Chefs, organizations join together to fight food insecurity this Thanksgiving

With a rising number of hungry Americans, here's how the food industry can help.

November 24, 2021, 4:14 AM

As Americans prepare for their Thanksgiving dinners, an expansive effort is being made across the country to help the millions of those struggling to put food on the table.

Over 13 million U.S. households, nearly 38 million people, have struggled with food insecurity since 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, due to the challenges brought on during the pandemic, with everything from lost income and rising costs of groceries to a dwindling number of donations to charities that provide food nationwide.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, told "GMA" that the supply chain crisis has had a direct and negative impact on food banks because they "rely a lot on donations directly from manufacturers and retailers."

Now, organizations are working directly with chefs and restaurants to address the issue and help support their local communities in need of a meal this holiday season.

Partners and platforms providing for food banks

PHOTO: A volunteer helps unload food for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.
A volunteer helps unload food for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.
Wayne Thompson

​Eric Aft​, the CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, told "GMA" his organization has seen a rise in requests for food assistance over the past couple of months "as government assistance has decreased despite continued economic and health-related uncertainties."

In addition to traditional food assistance work, Aft said his organization has "worked with area restaurants and chefs to provide special meal distributions" for their Community Meals program, which included using food from the restaurants that would have otherwise gone bad.

"Our Food Bank runs a culinary training program and has an additional kitchen to prepare meals that are delivered to kids and seniors. As a result of the pandemic, we rapidly increased our production -- growing from 2,400 meals per week to some weeks where we were providing 40,000 meals," he said. "Today, we preparing and delivering 16,000 to 18,000 meals per week, and we anticipate this significantly growing in the coming months."

PHOTO: Loaves & Fishes volunteers pack boxes with food for donation.
Loaves & Fishes volunteers pack boxes with food for donation.
Kappius Photography

Aft said that for the incredibly dedicated staff and volunteers, "it is a mix of inspiration, sadness and exhaustion."

"It has been difficult to witness the extreme and persistent need of our fellow community members," he said. "While we’ve given folks a break where possible, they have dealt with the same challenges of others, but still have pushed through knowing that our mission is critical to so many."

Loaves & Fishes CEO Tina Postel said their Charlotte-based operation "experienced a tsunami of food insecurity" in 2020, and the organization increased the number of people fed from 80,000 people to over 120,000 people.

PHOTO: Volunteers help Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.
Volunteers help Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.
Wayne Thompson

"Restaurants, grocery retailers and farmers are happy to donate excess fresh items because it eliminates food waste while doing something in service of others," she said. "They are always happy to support us with an abundance of food donations knowing that it will allow children, families and seniors to have a full plate this holiday season."

"We anticipate our numbers remaining elevated not only for the months ahead but for the next couple of years," Postel explained as a result of COVID-related catalysts. "This pandemic created many first-time food recipients who found themselves trying to navigate an often confusing social services net for the first time in their lives. Luckily, programs like ​findhelp.org allowed those to find the services they needed quickly online based on a quick zip code search."

Emily Storozuk, the director of community engagement for findhelp.org, the largest nationwide social care network with over 552,000 human-verified program locations listed, said their "data support team partners with organizations, like Second Harvest Food Bank and Loaves & Fishes, to ensure we have the most up-to-date distribution dates, times and availability," which is "especially important over the holidays -- as things can change quickly."

"I think across the board, everyone is in need this holiday season. We’ve seen that 'Food' has made up close to 20% of all search volume on findhelp.org in the last 90 days, totaling over 600,000 individual searches for food," Storozuk said.

Chef-backed support

Cooks Who Feed founder Seema Sanghavi echoed what the organizations have been saying. "The need for food donations has been much higher than most years," she said, explaining how her social enterprise teamed up with celebrity chef ambassadors, including Art Smith, to help feed those in need.

"We do this by sharing the profits with charity partners that recover surplus food to reduce food waste and provide immediate hunger relief. Many of our aprons have been designed by chefs who are passionate about fighting hunger," Sanghavi said of the work that has provided over 300,000 meals and counting with a goal of reaching 500,000 by the end of 2021.

PHOTO: Chef Art Smith supports Cooks Who Feed wearing his ethically made apron that supports food insecurity.
Chef Art Smith supports Cooks Who Feed wearing his ethically made apron that supports food insecurity.
Chef Art Smith

Smith, whose own nonprofit, Common Threads, addresses food insecurities in nine states year-round, said he recognized that "during the holiday season, the need is even higher, and it’s important for us all, including the hospitality business, to give."

"My Chicago restaurants, Chicago Q and Blue Door, are working as they have every year to help with fresh food gifts. I do like my late mother, Addie Mae Smith -- you bake two loaves of bread and give one away," he said. "We were all taught to share our food. You being the example creates change and inspiration."

Giving real resources to food-insecure students

"Top Chef" alum and James Beard winner Kwame Onwuachi worked this month to shine a spotlight on food justice and insecurity on college campuses ahead of the holiday. He joined Lehman College and Montefiore Health System to distribute over 900 bags of produce and everything needed to make a traditional, nutritious Thanksgiving meal to the more than 40% of food-insecure student population in the Bronx, New York, and held a cooking demonstration and tasting.

"The Bronx has been the forgotten stepchild, especially during COVID -- this is one of the largest food desserts in the country," the chef, who was raised in the Bronx, said. "Food is a basic human right, and it shouldn't be something that people have to fight for -- it's as basic as shelter and having water."

As the co-chair of the college’s Food Security and Sustainability Initiative, Onwuachi, along with Alice Waters, will "show students many different paths to food advocacy" to implement sustainable practices on campus and influence relevant local and federal policies.

"Ending food insecurity in the Bronx should be the mission," Onwuachi said. "During COVID, I came back and helped open restaurants to help feed the community with World Central Kitchen with Jose Andres, and through that I became inspired on what else I can do and continue to give back."

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