We’ve all found ways to connect virtually with friends, family and colleagues during the pandemic. Zoom, Google Hangouts and other platforms have helped keep conversations going while we stay apart. 

While it’s been good to stay connected, staying at home means we miss out on some of the larger conversations happening in our community. One of those conversations is focused on rising levels of food insecurity. According to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, nearly 2,000 new households sought help from the food bank in 2020.

The effects of the pandemic have been different for everyone. Ordering takeout from local restaurants has become a key way to support our independent business owners. But not everyone in our community has the privilege to do that once a month or once a week.

As with many local charities, the Food Bank of Waterloo Region has had to find new ways to engage without having in-person events. Thankfully, our community has the team at Plugin KW to answer the call. Plugin KW is a local community engagement group with a mission to bring young professionals together in new ways to learn about charitable organizations and community issues in Waterloo Region. 

They’ve organized unique events over the last few years, including some of the scariest haunted houses, comedy shows and even a ping pong tournament. Each event supports a local charity. Past charities have included Nutrition for Learning, Supportive Housing of Waterloo Region and KidsAbility. The events involve more than merely collecting donations – they’re educational opportunities for community members to learn more about the organizations and how to get involved.

Plugin KW was planning an event to coincide with the True North Waterloo festival when the pandemic hit. After a few weeks of settling into working remotely for their day jobs, the team got together to talk about virtual events. “Our team was very much like, ‘This is what we want to do,’” said Laura Galbraith, a Plugin KW lead and Director of Community Impact at Vidyard. “With a lot of cancelled fundraising events and a lot of their programming needing to shift, and then also the needs in the community just increasing, we really wanted to find a way that we could switch over.”

Knowing that Zoom fatigue is still a concern, the Plugin KW team wanted to find an online event that would keep attendees energized and create opportunities to engage with the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. “How do we still create a sense of community and belonging that are like the core values of why Plugin KW started? How do we continue doing that virtually?”

In addition to supporting local charities, Plugin KW works to support local businesses, too. Partnering with The Culinary Studio in support of the Food Bank just “makes sense,” Galbraith said. “We always try to have a tie-in with what we do for the event and the charity. We were talking about food insecurity and how that’s been a huge growing issue in our community and ways we can help support the Food Bank.”

On Jan. 21, you can join the Plugin KW team for Cooking for a Cause. For $85, you’ll get the ingredients to cook an everyday Japanese feast in the comfort of your kitchen. Culinary Studio owners Chef Kirstie Herbstreit and Chef Jody O’Malley will teach the class.

The Plugin KW team approached Herbstreit last fall with the idea for the event. Since the pandemic began, The Culinary Studio has made a 180-degree pivot from in-studio cooking classes to 100-per-cent online classes. They’re in the process of moving from the Belmont Avenue location to a new facility specially built to support their new business model. “We are really excited about doing our first virtual fundraising events, hopefully of many,” said Herbstreit. “We’re basing it on our new virtual model and taking it from there. It was really just like, ‘Hey, let’s get an exciting menu together for people!’”

Since its opening 10 years ago, supporting the community’s needs has been part of The Culinary Studio’s DNA. With the pandemic and its challenges, Herbstreit and O’Malley were looking for new ways to get involved. “It’s been tough to figure out how to support the community in this time,” added Herbstreit. “We eat, sleep and breathe everything food. To be able to support a community-based charity that is providing food for people just feels like a natural fit for us.”

Herbstreit sees the move to virtual as a positive rather than a temporary inconvenience until we get back to some version of normal. “What we’re hearing is that people enjoy learning how to cook a professional meal in their own kitchen; the comfort level, it’s allowed people to connect almost in a better way. We’re essentially building an online cooking platform for the future.” 

Another part of Plugin KW’s work for the charity is producing a video that the organization can use to share its message. “We create a video for the charity to really help tell their story,” said Galbraith. “It’s a way to tell people how they can get involved in addition to coming to this event. Food insecurity is a year-round issue that we need to be mindful of and we need to find ways that we can, in our own way, support organizations like the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.”

Tickets are available on The Culinary Studio’s website. Proceeds from ticket sales go to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.