Take Out Hunger Hires Restaurants to Feed the Community
Restaurants are all about hospitality. Every day and night, restaurant staff welcome the community into their “home” to enjoy some pampering, treating them to delicious food cooked and served from the heart. Since COVID-19 arrived, many chefs had to shut down their restaurants, no longer able to do what they do best – comfort guests with food. The pandemic has also given rise to even more homelessness and food insecurity all over the globe. So what does a chef or restaurateur do when there are people in need? They cook.
All over the world, chefs and nonprofits are working together to help alleviate some of the problems brought on by the pandemic. New partnerships have formed to help provide meals to those in need and many even bring revenue to restaurateurs and employment to staff during a shut down or diminished business.
One of the most visible organizations providing food during COVID-19 is World Central Kitchen. Founded in 2010 by chef José Andrés, the organization has provided more than 35 million meals in 400 cities all over the world, including Uganda, Nicaragua and the United States. Twelve million of those meals were purchased from local restaurants, providing $135 million in revenue through their Chefs for America program. During COVID-19, WCK has delivered food to hospital staff in San Francisco, and used the Washington National’s stadium to distribute meals.
In New York City, chef Marcus Samuelsson also turned his restaurants in both the city and in New Jersey into community kitchens. Organizations like Feeding America are also working to get nourishing food from farms and other food producers to those in need. Australian chef Curtis Stone works with Chrysalis in Los Angeles to hire homeless and previously incarcerated people, helping to supply employment and food at the same time.
Local restaurants step up to feed the community
It’s not just celebrity chefs in big cities who can’t help but step in and step up when the community is in need. Feeding that community is in their DNA and as food pantries work overtime to feed the food insecure, chefs are forming strategic and much needed alliances with local nonprofits, giving back to the community while keeping their staff employed.
Helen Crowe, founder of Take Out Hunger, saw that need in her small community in New Hampshire. It was a visit to one of her favorite Portsmouth, NH dining spots in December that sparked an idea that now helps hundreds of food insecure Seacoast residents enjoy food created by the region’s best chefs, one that also helps those restaurants during the financial stresses bought on by the pandemic.
It’s estimated that 1 in 7 people in New Hampshire are food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from. As a result of COVID-19 as many as 23% of the state’s children are living in food insecure environments.
“I was concerned about the restaurants. I walked into The Kitchen to pick up my take out. I was talking to someone there and I said,’ I should just give you $500 and you can send meals to seniors who can’t get out or to somebody in need.’ She said that they really didn’t know how to do that, so I started Googling solutions.”
She found those solutions because the model was already in place for smaller organizations like Cooking for Community in Portland, Maine, Everyone Eats in Vermont and Wisconsin’s Cook it Forward. The concept is simple — pair local restaurants with nonprofits helping to feed those in need. She contacted two friends, Carol Bridges and Deanna MacDonald, who pooled $25,000 in seed money and Take Out Hunger was born.
That first funding paid three local restaurants to prepare almost 300 meals a week for three nonprofits. Now, thanks to more donations and sponsorships, eleven restaurants get financial help, keeping employees on the job, and eight nonprofits get nutritious meals to those who need them the most.
The Kitchen, of course, is one of those restaurants, now paired with Crossroads House, an emergency and transitional shelter for Seacoast area homeless. Restaurants sign up for a month-long contract and work with the organization on how to deliver and serve the food.
“We’re bringing 80-100 portions a week, all family-style,” said Matthew Greco, chef/co-owner of The Kitchen Eatery in Portsmouth. “At The Kitchen we serve 200 people a day so for us to prepare a hundred meals when I have a week to think about it, well, I can do that in my sleep.”
Greco also gave Crowe some advice as she was developing the concept.
“I told her that it’s going to be hard to approach restaurants right now if you can’t give them some type of financial payback for what they’re doing. She told me that’s what they’re doing. It helps us be able to do this. I suggested she get as many restaurants as she can.”
Restaurants receive $10 per portion to help them pay for ingredients and employee time and can choose how many they can handle in one week. Paired up teams currently include Gather with Black Trumpet, The Kitchen and Rail Penny Tavern with Crossroads House, Operation Blessing with Eliot, Maine’s White Heron and Exeter’s St. Vincent de Paul with Green Bean.
Red’s Good Vibes brings the food truck experience—for free
Juicy brisket from Ore Nell’s Barbeque in Maine, chicken stew with an Asian twist from Mr. Kim’s New Hampshire are just two of the dishes Red’s Good Vibes will offer for no charge at all from their shiny new food truck. This new organization has been distributing free groceries within a 30-mile radius of Greenland, NH since March of 2020. Now, they’ll be able bring free meals from Ore Nell’s and Mr. Kim’s through Take Out Hunger’s program as well as other tasty menu items. Those in need simply contact them by email or social media and they deliver to seniors, children and the homeless.
“We want to mobilize quickly and serve our communities with a kind heart and no judgement. And people love it. They love a prepared meal that’s high quality,” said Meghan McGrath, one of three siblings who started the nonprofit in honor of their brother, Red who passed away at age 29.
“Giving something that warms the soul and is homemade is a nice addition to what we do and we want people to be able to have that food truck experience and be able to order off the menu like anyone else. It’s helping the community and it’s helping the restaurants, too.”
Continuing the hospitality
Chapel + Main, in Dover, NH, and sister spot The Black Birch, in Kittery, Maine, are newly signed up to the program, partnering with Table of Plenty, a community kitchen offering weekly meals in Berwick and Kittery, Maine. Restaurant co-owner Benjamin Lord said they’ll be able to get them 200 meals per week with help from some friends, through the Take Out Hunger program.
“We’ll make meals from the Chapel + Main kitchen but we’re also lending our kitchen to [chef] Michele Duval and we’ll help her as well so we’ll be able to get 80 meals for Kittery and 110 for Berwick. Food insecurity is such a huge issue and we’re also trying to work with Helen to get some additional things going in the Dover area. During the first closure, we had done a similar thing through a community action partnership in Dover. It was just something to keep ourselves occupied and doing something for the community. We are all about hospitality. That’s what we do, so we had to do something.”
With Take Out Hunger, Lord said they’ll make dishes like stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls but that with the Kittery Table of Plenty, the demographic skews a bit older than that for Berwick where there are more families in need. They’ll adapt the menu accordingly with dishes that are both nutritious and fun; comfort food and hearty fare are what both of his restaurants are known for. Lord said they are also thinking about continuing the program even after their four-week contract is over.
Crowe said that companies are stepping up with sponsorships and local food suppliers are becoming involved, too, which keeps food costs down.
“Restaurants have a long history of supporting nonprofits in their community, particularly those serving the food insecure,” said Crowe. “Black Trumpet started a specific relationship with Gather regarding prepping meals with food sourced from Gather. Part of the deal with getting PPP money is to keep your employees working and they found that they were having their employees there without enough business. They sourced food from Gather because they do get so much food and were trying to prevent food waste.”
The organization is also in discussions with food sources like Emery Farm in Durham and may incorporate more farm-sourced ingredients into their model in the future and they are talking with retired chefs in the community who expressed interest in volunteering, gaining access to a kitchen and cooking with food sourced from Gather.
Every little bit helps
More restaurants are signing on as well, including Blue Mermaid in Kittery, Ore Nell’s and Mr. Kim’s, where chef and owner Gary Kim is starting small, but mightily, with Red’s Good Vibes.
“We just did 20 meals and they came and picked it up. We’ll do it every Monday for a month, making something hardy, comfort food for the winter. It’s great that they serve it from a food truck. And I know that part of this is about helping the restaurants and anything helps but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do since the end of last year, to provide meals for those in need.”
Meghan McGrath is happy to be able to offer food from Mr. Kim’s as well as barbeque from Ore Nell’s and a recent collaboration which included brisket from Favorite Foods, smoked for 24 hours by Caleb Allen in peach paper provided by Ore Nell’s, served on a potato bun with fresh cole slaw. It’s all part of the menu at the Red’s Good Vibes truck where the siblings honor their brother by contributing to the community just as he would — with delicious, free, food.
“It’s definitely nice to be able to feel like you’re being, well, not exactly part of the solution, but to be able to do something right,” said McGrath. “Everything is so hard right now, everyone feels so helpless and it just seems so insurmountable. You think, ‘what can I possibly do to help?’ But it’s those little steps that really make a difference and it feeds our soul. It helps our community, which is what it’s all about.”
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