Feed the people

Cooking up connection and cuisine, Our Big Kitchen feeds thousands in L.A.

OBKLA — with the help of 26 charity partners and more than 5,400 volunteers — has prepared over 27,000 meals and 52,200 cookies since June 2022.

About 50 adults, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, arrived at a space on Los Angeles’ Pico Boulevard that had been home to a string of restaurants over the last 15 years and checked in with a volunteer. 

They were handed an apron and a small packet containing a hairnet. Once suitably garbed, they took their places at one of several metal tables in front of cutting boards, chef’s knives and a big tray of raw chicken or fresh vegetables. Over the course of two hours on that Wednesday night in February, the volunteers trimmed and diced poultry and chopped vegetables, they scooped cookie dough onto baking sheets and prepped plastic containers with stickers. By the time they left, the volunteers had met some new people and had prepared more than 300 nutritious chicken fajita meals for people who are living in shelters, on the streets or in other circumstances that make nutritious meals hard to come by. 

This is Our Big Kitchen Los Angeles, which borrows its model from an Australian organization that OBKLA’s leadership, Yossi and Chaya Segelman, ran when they lived there. When the couple moved to Los Angeles — after the pandemic had begun affecting local people and businesses — the Segelmans knew they wanted to do something for the community. They started packing snack boxes in their garage. Today, OBKLA produces more than 2,000 kosher meals a week for 10 community organizations, with Yossi serving as executive director and Chaya as the program manager.

Our Big Kitchen was founded in 2005 in Sydney, by Rabbi Dovid and Laya Slavin. The organization emerged from Laya’s experience providing support to women going through cancer treatments: in addition to giving them wigs to cover hair loss, she frequently brought a meal, and wanted to do more for them and their families. The couple pulled together a group of volunteers and started making large quantities of food to distribute to families in need. The organization grew to serve more than 60 charity partners and roughly 250,000 meals a year in Australia, Yossi said. While the meals are strictly kosher, they are predominantly bound for distribution to the broader, mostly non-Jewish community in Bondi and Sydney.

In June 2022, the Paul E. and Margaret Feder Family Foundation gifted the Pico Boulevard space to Our Big Kitchen Los Angeles. The 4,600-square-foot space now serves as a tribute to the strength and resilience of the late Margaret Feder, a Holocaust survivor who had worked in the kitchen at Auschwitz. Whenever she could, Feder had smuggled food scraps back to her barracks, where she shared them with her sister and some others, an act that likely enabled their survival. Margaret and her late husband Paul were supporters of a number of Jewish institutions in Los Angeles, including the city’s modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet, where they were founding supporters and the campus is named in their memory. At the OBKLA facility, a display case contains artifacts from Feder’s life in her memory. According to Yossi, Feder was not only “a phenomenal philanthropist but a great hostess.”

“Even if it was one person dining with her, she could set up a beautiful table setting,” he said, adding that her life had four pillars: her time in Auschwitz, her love for Israel, her love for and pride in her Judaism and her hospitality, which is marked by a single place setting in the display case. “The most amazing thing is [that] her motto was ‘life is beautiful,’” Yossi said. “For someone that’s gone through the suffering and challenges that she did, to be able to say ‘life is beautiful,’ that’s a very powerful message.”

During the pandemic, OBKLA’s activities were limited, but since the opening of the new facility in June, OBKLA — with the help of 26 charity partners and 5,456 volunteers — has prepared 27,072 meals and 52,280 cookies. Yossi said this marked a 900% growth rate over what had been possible in the old space.

The organization allows individuals or small groups to join prep-and-pack sessions, each of which prepares 200-400 meals at a time. Participants are of all ages, from all segments of the Jewish community, as well as non-Jewish locals who also volunteer to help. OBKLA Connect, the organization’s singles sessions, is co-sponsored with various groups that serve young professionals, such as Aish, Pico Shul and the online matchmaking site Saw You at Sinai. In December, OBKLA hosted Worthy of Love Productions’ Mama’s Challahs program, an opportunity for families experiencing homelessness to bake bread together, while a DJ scored the event with music that created a dance party atmosphere. The families were joined by parents and children from local liberal, social-justice centered congregation IKAR, as part of their Little Mensches family service learning program. 

OBKLA has a budget of roughly $750,000, Yossi said, and three full-time staff members (all pro bono until a recent Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund grant paid for the ED’s salary), two part-time workers and six rotating chefs. High schools and corporate teams are regular visitors, booking OBKLA for an evening (sponsoring a session costs about $1,800), with groups ranging in size. Some community members sponsor or dedicate a session for a birthday, anniversary, yahrzeit or a bar or bat mitzvah.

In 2022, the organization also received a $300,000 Cutting Edge Grant from Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Foundation to fund its Community Youth Initiative as it grows. The initiative will engage thousands of Jewish middle and high school students, as well as vulnerable youth, in regular volunteer opportunities, in which the students will make and assemble meals – sans cellphones – while connecting with each other and their Jewish identity. 

“When else in their lives are they putting their phones away for two hours and actually being present in the moment, and also working together?” Chaya asked. “There’s no hierarchy there. Everyone’s working the same and you see kids that are interacting with each other in a different way.”

The organization also recently received grants from the L.L. Foundation for Youth and the Harold Brown Foundation.

Yossi said that the sessions are popular because “there are limited opportunities for people to come together to volunteer in a structured, safe, fun environment with your family.” Whether it’s families connecting, singles meeting or volunteers making new friends, Yossi said, “what we find beautiful is that people are connecting over this activity.” 

Some volunteers become OBKLA “ambassadors,” coming regularly up to three or four times a week to do whatever needs doing, the Segelmans told eJP, whether it’s dishwashing, greeting people at registration or shuttling the packed meals to community partners. The meals go to 26 community organizations with which OBKLA is partnered. These include homeless shelters, Salvation Army transitional housing and Jewish organizations like Tomchei Shabbos, which delivers food to those in need before Shabbat. L.A. homeless services organization The People Concern receives about 200 meals a week from OBKLA.

OBKLA has a crowdfunding campaign scheduled for May 16-17, which its leadership expects will draw between 700-800 individual donors, which will be matched by about a dozen major donors. 

The organization is moving forward with an eye toward expanding its distribution. Yossi said there is a “waiting list of charities” that want to receive meals but only if OBKLA can deliver it directly to them. The next initiative, he said, would be to fund a refrigerated van or two along with a delivery team, which he described as a six-figure investment.

After running 350 sessions over the last year and a bit, the organization is a well-oiled machine, Yossi said. Thanks to their experience and the help of their chefs, they have the purchase order down, they purchase in bulk for dry ingredients and know how to put orders for fresh meat and poultry. They know the food safety procedures. Six rotating chefs, who otherwise work at catering companies, Michelin-star restaurants, local businesses and wineries, are on contract with OBKLA. 

The focus is on fresh, nutritious restaurant-quality food, Chaya said, explaining that when families are in shelters, the food they receive is often repurposed or canned from food banks. “We want kids to feel they’re not eating someone else’s leftovers,” she said. 

“We’re preparing the meals with kavod [respect],” her husband said. “Our goal is really to ensure that there isn’t a person, certainly within our local reach, that goes hungry.”