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I suspect we’ll all look back at the days and weeks preceding the pandemic’s full-bore arrival in March, and if we’re being honest, recall them with the same sense of ominous foreshadowing typically felt when the tornado warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service, and the sky on the horizon is painted a green-tinged shade of black.

But at least with a tornado, we know from experience what to expect. There’s a playbook. With the approach of COVID-19, no such “luck.”

On March 2 at the Bomhard Theater, The LEE Initiative (Let’s Empower Employment) took part in an informative, entertaining celebration of its primary mission at the time:

We started the LEE Initiative in Louisville, Kentucky in 2015 after we saw a need for more diversity, more training, and more equality in our own restaurants.

LEE Initiative’s 2020 mentees revealed at “The Future of Food is Female”

Two weeks later came the lockdown – or, a series of emergency pandemic measures that shuttered the food, drink and hospitality industry throughout America. The virus itself was chaotic, and so were efforts to contain it.

In the lockdown’s wake, the year’s favored (read: overused) word “pivot” doesn’t do justice to what The LEE Initiative suddenly became, almost overnight.

Our Restaurant Workers Relief Program expanded to nineteen relief kitchens across the country, distributing hundreds of thousands of meals to out of work restaurant employees, and funding the relief kitchens to hire back some of their staff for months.

Maker’s Mark made it possible out of the chute, to be joined by numerous other sponsors as the uncertain days passed. A core LEE Initiative team of Chef Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek was joined by numerous other volunteers, and as COVID persisted and a summer of social justice movements launched admit the most divisive election campaign of our lifetimes, The LEE Initiative plowed straight ahead with a breathtaking bevy of programs.

With the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, we’ve invested over a $1 million in sustainable farms and worked with our partner farms and restaurants to fix the food supply issues that the pandemic has caused.

With the Restaurant Regrow Program, (we’ve) provided immediate relief for culinary communities across Kentucky in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, Regrow offers critical financial support and assistance to restaurants and food service workers in the devastating wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

With McAtee Community Kitchen, we celebrated the life of Chef David McAtee, distributed tens of thousands of meals to people in need in Louisville, and provided jobs and mentorship for young cooks.

JCPS Family Meal Program: We worked with Jefferson County Public Schools, Churchill Downs, Humana, and Audi to provide meals for families with children in JCPS. In the past two months, we’ve distributed over 50,000 meals and provided jobs for 50 cooks.

All of this is intended as prelude to the year’s coda from Chef Lee, as written for The LEE Initiative’s newsletter, which also includes information about yet another program, The Touring Professionals Relief Kitchen.

The Power of a Meal in the Time of COVID
“The end of a year is always a time for reflection and this year is no different even as we endure the 10th month of a pandemic. The LEE Initiative has accomplished so much this year: over 1.1 million meals served, over $4 million given to direct aid, over $1 million in grants to small family farms, etc. I can recite the numbers but they don’t tell the story of the compassion I have witnessed and the lessons I have learned. People are not numbers. People do not survive on statistics. And human kindness is not a calculation.
“So much has happened since we started with one relief kitchen in Louisville back on March 16th 2020. What I predicted back then sadly turned out to become a reality – that hunger would grip this nation like never before. The sheer scope of the need in our country weighs so heavily on me that I can’t stop to think about it too long or I will be overwhelmed with grief. I have seen mothers go without food to feed their children. I have seen people pick up a meal one week and come back to volunteer the next because they believed so deeply in our mission. I once got an email from a bartender asking for permission to pick up a free meal because even though she was without food, she knew that there were others who were worse off and she didn’t feel like she deserved it. I have seen children without winter coats in December. I have seen people get out of their cars and cry because these meals meant so much to them. I have heard the voices of farmers weeping because a small grant was all they could rely on to get through a bleak winter as they watched their farm wither into seedless dirt. I have read countless emails from chefs pleading for help because they had nowhere else to turn to. I have fielded so many calls and emails and messages varying from gratitude to anger to confusion to hopelessness.
“Sometimes, I am so inured to the daily grind of finding money to buy more meals for struggling families that I grow numb. Sometimes, I am so vulnerable that an offhand comment from a stranger saying, “You should be proud,” catches me off guard and I have to run to the bathroom so I can catch my own tears in the palms of my hand. I vacillate, often numerous times a day, between feelings of pride and guilt and futility. I cannot stop to wonder about how we will ever get out of this mess. I have missed many zoom meetings to lobby on behalf of the restaurant industry to my senators. I forgot to send Christmas cards this year. And still the need piles up, the calls, the emails, the constant worry that we can’t accomplish our goals.
“But tonight is a quiet night, I have a little room to breathe, and this is what I have learned this year. In my almost three decades of being a chef, I finally understand what the power of a meal can be. It is hope. Sometimes a meal goes to a family of four who struggle each night to put food on the table, sometimes it an elderly person who lives in isolation with no one to talk to, sometimes it is a person who is so distraught that a meal feels like a connection to something greater than one’s own struggle. But all these people share one thing. They are all part of our community. They make up a society that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.
“A meal tells people that there is someone who is thinking of them, someone who cares enough to package a roast chicken delicately into a to-go container with the mash potatoes pushed off to the side and a generous pile of green beans tucked in between. A meal is a connection to a farmer, a purveyor, a chef, an administrative person, a volunteer and ultimately to a person who is thankful. Isn’t that what a meal is all about? The meals we have paid for and distributed offer hope to the unemployed chef who can provide for her family, to the farmer who can proudly sell his product knowing it is going to feed someone who will appreciate it, to the truck drivers who are grateful for the work, to the restaurants who don’t want a hand out but an opportunity to work and contribute to society. A meal makes the world go round. A meal is a sense of normalcy in an insane world. It is a source of pride and an act of faith.
“In a year of helplessness, it has provided me the strength and motivation to keep on with my work when sometimes all I wanted to do was stay in bed for days. As a young chef, a meal gave me a restaurant career but as a citizen in the times of COVID, it has given me a purpose.
“For every single person out there who has given so generously to us whether it was $5 or $50,000, you are the heroes of this year. You are the women and men who have stepped up when this country needed you the most. Thank yous are not enough. Every penny you have donated is a miracle that will ensure that there will be a community after this nightmare is over.
“A community that cares for each other, that nurtures our neighbors, that send a powerful message that we will not forget about our peers, our brothers and sisters, our grandparents, our children, our wives and husbands, our friends. I applaud you from the bottom of my heart but I also leave you with this message: the fight is not over. Though a vaccine is here and there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel, we still have miles to go. And every day is an opportunity to move an inch. It is an insurmountable task but my incredible team and I will not stop.
“The LEE Initiative team is Lindsey, Kaitlyn, Collis, Sam, Nina and Erin but we are supported by the guidance and work of our family and friends: Ben, Lora, Shauntrice, Karen, Tim, Dianne and the hundreds of volunteers who have made our efforts possible.
“We need to keep raising funds to get through to the other side of winter. We know you are exhausted. You are tired of giving. You are sick of it all. So are we. But we still need you. We need your compassion. We need your help in spreading our message to whoever is listening. And most of all, we need your hope.
“Together is how we get through this. Together is how I define this year.”