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These Volunteer Chefs Fight The 'Invisible Enemy' As Only Kansas City Can — With Barbecue

Julie Denesha
Long before sunrise, volunteer Mike Moore from Urich, Mo., loads a pork loin into a smoker while Shannon Kimball of Operation Barbeque Relief holds open the door at their temporary headquarters at Food Truck Central in Kansas City, Kan.

Brett Atkinson owns Wilma’s Good Food Food Truck. He's currently out of work due to metro Kansas City's stay-at-home orders — but he's not sitting around.

Atkinson is a volunteer chef for Operation Barbeque Relief, which is normally mobilized to prepare hot meals in the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes, with capacity to serve up to 60,000 meals a day.

For more than a week now, working out of Food Truck Central, a commissary kitchen near the West Bottoms in Kansas City, Kan., Atkinson and other chefs have been preparing 950 meals per day for first responders, veterans and people who are homeless.

"Anybody who needs it really," says Atkinson. "I'm unemployed. I could be sitting home on my butt doing nothing or I could be contributing and just giving back to society in what little way I can. I don’t have a whole lot of skills but I can cook."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Volunteer chef Brett Atkinson stirs a massive cooker of rice and beans in the commercial kitchen at Food Truck Central.

This might be a small operation by their usual standards, but it serves a large purpose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's what gets to your heart, you know, a hot meal," says Shannon Kimball, Operation Barbeque Relief's area coordinator.

He has been deployed to disaster scenes all over the country. Back in 2012, when Harveyville, Kan., was hit by a tornado, Kimball was there to help.

"I saw that first hand when my old hometown of Harveyville. I went there to check on my family, it was my first deployment with OBR, I stayed behind, helped and my cousins were walking up that lost their houses and the tears that I could not hold back is what brought me into this.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
It's still dark outside as the team prepares to load the electric smoker full of pork loins.

"When we're right there cooking them a meal, you know, it's to me it's like Grandma feeding you," Kimball says.

This pandemic presents different challenges.

"We're used to working with a debris field or during a hurricane where there's no electricity and the infrastructure's shut down, it's more like a huge camping trip. Whereas this time our enemy's invisible," he says.

"You can't see it," he continues. "You can't smell it. You can't taste it. You don't know who's got it. It's not like if someone's sick, it's not like it's obvious that person is ill. So you just have to assume everyone is contaminated in this situation that we're in. Just, we don't take chances."

Once the meals are prepared, volunteers from Taking It To The Streets, a local charity, are tasked with making deliveries to sheriffs departments and police departments. Having a second organization handling deliveries gives an extra layer of protection for the crew.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Moore (left) and Atkinson work to shred chicken.

"After he leaves, the door comes down and we sanitize everything and when it is all clean and ready to go and safe we move it back into the kitchen area," Kimball says of a Taking It To The Streets volunteer. "So we have two areas of separation so we're doing a super good protocol here for health and safety."

Kimball says it's been a long stretch with no breaks. Some of their regular volunteers are afraid to work duing the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're tired but we're going to keep foraging forward. So this team I have in here now, we're what, eight or nine days in. So we're going to keep going until it's over."

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.


Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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