Jill Weinshel, a professional, culinary-trained chef, likes to find a purpose in her cooking beyond pleasing customers.
Milwaukee newcomer and teacher Phillip Salat fittingly said he was “hungry to find ways to be part of the community.”
Both Jewish volunteers found their way to Veggie Chop Shop, a seasonal community kitchen in Milwaukee run by Tikkun Ha-Ir, Hebrew for repair the city. The 18-year-old Jewish nonprofit advocates for nutritional food access and other social justice causes.
From July through October, Veggie Chop Shop turns donated produce into fresh and healthy vegetarian meals that are delivered free to food pantries and shelters. The recipients include Guest House of Milwaukee, Grand Avenue Club and Nia Imani Family.
Veggie Chop Shop also provides free fresh produce to the Meta House and the Jewish Community Pantry, which is co-sponsored by the JCC and Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Jewish values are at the heart of Tikkun Ha-Ir’s food mission. “Judaism has a lot to say about feeding the hungry and this is one clear action that we’ve been able to take and identify a real need for in the city,” said Sami Stein Avner, executive director of Tikkun Ha-Ir. “There are so many ways this work is helping build a foundation for people who are struggling. They may sometimes be able to feed themselves, but not at this nutritional level.”
The surplus harvest effort began in 2007 starting with past Tikkun Ha-Ir board member Reenie Kavalar’s idea to collect excess produce from people’s gardens and community beds.
Over the years, the Chop Shop ramped up to gather produce from farmers’ markets that would otherwise have gone to landfills. Former staff member Karen Royster helped institute Veggie Chop Shop, the food preparation component in 2015.
Veggie Chop Shop makes about 400 locally sourced meals a week, relying on volunteers who work alongside a part-time staff member. They work in different kitchen facilities. Currently that is Congregation Sinai.
Before the pandemic, several volunteers were women inmates tasked with learning culinary skills. “We really have created a sense of community with them,” Weinshel said. “I think it’s an uplifting experience for everybody.”
Big hauls of tomatoes, zucchinis and cabbage are not uncommon, and they are turned into sauces, frittatas and coleslaw, Stein Avner said. Beet brownies are a favorite – moist and rich without a hint of the earthy taste of the bright-red root veggie.
Among the biggest financial donors to Veggie Chop Shop are Bader Philanthropies and the City of Milwaukee Fresh Food Access Fund. Individual Jewish donors have contributed over the years.
Weinshel started gleaning surplus veggies on behalf of Tikkun Ha’Ir at the Thiensville Farmers Market eight years ago. She then jumped into food preparation and found it gratifying. “Cooking is very nurturing even when you don’t know the people you are giving it to,” she said.
Volunteer Salat, a home chef, is happy to make his contribution – a cutting board, knife and bowl at the ready. “I can’t think of a better group to embrace your city than Veggie Chop Shop and Tikkun Ha’Ir whose whole mantra is to care for their city,” he says.
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The Veggie Chop Shop needs seasonal volunteers to collect, cook and deliver. Sign up at Thi-Milwaukee.org by clicking Veggie Chop Shop.