Goodman Community Center, the Northside Planning Council and FEED Kitchens to get meals out to food insecure areas, including Bayview Neighborhood.

Berkson and Sweeney were feeling that same call to action, also inspired by World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés that serves meals to people affected by disasters. Cook It Forward mirrors World Central Kitchen by modernizing the traditional soup kitchen model.

Cook It Forward’s prepared dinners are a far cry from the quality you might associate with a free meal. Cook it Forward has distributed meals like Moroccan grilled chicken leg and thighs with brown rice (created by Harvest), roast turkey on focaccia with baby greens and summer squash (Casetta Kitchen and Counter), vegetable curry with jasmine rice (Banzo), and lentil mushroom shepherd’s pie with a side of Brussels sprouts (La Kitchenette).

They’ve used technology to aggregate meals across many partners in Madison. They teamed up with Alnisa Allgood of Collaboration for Good, a nonprofit leader who knows Madison’s neighborhoods inside and out. Allgood helped connect them to the program’s fiscal agent, the Center for Community Stewardship, as well as last-mile delivery drivers — who are people from community organizations who literally take food out of Cook It Forward’s refrigerated trucks and put it in their cars to drive it to people who can’t get to pantries or pick-up locations.

“There were a lot of organizations that she already has contact with and has trust with, and they’re telling her, ‘Hey, this area needs help. This apartment complex could use some meals,’” Berkson says. “So she’s been really critical.”

Berkson also notes that Cook It Forward has influenced Rule No. One’s mission. “It’s really crystallized what we have to do as a community and how we have to treat each other,” says Berkson, who says it’s resulted in a new internal compensation model that offers $15 an hour across the Rule No. One company. “In these times of crisis, you can really create a lot of much-needed change,” he says.