For years, I have diligently placed canned goods into the Lowcountry Food Bank (LCFB) drop-boxes around Charleston. While I always knew that they distributed food throughout the Lowcountry, I did not know the breadth of the territory that they cover or about the many other programs they spearhead—all working to eliminate hunger in our neighborhoods. The Lowcountry Food Bank distributed more than 19 million pounds of food in 2012 and they are on-target to exceed that amount in 2013. They work with 300 smaller food distributing agencies in ten counties in coastal South Carolina, from Myrtle Beach to Beaufort. Theirs is no small task. The reality of what is involved in that kind of production becomes crystal clear when you visit the expansive aisles of the food warehouse and the chilly rooms of the walk-in cooler.
Hollis Tuma, the Communications and Special Events Manager for the Lowcountry Food Bank, recently gave me a tour of the LCFB facility. She methodically led me through the 60,000 square foot building which is a maze of kitchens, huge walk-in refrigerators, and food storage. While the LCFB strives to help all in need, they have several programs that specifically target senior citizens and children. The Kids Cafe/Food Works program is one such program. Food Works is centered in the Zucker Family Production Kitchen in the heart of the LCFB. This fourteen week program is designed to introduce unemployed and underemployed individuals to a commercial kitchen. The goal is to familiarize the students with food preparation, kitchen flow, and sanitation procedures in order to help with job readiness and resume preparation. The Food Works program was started in 2011. Since then, nineteen students have graduated from the program and 80% of the graduates have either found employment in the culinary industry or have chosen to continue their education. The facility that they have to work with, thanks to the generosity of the Zucker Family, would rival almost any commercial kitchen in size and equipment. The brigade of cooks in the Food Works program, lead by Chef Kim Ortego, produces over 4,000 meals per week. These nutritionally sound, and of course tasty meals, serve 1,021 kids throughout the Lowcountry through after-school programs for the Kids Cafe program as well as seniors served by East of the Cooper Meals on Wheels and Charleston Area Seniors. In the kitchen, the students are aided by a group of regular volunteers and are also frequently visited by Charleston chefs including Nate Whiting of Tristan, Emily Cookson of Charleston Grill and Robert Carter of Carter’s Kitchen / Rutledge Cab Co. who volunteer in the kitchen and serve as guest chef instructors. The enormous task fulfilled each day by the students is accomplished with speed and precision under the watchful eye of Chef Ortego. She is passionate about what she does and while her goal is to educate the new cook’s apprentices in the Food Works program, her main objective is to ensure the food gets out and gets out on time. Once the cooking is done, the food is moved to a staging room where it is divided among rows of cambro food warmers and red LCFB shopping bags. It is then bound for the schools and waiting cars of Meals on Wheels volunteers.
Backpack Buddies is another program run by the Lowcountry Food Bank that also aims to help food-insecure children. The goal of this program is to provide weekend snacks for children who are enrolled in public school. These kids are selected to participate in the program by school nurses, guidance counselors, teachers, and social workers. The program operates in 43 schools throughout the LCFB’s ten county service area and serves 2,900 children per week. Sample backpacks are displayed, showing what a typical backpack might contain: 2 servings of cereal, 2 small cans of ravioli, 2 granola bars, 2 cans of fruit, and 2 small cartons of milk. Hollis stresses that the backpacks are meant to supplement meals, not to be the only source of food over the weekend.
The facts and figures of the Lowcountry Food Bank are impressive. However, it is really that which cannot be listed on a fact sheet that is inspiring. The Kids Cafe program (the recipients of the meals prepared by the Food Works culinary apprentices program) provides not only a meal but also an opportunity for socialization—to sit and dine together (an opportunity that many of the kids do not receive at home). The kitchen at the LCFB is a constant learning environment, where cooking and life skills are acquired while friendships are also forged. At the end of their fourteen week program, they cater the graduation ceremony. This gives them a lesson in catering and cost control and the graduation ceremony is often standing room only, filled by the volunteers who have worked alongside the participants and want to help them celebrate their success. The Reclamation Food Initiative is another program at the LCFB and was developed by volunteers. All of the donated food that comes in to the Food Bank has to be inspected and for years all of the dented cans had to be thrown away. but a dedicated volunteer with an engineering background developed a device that pressurizes the cans and tests for leaks; this program has saved 75,000 cans of food in four years!
The Lowcountry Food Bank is an amazing organization that is changing lives every day. You can help by donating food, volunteering in one of their many programs, or by attending the Chef’s Feast which is being held on March 10th at the Embassy Suites Charleston Area Convention Center and will feature more than thirty of Charleston’s talented chefs.