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How an Atlanta Chef Fed Undocumented Immigrants During the Pandemic

Two photos next to each other, one showing staffers at 8ARM restaurant, and the other showing multiple plates of food.
Courtesy of 8ARM
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When the pandemic hit and it became clear restaurants would have to close, chef Maricela Vega of 8ARM wanted to help. But she had no idea where to begin. What she did know was that undocumented immigrants — a group she estimates makes up a significant percentage of the food supply chain — would be disproportionately affected by the shutdown, excluded from unemployment benefits, any type of stimulus package, and just about any other aid offered for people in crisis.

So on a group text, Vega and a few other chefs tried to pinpoint what help was actually available to the undocumented community. It wasn’t easy to find. There were plenty of links to click, forms to fill out, and codes to enter, but little in the way of actual support. “It’s great to have all sorts of resources available for people,” says Vega. “But, ultimately, the undocumented community deals with hurdles every single day, from the moment they wake up.”

Vega knew whatever help 8ARM offered had to be streamlined and accessible to be effective. So when her friend Monica Campana (cofounder and executive director of the art nonprofit Living Walls) pitched the idea to work together to provide free CSA boxes and support Freedom University, a nonprofit that provides undocumented students with tuition-free college prep courses, Vega knew she had found the right project. She was all in.

Food items ready for stocking in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) kit at 8ARM. Items include food such as eggs, bread, and a variety of fresh vegetables.
Courtesy of 8ARM

How 8ARM’s CSA Donations Offer Critical Help

Amid the pandemic, 8ARM and Campana teamed up to create an initiative called Each One, Feed One. From April through early July, the program distributed weekly boxes to all of Freedom’s 25 students, each one filled with enough thoughtfully sourced produce, grains, eggs, and bread to feed their family. No application, no forms to fill out, and no questions asked. It’s a model that other businesses, it’s worth noting, could follow in their own communities.

To offset the cost of the 8ARM CSA boxes, $15 was added to the $30 price 8ARM customers paid, bringing the total price to $45 per box. Eighty orders per week were enough to feed 20 to 25 undocumented families in the area; however, sales dropped after the $15 “tax” was added, and it became harder to hit that target. As of August, Vega noted that 8ARM has evened out at about 50 CSA orders weekly, down from a high of 100 to 150 in April. It’s something Vega attributes not simply to the higher price, but also the fact Georgia opened up in May, which created less demand for the no-contact pickup service.

Each One, Feed One was run entirely without outside help, yet despite falling short of its sales goals, 8ARM was never unable to fill a donated box, thanks to Vega and her team’s dedication. “If we fell short on donations, sometimes farmers — they knew what I was doing — would give me extra vegetables,” she says. “And if we ever had any extra produce in the restaurant, we’d set it aside, keep it nice and well-stored, and then distribute it the following week.”

When Freedom University, which was also doing grocery runs for families, decided to take a break in July, 8ARM paused its CSA donations, too. Since then, 8ARM has started collecting PPE kits, hand sanitizers, wipes, gloves, and masks to send to a poultry plant in north Georgia, where there’s been a COVID-19 outbreak. The restaurant is also taking cash donations to send rent and funeral relief to the plant’s workers and their families, and Vega hopes to get another harvest to send produce along with everything else in the near future.

Meanwhile, Vega hasn’t stopped looking for new ways to help. She says she’ll continue to serve immigrant communities, focusing on providing support to those who are undocumented. “As we continue to work with other organizations, we hope this will strengthen the support so we can all help as best as we can,” she says.

An image showing three people at the Atlanta restaurant 8ARM helping prepare CSA kits featuring healthy foods. The image also shows close-ups of fresh fruits.
Courtesy of 8ARM

Balancing Business With Social Justice

A quiet restaurant is the first reason Vega gives when asked how she finds the time for Each One, Feed One. In March, 8ARM pivoted to takeaway-only service, but within weeks, it was clear the model wasn’t sustainable, and most of 8ARM’s staff was furloughed.

But Vega’s business is a case study for pandemic pivots. The brand has reopened outside in a fenced-in area of the parking lot; 8ARM’s concrete alter ego is called Sidepiece. Everything Sidepiece serves is cooked in a new wood-fired oven, also outside, in eight minutes or less, and the menu includes Mexican and Vietnamese-influenced offerings.

Like 8ARM, Sidepiece is heavily influenced by the local culture and environment, using what it knows from various growers in its network. “There might be Southern aspects to a Vietnamese or Mexican staple we have. Plus, we’re zero-waste, so it might just be what we have on-hand,” says Vega. “Our creativeness is fueled by the harvest, and that just means what’s happening at the time in Atlanta and the surrounding area.”

Still, it’s been a struggle for 8ARM to find its pandemic identity. After all, Vega and her team developed Sidepiece as they launched it. But they’ve found success by staying true to 8ARM’s DNA. “Making pretty food that packs in a lot of nutrition without necessarily forcing it on people is something that’s part of 8ARM,” Vega says. “Now we’re just exploring a quicker side of it.”

To communicate the changes — be it with community outreach or the restaurant itself — Vega and her team have leaned heavily on social media, particularly cross-promoting posts on multiple Instagram accounts.

Masked staff member carrying a bag of green produce.
Courtesy of 8ARM

In addition to posting on 8ARM’s Instagram, which automatically posts everything to 8ARM’s Facebook, Vega asks her art friends at Living Walls to re-post select items, and she re-posts on one of her accounts. It doesn’t have a large following, but it’s frequently visited by members of the Latinx community, she says. “I try to focus on storytelling with Instagram, giving the entire deal of what people are doing when they support our initiatives, which is helping undocumented families and supporting BIPOC farmers,” she explains.

Helping, ultimately, is what so much of Vega’s work during the pandemic comes down to, and for good reason. As she recalls: “There were a few times where I went to help distribute the boxes for Each One, Feed One, and the students would just look at you and say, ‘You have no idea how much this really means to us.’”

To find ways to support 8ARM and other restaurants you care about, visit Keep up with chef Maricela Vega by following 8ARM on Facebook and Instagram, and in the meantime, you can make one of her favorite dishes following the recipe below.

The Lion’s Mane Tinga Taco dish served at 8ARM restaurant in Atlanta.
Courtesy of 8ARM

Lion’s Mane Tinga Taco

Makes 1 quart tinga sauce, enough for 6-8 tacos

Watch Vega make this recipe (and discuss her work with 8ARM) in this Facebook Live video.


½ pound masa from local grinder, such as Atlanta’s Chicomecoatl

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

4 whole allspice berries, toasted

4 whole cloves

6 black peppercorns

1 onion, divided

½ head garlic, peeled and divided

2 chipotle peppers

1 aji pepper

1 jalapeño

1 pound tomatoes, blanched and peeled; save 1 for later

Salt, to taste

1 pound lion’s mane mushrooms, such as from Sparta Gardens

2 bay leaves

Grapeseed oil (or choice of oil)

Crema fresca, for serving (if desired)

Additional white onion, slivered, for serving (if desired)

Preparation: Tortillas

  1. With a tortilla press, press tortillas to your preferred thickness and size, using about 1.5 ounces fresh masa per tortilla.
  2. Then, in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, cook about 1 minute per tortilla, flipping no more than three times to ensure even cooking on both sides, and set aside. (You can make the tortillas while the lion’s mane mushrooms simmer in sauce.)

Preparation: Spices

  1. In a pan on high heat, quickly toast the allspice, cloves, and peppercorns.

Tinga Sauce:

  1. In a blender, blend the following ingredients together: apple cider vinegar, toasted allspice, cloves, peppercorn, half the onion, half of the peeled garlic, soaked chipotle peppers, aji, and jalapeño peppers, and blanched tomatoes.
  2. Salt the mixture lightly; you’ll check the seasoning toward the end.
  3. Blend until smooth and set aside.

Lion’s Mane Mushrooms:

  1. Julienne the other half of the onion.
  2. Coarsely chop the remaining garlic.
  3. Pull the lion’s mane mushrooms apart to your preferred size.
  4. In a large, wide pot, over medium-high heat, apply a thin layer of grapeseed oil (or choice of oil), and slowly introduce the onion and garlic along with the bay leaves.
  5. Sauté for about 2 minutes before adding the mushroom. Then sauté the mixture for an additional 3 minutes.
  6. Finally, add the tinga sauce to the mushroom mixture, and allow it to simmer on low heat for at least 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, as to not stick to the bottom of the pan. Avoiding charring your tinga mixture.

Serving Instructions:

Assembled tacos go best with a dollop of crema fresca (Vega uses in-house vegan peanut crema) and a little shaving of white onion.

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