Feeding the homeless typically involves things like pasta, canned vegetables and the occasional dessert. But in Western North Carolina, shelters and other nonprofits are dishing up grilled salmon, coconut curry chicken, beef brisket, lamb sliders, fresh vegetables and whole grains.
The surplus food comes from weddings, banquets and other special events hosted at venues like Celine and Co. Catering, Chestnut, the Corner Kitchen, HomeGrown, the Lexington Avenue Brewery, Mamacita’s, Pack’s Tavern and The Cantina at Historic Biltmore Village.
Food Connection, a collaboration involving Dig Local, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church and Asheville Taxi, is bridging the gap between restaurants and nonprofits. The program grew out of a 2014 meeting between Dig Local co-founder Flori Pate and Mary Evans, a marketing and special events coordinator at Pack’s Tavern. Evans, says Pate, expressed frustration about throwing away untouched food and asked her to come up with a solution.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” remembers Pate. Within two weeks, Grace Covenant’s SERVE Council had donated $750 to help her launch Food Connection and sent an Asheville Taxi driver to pick up food from Pack’s Tavern and deliver it to Be Loved House.
“If you can’t stop thinking about something, you should do it, and if you’re passionate about it and believe in it, you can make positive change,” she says.
Making people happy
Food Connection coordinates pickups at least five days a week; in the past year, it’s rerouted more than 13,000 meals from the trash to places like Hall Fletcher Elementary, the Spring Creek Community Center, Beacon of Hope, Trinity Place runaway shelter, Veterans Restoration Quarters and Steadfast House.
The program also facilitates direct drop-offs from the likes of Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn and Vortex Doughnuts to local nonprofits. “If people aren’t sure who needs food or where it should go, Food Connection can definitely direct them,” says Pate.
“Most people are afraid of getting sued. That’s why they’d rather throw food in the trash,” she says. “The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act [a federal law passed in 1996] says if you’re operating in good faith that the food you’re donating is safe and apparently wholesome, then you’re protected.”
The food that’s delivered to nonprofits hasn’t been picked over on a buffet line, notes Evans: It goes directly from the production kitchen to the recipient’s kitchen. “When we tell our clients what happens with it, they’re so happy,” she says.
Anthony and Sherrye Coggiola of The Cantina used to transport surplus food directly to local nonprofits, but it was hard on staff and not always easy to coordinate. Now, Food Connection texts Asheville Taxi, and within 20 minutes a driver arrives.
“They come right away, they know what they’re here to get, and they seem really excited about doing it,” says Sherrye. “I would love to see Asheville Taxi picking up food every night and taking it to every shelter in town.”
Asheville Taxi owner Woodward McKee helped launch Food Connection and gives a 50 percent discount for transporting food. “The pickups that Woody does himself, he doesn’t charge us for at all,” says Pate. “He’s been amazing.”
McKee, however, says, “It’s such a simple, easy thing for us to provide, it would be crazy not to.” Drivers typically have to take the food just a few blocks down the road. The company bills Food Connection just enough to pay the driver, then absorbs the rest of the cost. “It’s gratifying to do something so simple that fulfills a need and makes people happy,” he says.
Marisha MacMorran of Celine and Co. transports food directly to Trinity Place and Be Loved House, often writing personal notes to the recipients. “I just like to do that,” she says. “It’s so emotional every time. I’ve worked in the food service industry on and off for 12 years, and I’ve thrown away so much food. There hasn’t been anything like this in Asheville.”
A perfect fit
UNC Asheville now donates 50 to 100 pounds of food five days a week, says Laura Sexton, registered dietitian for the university’s dining services. “A lot of students really respond to the amount of wasted food they see. I was looking for a food recovery program, and Food Connection was a perfect fit.”
In less than four months, the partnership has recovered more than 7,000 meals.
In October, Food Connection linked Mars Hill University with My Sister’s Place shelter, 4 miles from campus. “All the surplus food that was getting thrown away is now being saved, labeled and cold-chilled overnight,” Pate explains. “My Sister’s Place was very thankful to add great quality, fresh food to the mix.”
In East Asheville, eight churches host a weekly Welcome Table at Groce United Methodist. Now in its fifth year, the program nearly shut down in May due to a lack of volunteers and donations, says volunteer Jim Creel. “Food Connection has helped tremendously.”
Welcome Table is open to anyone, and about 100 people typically come, says program coordinator Jo Anne Thompson. “No one goes away hungry. I don’t know what some of these people would do if this place closed down. We’re not just feeding their body — we’re feeding their soul.”
MANNA Foodbank also provides food for the program, she says, but Food Connection offers additional fresh foods that help ensure Welcome Table won’t have to close.
Like Welcome Table, Food Connection relies entirely on donations and volunteers. Last spring, a benefit concert at The Altamont Theatre generated $5,000. “That was the thing that really kept us going,” says Pate. The second annual benefit concert is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 27, at The Grey Eagle, and even more local musicians have offered to donate their time and talent this year, she reports.
“I want to make people aware that they don’t have to throw away food,” says Pate. “Forty percent of the food supply is thrown away in our country. It equals 20 pounds of food per person each month. That’s not spoiled food — that’s fresh food.”
Blue Dream Curry House, Pack’s Tavern, Pour Taproom and Urban Orchard have all hosted benefit events such as cornhole tournaments for Food Connection. “The more people that know about this, the more people we can feed,” says Evans.
Many in Asheville’s food service industry are passionate about feeding all community members, regardless of ability to pay.
“The last thing in the world we want to do is generate waste,” says Anthony Coggiola. “There are families who go without meals: It should never be that way.”
Widening the table
Be Loved House, the very first recipient to partner with Food Connection, offers numerous services for homeless and impoverished community members. It’s the primary recipient for donations from large special events such as AIR’s Taste of Asheville and Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest, notes Pate, because the organization has the storage space and the network to deliver donated food to countless people in need.
“Food Connection has widened our table,” says the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-founder of Be Loved House. “The generosity of local restaurants and the ingenuity to divert food waste is making a critical difference.”
After delivering food to Be Loved House one evening, Pate stayed to speak with some of the more than 100 people Cantrell feeds. “Talking to these kind folks and hearing their stories and struggles while sharing a meal was incredibly eye-opening,” says Pate.
“It’s people in our community. Nobody deserves to be hungry; everybody deserves to eat.”
To learn more about Food Connection, visit foodconnection.co or facebook.com/foodconnection.co.