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Local Food Bank Partnership Keeps Restaurant Workers Employed, Feeds Low-Income Seniors

A man at Feeding Northeast Florida unloads a truck filled with food from Walt Disney World.
Feeding Northeast Florida
A man at Feeding Northeast Florida unloads a truck filled with food from Walt Disney World.

As many Jacksonville restaurants cut back hours, lay off workers, or close, some are left wondering where their next meal will come from as they watch their bank accounts shrink. But a new local food bank partnership is helping some cooks stay employed, while feeding those in need.

Lauren Pomeroy is Congaree and Penn’s farm ambassador. She also leads goat hikes at the farm.

Congaree and Penn’s goats used to get a lot of attention from visitors, but agritourism – like all tourism – is on hold. And Pomeroy says the goats are pretty needy, so she's making sure to take them out for solo hikes these days. 

A goat at Congaree and Penn.
Credit Cole LoCurto
A goat at Congaree and Penn.

Like most businesses, Congaree and Penn, on Jacksonville’s Northside, is taking a big hit.

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

“I knew that tourism would come to a halt as the social distancing was becoming a priority,” Pomeroy said. “But I was shocked to see the restaurants and bars closed. It was something I’ve never experienced before and I’ve been in a restaurant for over 10 years.”

Chef’s table dinners, weddings, and other events were a huge part of Congaree and Penn’s revenue, and on top of that, the farm is having trouble selling what it grows: mayhaws, olives, blackberries, muscadine grapes, mulberries, figs, trees, and rice. The farm has started curbside pickup and is working on delivery, but Pomeroy said they still have more than they can sell.

“We did a 1,000-pound rice giveaway where we allowed our followers on Instagram and Facebook to go ahead and sign up a family in need or a person in need online and then we delivered the rice right to their doorstep,” she said.

Another 2,000 pounds were donated to Feeding Northeast Florida, a Jacksonville-based food bank.

Feeding Northeast Florida President and CEO Susan King said it was needed.

“Almost immediately we saw a significant reduction in our food supply,” she explained. “We rely on 'grocery recovery,' the things that don’t sell in a store or get close to [their] end date. And as the shelves were bare when you went to the store, it’s a reflection of what was available to us.”

At the same time, demand is up from low-income families, and fewer people are volunteering. But, King said, the community is stepping up in new ways.

Food donated to Feeding Northeast Florida from TPC.
Credit Feeding Northeast Florida
Food donated to Feeding Northeast Florida from TPC.

When The PLAYERS Championship was cancelled, the food that was supposed to feed crowds of spectators went to the food bank.

Related: The PLAYERS Championship Has Been Canceled Due To Coronavirus Concerns

“This was all commercial packaging, institutional sized stuff, and we looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to use this.’ It was way too big in quantities and sizes to be able to safely distribute to families,” King said.

It was around this time that Jon Insetta, one of the owners of the Black Sheep Restaurant Group, called King and said he was worried about his employees. The two put their heads together and came up with a plan to have some of those workers help prepare meals with the food from TPC.

Since then, several other local restaurants have come on board – including Rue Saint Marc, Bread and Board, Bellwether, Chef’s Garden, and Bono’s – and the Jacksonville-based insurance company Florida Blue is providing a kitchen and some food-service staff.

Andrew Blanton with Congaree and Penn is one of the many people now working on the feeding Northeast Florida project, a challenge he’s thoroughly enjoying.

“It’s a little bit like an episode of Chopped, where we see what we’ve got, we try to assemble as many different things on a pallet into something that we think that they could use to create many different meals for the public that needs it,” he said.

Dan Garbor, another Congaree and Penn employee, said creating meals at the food bank is one of the most fulfilling things he’s ever done.

“I spent a lot of time in my career feeding people that, to be honest, can probably afford to miss a few meals. So I think we’re actually doing something good for once,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know that my talents, what I have and even a little bit of a nutritional background, we’re able to take this and actually put it to a good cause and take care of people that need to be taken care of.”

The cooks and warehouse workers are getting paid thanks to grants and donations. King said current funding will last another 10 weeks.

“It’s certainly not the wages that they made before, but we’re hoping that it’s something that can kind of help them get through this hard part,” she said.

A truck filled with food from Disney docks at Feeding Northeast Florida's warehouse.
Credit Feeding Northeast Florida
A truck filled with food from Disney docks at Feeding Northeast Florida's warehouse.

More food has started rolling in too. On top of what came from TPC, Feeding Northeast Florida is now getting regular donations from Disney, Sysco, and others. Just last week they got more than 40,000 pounds of chicken.

“We have no idea how long this food will last, how long the institutional pipeline will last, but we’re just going to keep going until we either run out of funds to employ the restaurant staff or we run out of food, whichever comes first,” King said.

The meals are expected to feed more than 2,000 low-income seniors every week.

To learn more about Feeding Northeast Florida, and to find out how to volunteer or donate, go to FeedingNEFL.org.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.