Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Taking on food insecurity, one meal at a time

Audrey Smallwood ’27 started Kitchens for Change while she was still in high school. Now it’s receiving national attention.

When COVID-19 sent the country into lockdown in 2020, Audrey Smallwood ’27 and her friend Elias Rabine were high school students in Turlock, California. Both of their families were in the restaurant business, so they watched with great interest as renowned Spanish-American chef José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen made headlines by paying empty eateries across the nation to cook free take-out meals for community members in need.

“We were really inspired by his efforts, not only to combat food insecurity but also to alleviate the stress that restaurants were experiencing during the pandemic,” recalled Smallwood, now a student at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “We got to thinking, how could we replicate what they were doing, but get youth involved doing it?”

The answer turned out to be Kitchens for Change, a nonprofit Smallwood and Rabine founded in 2021. It began as a high school club where students prepared fresh meals under the guidance of professional chefs, and then delivered them to people in the community. To pay for ingredients, the group hosted fundraisers and applied for grants, but the kitchen space was free—the students had full access to Rabine’s family restaurant, First & Main, when it was otherwise closed to the public.

Kitchens for Change caught on quickly—more than 100 students signed up to join in its first few months and membership has since surpassed 200 students across two chapters. Local news channels took notice, and midway through her freshman year at Boston College, Smallwood received an exciting phone call: The Kelly Clarkson Show, a popular daytime television program hosted by the former American Idol winner herself, had booked Chef Andrés as a guest on an upcoming episode. Would Smallwood and Rabine like to join him?

Audrey Smallwood ’27 and her friend Elias Rabine chatting with Chef José Andrés and Kelly Clarkson.

“We got a four-day notice, so it was a very quick, stressful process,” said Smallwood. “But we said, ‘Yes, of course we’re down.’ It was really special for us to be able to meet the man who inspired us. He’s the reason Kitchens for Change was founded."

Since she was a child, Smallwood has associated serving others with food. Her grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when Smallwood’s mother was six years old, and opened a Mexican restaurant called La Morenita. Later, Smallwood’s mother and sisters launched a spinoff establishment, La Mo, which became Smallwood’s second home. She remembers doing homework at empty tables, working the floor, and watching her mother give back in small but meaningful ways.

“She was always giving away a free cup of coffee to a homeless person or delivering a week’s worth of meals to a family who had lost someone,” said Smallwood. “That really exemplified to me the power that food has to unite people.”

Through Kitchens for Change, Smallwood and Rabine are working to eliminate as many barriers as possible to help hungry people access nutritious food. While First & Main remains their home base, students regularly prepare meals in the kitchen of the local homeless shelter, serving residents in the adjacent dining room. Every January, they prepare holiday meal boxes for fellow students who are struggling with food insecurity to take home to their families. And in November of 2021, when hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan were stationed at hotels in Turlock, Kitchens for Change partnered with the International Rescue Committee to cook them a traditional Afghan meal.

“It was my favorite project we’ve done,” recalled Smallwood. “We couldn’t speak the same language as the people we were serving, but the expressions and smiles on their faces communicated to us the impact this one meal had.”

Since arriving at Boston College in the fall, Smallwood has temporarily hung up her apron and assumed a leadership role with Kitchens for Change, joining the board of directors and overseeing organizational logistics from afar. Right now, her priority is increasing the consistency and frequency of meals produced by Turlock students, but eventually, she’d like to see the Kitchens for Change model emulated in high schools across the country. After her appearance on the Kelly Clarkson Show, she now has a $10,000 donation from sponsor Conagra Brands to help make that happen, as well as the admiration of the man who inspired it all.

“It’s a magical, simple, powerful idea,” said Chef Andrés of Kitchens for Change. “They saw what they had around them and they did the most they could with what was at their disposal. It’s people like them that [make us believe that] yes, we can change America, we can improve America, we can change the world.”