Astoria residents Kim Calichio and her husband Omar Bravo-Pavia have been working to bring high-quality, fresh produce to families throughout Queens, especially immigrants who have largely been excluded from government aid programs.
Calichio and Bravo-Pavia started The Connected Chef at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two were both out of work, and having been in the restaurant business, knew many immigrant families who were unable to receive stimulus checks or any form of government aid to survive.
“It all started on our couch,” Calichio said. “We were talking about how devastating that we were a part of a community that was all of the sudden put out of work but at the same time didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus funding. They didn’t have access to the very basic assistance that was available at the time.”
Calichio and Bravo-Pavia knew that if they didn’t act quickly, many of their friends were going to run out of food.
“We knew that group of people were going to be in the most need. It wasn’t like anyone else who could get government support,” Bravo-Pavia said. “Eventually we knew we had to do something bigger than just helping our friends.”
Calichio and Bravo-Pavia started delivering food to friends; in the first week, they delivered 25 boxes of food. It grew exponentially from there — by the end of the first month, the couple was delivering 400 boxes a week. Deliveries are mainly focused in Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights, Astoria and Long Island City.
The Connected Chef boasts that they are very different from other food assistance programs. Calichio said that families can continue to receive groceries for as long as they need, with no pressure to stop service. They also make the extra effort to deliver boxes right to their doorsteps, which was an intentional strategy to preserve families’ dignity.
“Every other food service, you get in line and it’s a first-come, first-served type of thing,” Calichio said. “There are folks who wait on line at a food pantry for hours. You don’t know how much food is there and how much you’re going to get. There’s so much shame in asking for help in our society to begin with, and let alone having to visibly be on these lines — it’s not the best way. But with us, people can sign up and they know they can rely on us on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. It allows them to know there’s a consistent source of healthy, nutritious vegetables and groceries.”
Calichio was nominated to be a 2022 CNN Hero by her sister and a friend for the work she and her husband have been doing. Calichio described the recognition from CNN as “pretty surreal.”
“It was pretty incredible, after two years of spending so much time and energy together to have such a large media outlet cover what we’re doing and recognize our work,” Calichio said. “We’re in awe that that actually happened.”
At the height of the pandemic, The Connected Chef delivered 2,000 25-pound bags of produce and grains a week. The organization grew into a full-time job, now delivering 550 boxes of food bi-weekly, which Calichio and Bravo-Pavia never expected. However, The Connected Chef has, unfortunately, had to halt deliveries.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to continue this because of the funding that’s required,” Calichio said. “The need has not slowed down; if anything, it’s grown.”
The Connected Chef is working to get additional funding sources beyond community donations. A sponsorship drive was kicked off, where people can donate monthly to the organization. A donation of as little as $25 can cover one free grocery box.
“Even if someone can donate $25 a month, that is enough to collectively get us the funding that we need,” Calichio said.
The Connected Chef hopes to reach 160 monthly sponsorships which would give them an additional $4,000 in funding for groceries. The Connected Chef spends about $9,000 a week to maintain their work, which includes groceries and paying their staff of 11 people.
To donate or learn more about The Connect Chef, visit their website.