Swannanoa Valley nonprofit bridges the gap between hunger and food waste

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Sometimes the difference between eating a meal and going hungry is a matter of a missed connection.

Around the country hunger continues to be a growing problem while food waste is at an all-time high. On any given night in the Swannanoa Valley, a family can go to sleep without dinner as catering staff working any number of nearby events are disposing of untouched portions of nutritious, freshly prepared meals.

A partnership between a Black Mountain church and an Asheville-based nonprofit is working to bridge that gap.

Food Connection founder Flori Pate, center, visits with Lorraine Edwards, left, and Brenda Thornburg at Food Connection East.

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, from 5-7 p.m., Black Mountain Ale House and Black Mountain Brewing Co. will host fundraisers for Food Connection East, which has rescued over 8,000 meals for Swannanoa Valley residents since it began in June. The organization is a collaborative effort between St. James Episcopal Church and Food Connection, which was founded by Flori Pate in 2015.  

The Pates first made a name for themselves on the Asheville business scene by making connections of a different kind. Five years ago Ted attended Startup Weekend, an event that allows groups with business ideas to pitch them to a panel of judges.

His team came up with the idea for what is now the Dig Local app, which the Pates launched with partners immediately after it was declared the winner at the event in 2013.

“The idea was to connect visitors and locals alike to the things that make Asheville like no other place on the planet,” Ted said. “We also wanted to find a way to make digital marketing more affordable for small businesses.”

The app, which features a detailed calendar of local events as well as a regularly updated blog, boasts a wide variety of community partners. Less than a year after launching it, an interesting dilemma was presented to the Pates.

Food Connection East volunteers rescue untouched portions of pork loin. The organization has rescued over 8,000 meals in the Swannanoa Valley since June.

“We had a meeting with Mary Evans, the marketing director at Pack’s Tavern and were asking how they were liking their Dig Local account,” Flori said. “She said they loved it but had a problem with excess food after events in their Century Room and wanted to know if there was anything Dig Local could do about it.”

Often, the Pates would learn, event spaces all around Asheville would wind up with unserved food at the end of an evening, and they were forced to throw it out. Ted and Flori weren’t sure what to do about the problem, but they began making connections they thought would help.

First Flori learned about the passing of The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996. Signed into law by Bill Clinton, the Food Donation Law protects those who donate food in good faith from criminal and civil liability. 

Flori then met with Buzz Durham, who started the community garden at their church Grace Covenant Presbyterian on Merrimon Avenue.

“We talked about it,” Flori said. “And that church has volunteers chomping at the bit to help people, but a lot of these deliveries would come in very spontaneously, and often 10 or 11 at night.”

Brenda Thornburg, left, and Lorraine Edwards learned about the efforts of Food Connection to rescue untouched meals from catered events and give them to people who need them. They approached founder Flori Pate about expanding to the Swannnaoa Valley.

They reached out to Woody McKee, owner of Asheville Taxi, and asked if he’d be interested in having his drivers be on call to pick up unused food if it became available.

“The church really liked where we were going with our idea and gave us $750 in seed money to get started with the taxis,” Flori said. “We maybe met three times and we were quickly like ‘this is ridiculous that this food is going to waste when there are so many people in the community who could use it.’”

Food Connection rescued over 100,000 meals and distributed them to organizations like Be Loved House, Trinity Place, the Veterans Restoration Quarters, Spring Creek Community Center in Hot Springs, East Asheville Welcome Table, Hall Fletcher Elementary's MusicWorks after school program and Asheville City Schools Homeless Student Education Program, among others.

When Brenda Thornburg, who attends St. James along with her friend Lorraine Edwards, saw the story of Food Connection on a television segment earlier she had an idea.

“She thought that was a really great idea," Edwards said of Thornburg. "She told me about it and I said 'we have to try to do this here,' and here we are."

The two approached St. James about considering the project for a church ministry, Thornburg said. 

"Flori allowed us to come under the Food Connection umbrella," Thornburg said. "And St. James supported us by giving us our seed money."

That money enabled Food Connection East to secure pans to pick up the rescued meals. The church also allowed Thornburg and Edwards the use of space to store a refrigerator donated by MANNA FoodBank. 

"That allows us to have food in cold storage for food overnight if we need to," Thornburg said. "That gives us time between pick-up and delivery."

Ridgecrest Conference Center partnered with Food Connection East from the beginning, and volunteers picked up an average of 20 pans of food twice every week. 

"Partnering with Food Connection East has been a tremendous blessing for us here at Ridgecrest," said Marcus White, the food services manager for the conference center just outside of Black Mountain. "Their mission to help bridge the gap between families in need of healthy food and organizations that sometimes have high-quality leftovers matches perfectly with part of our mission."

Montreat Conference Center also agreed to work with the organization, according to president Richard DuBose.

“Food insecurity can force someone to make incredibly difficult choices – basic nourishment or shelter, or transportation or even medical care," DuBose said. "It’s an urgent issue, and we were honored that Food Connection East asked us to participate.”

Restaurants have don't typically find themselves with excess food at the end of a shift, said John Richardson, owner of Black Mountain Ale House and Black Mountain Brewing Co. However, when he heard about Food Connection East he wanted to find a way to support it. 

"The Ale House has always been a place where the community comes together," Richardson said. "So a fundraiser for Food Connection East here and (at Black Mountain Brewing Co.) across the street seemed like a good fit."

With conference centers schedules being highly dependent upon the time of year, Thornburg and Edwards approached Givens Highland Farms about donating untouched food as well.

"They are very excited about partnering with us," Thornburg said. "We will continue to seek out other donors."

Swannanoa Valley programs like Black Mountain Home for Children, Veteran's Restoration Quarter and the Open Table at Black Mountain Methodist Church have been among those to receive rescued meals. Food Connection East has also partnered with Bounty & Soul, which offers fresh food to under-served communities in the area. 

The also provide meals for the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry homeless shelter at First Baptist Church in Black Mountain. 

"The response from everyone we've talked to about this has been overwhelmingly positive," Thornburg said. "There is just something in all of us that wants to not see food wasted and not see people go hungry."