Meals program feeds hungry, employs workers

The staff at the restaurant Henley, located in the Kimpton Aertson Hotel on Broadway, prepared family style meals that were taken to St. Frances Cabrini Church in Lebanon and distributed to families affected by the March 3 tornado. The chefs preparing the meals are part of the Chefs for America program, supported by World Central Kitchen, an international hunger relief organization partnering with Catholic Charities of Tennessee to distribute food to those in need and keep restaurant workers employed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Catholic Charities of Tennessee has partnered with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen to address two pressing problems: providing meals to people in need because of the March tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemic, and helping restaurants keep their workers employed.

“This is an incredible program that is a win-win for many, and we’re thrilled to partner with World Central Kitchen,” said Judy K. Orr, executive director of Catholic Charities.

World Central Kitchen was founded by chef José Andrés in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Since then, World Central Kitchen has organized teams of chefs to set up shop and serve restaurant quality meals in places around the world when natural disasters strike.

But the COVID-19 pandemic posed new problems, explained Whitney Pastorek, the Nashville project lead for World Central Kitchen: “Lots of people hungry, lots of restaurants shut down.”

World Central Kitchen established the Chefs for America program to address those problems by paying restaurants to provide fresh-cooked, quality meals for the hungry, allowing the restaurant workers to continue working. The restaurants receive $10 per meal, which enables the restaurants to keep their staff on the job and off unemployment, Pastorek said.

Nationally, more than 2,300 restaurants are participating and have prepared more than 20 million meals. In Nashville, three restaurants and a food truck are participating in the program, providing about 2,500 meals a week.

Pastorek turned to Catholic Charities for help in distributing the meals to people in need. “Their wealth of knowledge of how to help the community is really, really spectacular,” Pastorek said. Orr was one of the first people she called to help with the program.

The staff at Catholic Charities not only agreed to distribute the meals, but also shared contacts with other local organizations that address food insecurity. Catholic Charities was also able to share information about other programs that could benefit from the Chefs for America program, Pastorek said.

“They’re working with restaurants to help keep people employed, and we get to be the recipients of the good food they make,” said Wendy Overlock, program coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Loaves and Fishes program, which provides meals three days a week to the needy at Holy Name Church in East Nashville.

“At the moment, programs affiliated directly with Catholic Charities are receiving 400 meals a week,” including individually packaged meals and family-style meals with enough food for four people, Pastorek said. 

The meals always include a protein, a vegetable and a starch, Pastorek said, but the specifics depend “on the day and the chef’s mood.”

“We want to make sure it’s delicious, scratch-cooked … the kind of meal you would expect if you were eating at a restaurant,” she said.

The meals that are distributed at Loaves and Fishes once a week are from the Chinese restaurant Tansou, which is one of several Nashville restaurants run by celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan. “She jumped at the chance to be involved,” Pastorek said.

Some of those meals are also distributed through the food program for senior citizens that Catholic Charities participates in, and distributed to tornado victims, Overlock said. “It’s kind of going all over.”

The restaurant Henley, located in the Kimpton Aertson Hotel on Broadway, is providing the family style meals that are taken to St. Frances Cabrini Church in Lebanon to be distributed to families affected by the March 3 tornado.

The need for the meals has been growing because of the combined blows of the tornadoes and the pandemic, Overlock said. 

The number of people getting lunch through the Loaves and Fishes program has increased in recent months from 50 a day to 80, Overlock said. “We’re getting a dozen or more every day of people we’ve never seen before.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the people served were homeless, Overlock said. Now, there are more people who have lost their jobs or were already on the margins.

The meals provide not only physical relief but a positive emotional boost as well, Pastorek said.

Many people have been under stress for so long they don’t want to cook, Pastorek said. “Having a prepared meal show up once a week can make a huge emotional difference for people.”

World Central Kitchen had allocated $50 million to the national Chefs for America program, Pastorek said, but “they’ve blown right past that.”

The Nashville program, which started in June, is scheduled to end on Aug. 14. But World Central Kitchen is accepting donations that could keep the program running, Pastorek said. 

People can make a donation by visiting the World Central Kitchen website, www.wck.org. When people make a donation they should write in the comments section of the online form that the money is intended for the Nashville program, Pastorek said.


How to help

To donate to the Chefs for America program, which pays restaurants to provide meals for the needy while also keeping their staff employed, visit the World Central Kitchen website, www.wck.org.

In the comments section of the online donation form, indicate the money is for the Nashville program.