The Revolutionary Kitchen Feeds Downtown Protests

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When additional volunteers are needed to get water or prepare food, they'll shout out a call that's echoed around the square.

Photo by: Kevin Loria

When additional volunteers are needed to get water or prepare food, they'll shout out a call that's echoed around the square.

The first week of the Occupy Wall Street protest, the “kitchen” was a table stacked high with pizza boxes. The nearby pie shop Liberatos would deliver pizzas purchased over the phone and online by supporters of the movement.

The protest diet has improved since then, although pizza is still frequently on the menu. “Barry Sanchez just donated lunch,” a volunteer shouts, referring to boxes of deli sandwiches and salads were just delivered. The crowd echoes, “Barry Sanchez just donated lunch.” Prohibited from using megaphones, they spread messages by repeating sentences, like a game of telephone. “Say thank you,” the volunteer says, and they repeat, “Thank you.”

The protesters began their occupation of Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17 and many join working groups like “kitchen,” “sanitation,” or “outreach.”

Despite an all-volunteer, non-hierarchical structure, a seemingly messy but strangely efficient infrastructure has developed. Nowhere is the system more evident than the bustling kitchen in the center of the park, a square of tables where volunteers distribute meals, take donations, clean dishes, and store supplies. The kitchen even has a twitter account, @OWS_KITCHEN. However, the all-donation and all-volunteer system means that people come and go, and food availability depends on the number of donations and the number of people staying at the park, which can be confusing.

“I can tell you what it’s like today, but come back tomorrow and it might be a different system,” says Brendan Pinto, 28, a writer and restaurant server from Toronto. He’s taking a break, leaning against a table where plates, bowls, and cooking supplies are stored. “People rotate in and out,” he says. “The people that have been here one or two days do a ton of the work. But, you need the people that have been here the whole time, because they know where things are and how they are organized.”

The crew, currently six volunteers, scrambles to set up a buffet. Mixing bowls hold Kix, Cheerios, and Crispix cereal, next to jugs of milk. “Eggless egg salad” and Portabello sandwiches wrapped in foil sit in their delivery boxes. Bowls of apples and pears sit next to peanut butter and jelly, with a tray of rolls and bagels to the side. Containers labeled deLish sit nearby, filled with potato salad and vegetables.

Rafael Moreno, 28, an actor with Construct Theatre Company, is one of the longer-term volunteers. “The people that have been here the longest are the go-to people for organization,” he says.

In an effort to give everyone an equal voice, there is no one officially in charge. But, Moreno says, “We make sure that before we leave to go do something, people are here that know what’s going on.”

When additional volunteers are needed to get water or prepare food, they’ll shout out a call that’s echoed around the square.

Next to the buffet, volunteers accept cash and food donations. Cash goes to food, preparation, and storage supplies. Warm food is assembled in a prep area and put out for service. Canned goods are stored on and off site. Supporters have allowed protesters to use kitchens and refrigerators for cooking and storage. People bring food to donate; delivery staff drops off restaurant fare. An elderly woman brings a bag filled with loaves of bread and volunteers move some to storage and unwrap others for lunch.

A woman sweeps up broken glass and tosses a loaf that fell to the ground into a compost bin. The bins are filled with rolls, bagels, banana peels, and of course, pizza. A white plastic bucket with grass inside labeled “grey water station” helps filter dishwater through roots and gravel. It’s used to water plants and trees in the park.

Moreno says, “There’s always some obstacle to work around, but we just figure it out. We make sure that we continue to feed the movement. People really do want to help, and we want to say thank you.”

City Limits is grateful to the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and Professor Lisa Armstrong, who oversaw this project.