In 2018, Deerfield food blogger Karen Nochimowski had been writing a successful food blog-"Momma Chef"-with more than 80,000 followers. By most professional standards, she had made it, also writing articles and creating recipes for food companies.
But she had a nagging feeling that she could be doing more. How could she "do what I'm doing and turn it into helping people?" she asked herself.
Then, Nochimowski - who along with her husband and three sons have volunteered frequently with hunger relief programs - had a lightbulb moment: Feeding at-risk people, she decided, was what she was meant to do. In fact, she believed her food blog was leading her to this higher purpose.
"I was very aware of the food insecurity in the Chicago area," she said. "[But] I was surprised that there was so much need within the Jewish community."
She teamed up with Congregation K.I.N.S. in West Rogers Park, and Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who leads the synagogue, to start "Momma Chef's Soup Kitchen."
"The soup kitchen has been an extraordinary program, an exceptional expression of
(lovingkindness)," Matanky said. "I'm extremely proud of our synagogue. We are [thrilled] to have the opportunity to provide our facility and participate in this program."
"We all took a chance and it's gone off without a hitch," Nochimowski said. Every Tuesday evening, Momma Chef's provides a kosher, six-course homemade hot dinner, as well as bagged lunches to go. The program feeds 80 to 100 guests a week, about 30% of whom are Jewish and come from the neighborhood, translating into more than 7,000 meals a year.
What makes this soup kitchen unique is that Nochimowski runs it with almost no overhead other than the cost of security and transportation. Nearly all the food is donated, and everyone involved, including herself, volunteers their time.
She has used some of the funds they've raised to charter a bus - at a 75% discount - and transport about 50 people from a Lincoln Park homeless shelter each week.
Nochimowski said she couldn't do any of this without her volunteer coordinator, Karen Ecanow, of Highland Park. The soup kitchen has more volunteers - including children ages 8 and older - than spaces to fill, with a four-month waiting list.
In March, COVID-19 forced Nochimowski to temporarily close the soup kitchen. But, of course, the pandemic was not going to stop her from her mission of feeding the hungry people of Chicago.
She worried about all the people who relied on her for meals, and soon discovered there was a huge need for food at homeless shelters, yet no volunteers were allowed inside to cook. So, she raised funds and organized people to cook for people in shelters and transport the food to them.
She is helping facilitate a grab-and-go, socially distant version of the soup kitchen that she hopes to kick off later this summer.
Although Nochimowski is thrilled with the success of the soup kitchen, she's striving to do more. That's why she has launched "Chicago Strong, a Facebook Group connecting non-profit organizations helping to make a difference in the lives of Chicagoans in need.
"I am the kind of person who always looks around the room and if I see 60 people there, I want it to be better and have 90," she said. "I know I have a lot of resources and I always want to use them to help people."
To volunteer for the Momma Chef Soup Kitchen, please visit mommachef.com/soup-kitchen.