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Anonymous $200,000 donation helps Asheville restaurants feed more for free

Asheville Citizen Times logo Asheville Citizen Times 4/30/2020 Mackensy Lunsford, Asheville Citizen Times
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ASHEVILLE - When restaurants and festivals have unused food, Flori Pate, co-founder of Food Connection, knows where to put it.

Pate and her crew rescue food that would otherwise be wasted, delivering it to people who need it most.

When state orders shut down dining rooms and gatherings in March to curb the spread of coronavirus, the supply of surrendered food dropped precipitously. 

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But there were still people to feed, and plenty of cooks with empty restaurants.

Wicked Weed's Cultura, this year nominated for a James Beard Award as one of the country's best new restaurants, is one food operation that's shifted to feeding people who need it most. 

Shauna Coxsey et al. on a boat: The Norton family, from left, Ray, Rachael, Dee and Judy, make room for food in the back of a pickup truck at Beacon of Hope Services in Marshall April 28, 2020. "It's a true blessing, especially in times like these, when everything is so unsure," said Judy, "Nutrition is very important. Without nutrition how can you fight?" © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com The Norton family, from left, Ray, Rachael, Dee and Judy, make room for food in the back of a pickup truck at Beacon of Hope Services in Marshall April 28, 2020. "It's a true blessing, especially in times like these, when everything is so unsure," said Judy, "Nutrition is very important. Without nutrition how can you fight?"

More: 5 James Beard semifinalists in Asheville: What that means and how you can try the food

In March, Food Connection partnered with Cultura and the YMCA of WNC to meet a growing need for free meals.

"Towards the end of March, I got a call from (Wicked Weed community engagement coordinator) Rachel Dudasik saying they wanted to donate fresh meals for Food Connection to distribute to our community partners," said Pate.

With the help of food distribution company U.S. Foods, which donated raw goods, the team initially moved about 900 meals over a three-day period.

Since then, an anonymous donor has stepped forward with a $200,000 check for Food Connection to cover food and distribution costs, with a separate donation to the YMCA. That means the team can now feed 5,000 a week.

Topnotch meals for free

Even though the food is free, it's high-quality: Saturday's menu, for example, includes smoked trout, corn pudding and green beans.

The team has sent meals to Big Ivy Community Center in Barnardsville; Trinity Place for Runaway Youth; and Homeward Bound of WNC's temporary shelter at Harrah's Cherokee Center.

Now, they're also feeding out of work industry workers. 

More: Tales from the line: Restaurant owners work to stay afloat in the time of coronavirus

More: 'We just need food to cook': With donations, Asheville restaurants can feed the vulnerable

Pate still doesn't know the identity of the donors — just that they enjoyed dining at Cultura, she said. 

a piece of cake on a plate: Rice, beans and plantains from Cultura were delivered to Beacon of Hope Services in Marshall April 28, 2020. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Rice, beans and plantains from Cultura were delivered to Beacon of Hope Services in Marshall April 28, 2020.

The money offers a huge boost to the food operations, but adding so many meals presents a new set of logistical challenges.

"(We're) working around the clock to figure out logistics and get as much food to as many people as we can," said Pate.

Community involvement has helped, from the YMCA's fleet of vans and personnel to local businesses supplying meat, including Hickory Nut Gap Meats.

The Chop Shop, with Apple Brandy Farm, has donated hundreds of pounds of beef to the cause.

More: Coronavirus: Unprecedented strain on food supply has local businesses working overtime

More: Coronavirus: How Asheville delivery services scramble to get you food

Chop Shop manager PJ Jackson said his Charlotte Street butcher shop was left with an oversupply of beef when restaurants closed.

a car parked on the side of a road: Flori Pate, co-founder of Food Connection, unloads meals at Beacon of Hope Services April 28, 2020. "I see the community really coming together," Pate said. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Flori Pate, co-founder of Food Connection, unloads meals at Beacon of Hope Services April 28, 2020. "I see the community really coming together," Pate said.

"Most of that has been donated to Cultura and Wicked Weed's commissary kitchen project," he said.

It came at a loss to the butchery he said, but the staff was happy to help. 

That sort of assistance helps lower the cost of feeding the community, as does the labor supplied by Wicked Weed Brewing.

Donations help keep chefs cooking

The brewery has kept its full roster of staff, with frontline employees receiving a hazard pay increase of 10%, with 32 working on this particular project.

"We’re humbled by the opportunity to make this possible and don’t take it for granted," Dudasik said. 

Wicked Weed has committed to continuing to feed those who need it, even if donations dry up.

Melissa Limes pushes a cart of food into the pantry at Beacon of Hope Services April 28, 2020. Limes, who has worked at the pantry for three years, said recent times have highlighted the precariousness of their food supply chain. "Whatever big box stores don't sell is what we get and they're having trouble keeping their shelves stocked," said Limes, "that cascades down to us and keeping our own shelves stocked." © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Melissa Limes pushes a cart of food into the pantry at Beacon of Hope Services April 28, 2020. Limes, who has worked at the pantry for three years, said recent times have highlighted the precariousness of their food supply chain. "Whatever big box stores don't sell is what we get and they're having trouble keeping their shelves stocked," said Limes, "that cascades down to us and keeping our own shelves stocked."

"This opportunity also allows us to continue to get more hours for our back of the house team while the restaurants are closed," she said. 

Pate has also created an additional avenue through which anyone can help offset the costs of feeding the community at food-connection.org/purchase-meals.

Even though $200,000 should go far, it won't last forever.

"Donations continue to come in, and we are getting many chefs back in the kitchen to create meals for Food Connection to distribute," Pate said. "It is beautiful, and a 'win-win' for Asheville."

Pate also had a message for the anonymous donor: "We see the faces each day and the beautiful impact that your generosity is making within Western Carolina. We are forever grateful to you."

___

Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me: mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

Read more: Subscribe to the Citizen Times here. Subscribe to my newsletter here

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Anonymous $200,000 donation helps Asheville restaurants feed more for free

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