Equal Plates Project Addresses Food Insecurity In Asheville

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A local chef-led initiative is putting more plates in front of community members in need of a good meal and fellowship.

Equal Plates Project uses locally sourced ingredients purchased from farmers at market rates to create scratch-made dishes for residents in need. The nonprofit organization, founded in 2020, is amid an expansion in response to the growing need for food assistance in Asheville and Buncombe County.

Equal Plates Project is made up of a small but dedicated crew of a few on-staff chefs and a handful of volunteers. However, with the addition of a second commercial kitchen and by partnering with other steadfast organizations, Equal Plates Projects is increasing production and reaching more of the city’s neighborhoods and a wider demographic of neighbors.

“The new kitchen is a way to reach a wider population,” said director Madi Holtzman. “It’s come about from a combination of some partners approaching us and asking for meals and also realizing that we could be offering meals in partnership with groups who may not be doing that yet but could benefit their programming.”

Equal Plates Project operates Southside Kitchen in the Southside neighborhood. Executive chef Kikkoman Shaw and chef/production manager Kendrick Burton focus on preparing and serving more than 400 wholesome school lunches and daily meals for six local schools and early learning centers, pushing the kitchen to capacity.

This month, Equal Plates Project added a new site, making use of an underused kitchen in Central United Methodist Church in downtown Asheville. Chef Chad Holmes heads the kitchen, preparing meals that are then distributed across the city through partnerships with several local service organizations’ food programs.

“It seemed like this position was tailor-made for me and provided me with everything that I’ve been looking for in a position, especially because it allows me to give back to my community and make an actual difference,” said Holmes, who’s worked in the restaurant industry for 27 years, has a resume that includes aiding in the opening of the award-winning Katie Button restaurant, Cúrate, and serving as the first chef de cuisine at Nightbell.

Equal Plates Project joins the fight against food insecurity with other established organizations that are working together to not only ensure community members eat but that they eat quality, fresh, hot and nutritious meals regularly.

Currently, partnerships have been forged with 12 Baskets Café, Food Connection, Homeward Bound and Council on Aging of Buncombe County Inc. Equal Plates Project also plans to provide nutritional, customized meals to mothers pre- and postpartum through the doula program, Sistas Caring 4 Sistas, and to Medicaid recipients through the Healthy Opportunities Pilot.

“It’ll be good for our relationship with farmers, too, which is a big part of our mission,” said Holtzman, who noted that the new partnerships will connect the nonprofit with more adults. “It also means we can get a little more creative with vegetables that kids won’t eat. We can get even deeper in our support of local farmers.”

Equal Plates Project aims to share 30,000 scratch-made meals this year.

Funding includes city and county grants, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and private supporters. Most meals will be free, but certain community partners may pay Equal Plates Project for meals on a sliding scale.

Volunteers are needed at both kitchens — no skills are required.

“Spring crops from local farms are just starting to be available, and with kale and things like that there’s so much processing by hand that has to happen,” Holtzman said. “Our goal is to do 100 meals per day essentially this year and maybe we’ll grow if we’re able to grow the team, but with just Chad and volunteers, that’s what’s reasonable. But even 100 meals for one person is a lot.”

Equality served

On March 20, Holmes and Holtzman delivered the first shipment of prepared meals to 12 Baskets Café for its lunch services.

Asheville Poverty Initiative’s 12 Baskets Café offers weekly dine-in and grocery distribution services at its site at 610 Haywood Road in West Asheville.

On average, between 80-110 diners attend the sit-down meals, served from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays. Another 170 prepared meals, groceries, pantry items and other prepared food are given out on pantry/grocery days from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.

Kai Naor, 12 Baskets Café coordinator, said the program was beginning to feel stretched thin, and the new partnership is a big help. More food is needed as the café and pantry are serving more people than expected since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equal Plates Project helps alleviate the strain on the established program’s resources by providing full menus of hot lunches.

“We mostly do food rescue, so it’s food that wouldn’t otherwise be used from places like Whole Foods or Earth Fare and different restaurants,” Naor said. “Now, we’re integrating some other things, like the Equal Plates Project, which is awesome because it’s nice to have fresh food in the mix as well – fresh, organic food. That’s a great thing.”

The menu featured pork shoulder, homemade barbecue sauce, green beans and onions, mac and cheese, and homemade cornbread using Farm & Sparrow’s milled cornmeal.

“They currently rely on recovered food for their meals and from talking to them, they struggle to have enough food,” Holtzman said. “Part of what we’re excited about is it’s not just a meal but a really high-quality meal.”

Attendees include those with or without the means to purchase food or those looking for company and fellowship.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend lunch at 12 Baskets Café as the experience is also about bringing people from different worlds together and breaking stereotypes and creating a transformative community, Naor said.

“The food is an important piece but maybe secondary to a means to bring people to the same table. That’s the main thing we’re trying to do ― bring people from different socioeconomic worlds to the same table to break bread together with people you may pass by on the street,” Naor said. “Now, you’re sitting at the same table with them and actually getting to know them and forming relationships and realizing they’re people with interesting histories, and very kind and sweet, and that they have a lot to offer you too in the way of stories and mutual care.”

Fragile food systems

The need for food assistance is growing more dire amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s become more of a challenge for individuals and families, as well as service organizations that work to assist them.

This month, many households in North Carolina and across the U.S. experienced a reduction in their Food and Nutrition Services benefits due to a federal change that ended emergency allotments that were implemented for the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased funding aided families with financial and economic hardships due to the pandemic.

Benefits have decreased from $8.12 to $5.45 on average per person per day, based on the household’s current eligibility, income, household size and other federal eligibility requirements.

However, people are still feeling the effects of the pandemic three years after COVID-19 began disrupting lives and welfare.

“Buncombe County has a food insecurity rate of just under 15% and that’s about 35,000 people in the county that identified as food insecure, and of that population, nearly 30% doesn’t qualify for food assistance at all,” said Marisha MacMorran, executive director of Food Connection.

Food Connection distributes nearly 650 mobile meals per week to eight marginalized communities in partnership with various organizations. Offerings include rescued food ― prepared food that’s donated and repackaged ― and fresh meals purchased from Equal Plates Project at an affordable price.

The need for food assistance has consistently grown in nutrition services with causes including inflation and hardships from the pandemic, said Heather Bauer, executive director of the Council on Aging of Buncombe County.

The Buncombe Council on Aging, a nonprofit serving residents ages 60s and up and their caregivers, facilitates its Senior and Dining Wellness Program.

“We’re serving almost three times the number of people across our dining sites and the funding, while we have received some funding from ARPA and CARES several years ago, still has not allowed us to fully meet those needs, so we’ve had to implement caps and waiting lists at some of our sites, which had not been the case before,” Bauer said.

Between 2021-2022, more than 35,000 hot meals, plus fresh produce, were provided to more than 400 participants. On average, the organization serves 2,932 hot meals per month, according to Bauer.

And the program had an increased intake of 204 new clients ― an increase from its baseline of 75 clients in 2018.

“We partner with different programs to increase both opportunities to communities for socialization and wellness as well as meeting those nutritional goals,” Bauer said.

In partnership with Equal Plates Projects, the plan is to serve clients living in the HUD housing in Vanderbilt and Battery Park Apartments to help increase meal options, she said.

“We believe collaboration is keeping for collective impact but to take a look at how we can reach more people, both the low-income and middle income and really people in all socioeconomic levels, so we can ensure we can provide not only an equitable service, but we understand wealth doesn’t determine whether or not adults are receiving the nutritional services that they are not.”

Often access to nutritional food is contingent on factors like quality of life, chronic conditions, caregiver status and a variety of other factors, she said.

Clients may have physical conditions or trouble following instructions that prevent them from preparing their own meals. Partnerships like the one with Equal Plates Project aids to remove barriers, Bauer said.

“Many older adults are living on fixed incomes and particularly with inflation they’re struggling to choose between paying for food, prescriptions, medicines and rent,” she said. “Even those who might be in higher wealth categories are stills struggling with the cost of home care and mobility issues and even living with issues like dementia, so food preparation is one of the reasons why we work together to provide prepared meals.”