MISSOULA — The evolution of United We Eat, an offshoot of the well-known local nonprofit Soft Landing Missoula, happened organically.
Refugees and immigrants, thankful for the support from Soft Landing as they transitioned to their new life in Missoula, would bring food from their home county to the Soft Landing office or invite staff members over to their house for meals.
Out of the desire to have such international cuisine reach a broader audience, United We Eat was born.
It’s overall mission has not strayed from the initial aspiration of finding ways to help refugees and immigrants in Missoula share their food and culture with the wider community.
“It’s been a celebration of their culture and their cuisine while also finding ways to offer them supplemental income,” said Beth Baker, United We Eat’s program manager.
The program started modestly by helping refugees acquire the proper licenses and permits to sell different food items, such as baked goods, at the farmers' market.
It was not long until United We Eat began hosting monthly “Supper Club” events – pop-up dinners in which a refugee or immigrant chef would partner with a local restaurant and use the space to cook a meal from their home country.
Community members, in turn, could buy a seat and meal to these events.
“The chefs are able to talk a little bit about their culture and the menu,” said Baker. “It’s a fun gathering place for the community to celebrate refugee culture and cuisine.”
These “Supper Clubs” have been put on pause with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, United We Eat has been able to keep running one program in particular with ever-increasing popularity – United We Eat at home.
The program offers weekly meals for pickup cooked by a rotating team of refugee chefs and has allowed these chefs to continue to share their food in Missoula, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, a refugee or immigrant chef will cook around 125 meals that are available for pickup that Tuesday evening.
Ordering for the meals takes place at 9:00 a.m. on the prior Thursday when an email is sent out to those who subscribe to United We Eat’s newsletter.
“Every week we sell out in about a half an hour or less, which is incredible. People tell me that they set alarms at 9:00 a.m. sharp so they won’t forget,” Baker said. “They’ll go immediately to order their meals. We’re just so thankful for this community support. We couldn’t run as a program without it.”
During the food pick up, United We Eat has worked to spotlight the chefs by having them greet and talk with the customers. The interactions are brief and limited due to COVID-19. But according to Baker, they are still a lovely thing to witness.
Since September, United We Eat has operated out of the First United Methodist Church’s commercial kitchen in downtown Missoula.
They were able to raise the first year's rent for the new space through community donations -- a testament to their work and how valued their program is in the Missoula community.
With its continued growth and popularity, United We Eat recently got its own kitchen manager, Katie Kirwan. As a lifer of the restaurant business, Kirwan is no stranger to food’s power to create community – a phenomenon she has noticed is particularly true with the United We Eat program.
“This program really brings people together and creates relationships in the kitchen and outside the kitchen as well,” she said.
The sentiment resonates with Sahar Alzaidi, a United We Eat chef who arrived in Missoula with her husband and two sons in March 2017 from Baghdad, Iraq.
This week was Alzaidi’s third time cooking with United We Eat’s at home program. However, she has also cooked in the “Supper Club” events.
Through United We Eat, Alzaidi has enjoyed connecting with Kirwan and volunteers that help out in the kitchen. She feels blessed to have the opportunity to share Iraqi food with the people of Missoula.
“I like to cook because I just feel that when I cook and people eat and enjoy my food, that they are happy. And that makes me so happy,” she said. “I like to cook here. It’s special because I want to share food from my culture with the U.S.”
Not only has United We Eat provided a platform and space for her to sell and cook food, but they have also helped by organizing logistics and acquiring the necessary ingredients.
“I just come and cook. That’s helped me so much. I’m just so happy to share my food with the community,” she said.
Zohair Bajwa is another chef who has enjoyed working with United We Eat. He immigrated to Missoula from Pakistan to attend the University of Montana in 2006.
He started cooking Pakistani food initially as a way to combat feeling homesick.
“I had to figure out a way to make food for myself that I grew up with. What’s that age-old adage? Necessity is the mother of invention? It was basically like that,” he said.
Oftentimes, he would invite his friends over for some of his homecooked meals – to a warm response.
“It was just a good morale boost like ‘Oh, I can cook, and people want to eat my food,’” Bajwa said.
His friends were so supportive of his cooking that, during his college days, they would jostle Bajwa about opening up a food truck, an idea that slipped further and further away as Bajwa graduated and took a job with a law firm.
However, the idea popped back into Bajwa’s head after a friend told him about the work United We Eat was doing. Eventually, Bajwa reached out to United We Eat to get involved with the program himself.
“Just as an immigrant knowing the great work they’re doing and just resettling these families, making them feel at home – it just struck a chord with me,” he said. “A big motivational factor was just trying to give back to the community as much as I can in any shape or form.”
Bajwa’s experience with United We Eat helped re-spark the idea of running his own food truck. He is now currently in the process of raising money to purchase one that he intends to operate with his wife.
He plans to name the food truck Zeera, which translates to cumin. While committed to this new endeavor, Bajwa still has a lot of love for United We Eat and the work they are doing for Missoula.
“It’s just great to have a community-centered organization that is working towards the betterment of all of us and trying to integrate all the new neighbors into society,” he said. “It’s a great program to share people’s culture, with Missoula, through food. What an amazing idea.”