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There was plenty to celebrate in Celine and Company On Broadway in downtown Asheville on April 4, when seven area chefs served up offerings like venison and snapping turtle gumbo, vegan chorizo potato chips and beef brisket. More than 200 guests filed into the venue in the historic Broadway Arts Building to get a taste of the dishes and learn more about the nonprofit organization that uses events just like these to address food insecurity in the community. 

Chefs in Action: A Night to Benefit Food Connection returned for its second year and a pair of Black Mountain women were among the many reasons to cheer.     

Food Connection was founded by Flori Pate in 2015. Two years after launching the Dig Local app with her husband Ted, she was in a meeting with Pack's Tavern marketing director Mary Evans, who asked for guidance on what could be done with unserved food from events held in the restaurant's downtown Asheville wedding venue, The Century Room.

Flori began researching The Food Donation Law, which protects those who donate food in good faith from criminal and civil liability. 

She worked with Asheville Taxi, which began picking up the leftovers at Pack's Tavern and delivering them to organizations in the area that work with food insecure clients. It wasn't long before other venues in the area joined and Food Connection was born. Since then the organization has rescued over 135,000 meals through partnerships with more than 20 donors. 

In 2018 a group of chefs who participate in the program came together to support Food Connection with the fundraiser, which is presented by Wicked Weed Brewing. 

"This is our one big fundraiser for the year," Flori said. "It helps support all three of the branches of our organization."

This year's event featured musical guests Abby the Spoon Lady and Chris Rodrigues, Jr. James & The Late Guitar and the Rhythm Grill and plenty of food. 

"It's incredibly fresh, gourmet food," she said. "One of our partners, M7 Event Solutions brought venison and snapping turtle gumbo with Carolina gold rice and cornbread and the Omni Grove Park Inn provided pork belly tacos with grapefruit slaw. When guests are able to sample that food, it really helps to show what quality of food had been ending up in the trash. We've helped connect the dots to provide this food to our nonprofit partners who feed the hungry."

Twenty-five trays of food were picked up by Asheville Taxi and delivered to the Veterans Restoration Quarters at the conclusion of the event. 

Lorraine Edwards attended the Chefs in Action in 2018 after seeing a television segment about Food Connection with her friend Brenda Thornburg. The two approached Flori about expanding the operation to the Swannanoa Valley. With a seed money contribution from St. James Episcopal Church, they launched Food Connection Black Mountain (initially known as Food Connection East) in June 2018. 

Edwards and Thornburg were recognized for their efforts during this year's Chefs in Action. 

"We were totally overwhelmed by just how many people came out to show their support for Food Connection," Thornburg said. "It's an amazing feeling, it's hard to describe."

Food Connection Black Mountain is supported by over 15 volunteers and now receives donations from six Swannanoa Valley conference centers. Thornburg and Edwards plan to add more partners and services in 2019. 

"Our initiative for 2019 is to begin getting food to individuals to people who can't make it to local markets," Thornburg said. "We're going to begin, this summer, taking food to some neighborhoods and mobile home parks out in Swannanoa. There is a lot of need in that community and we're hoping to be able to address that."

In its fifth year, Flori's organization continues to expand. 

"We were really focused on getting everything going in the Swannanoa Valley last summer," she said. "Near the end of the summer we were contacted by three women from Charlotte."

Those women, Sue Hawes, Mendy Godman and Kim Aprill, were concerned about food waste in Mecklenberg County. 

The trio was looking into starting an organization that rescues food and discovered Food Connection. Operating under the Food Connection umbrella, Hawes, Godman and Aprill formed Food Connection Charlotte. 

"The best connection there has been with (Chartwells Higher Ed), which is the food service for UNC Asheville," Flori said. "Their corporate headquarters is located in Charlotte and they have branches all over the globe. UNCA has been donating food to us for four years, so Queens University, Johnson & Wales and Belmont Abbey College all immediately agreed to donate food."

Chefs in Action not only allowed Flori to share Food Connection's mission with an audience, it helped shine a light on the partners who have supported the organization as it grows. 

"Everybody was excited to participate," she said. "We were really happy to highlight and celebrate the chefs with this event because if it wasn't for their willingness to pack up and label their food and call Food Connection to come pick it up we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing. They're all so grateful that there is an alternative to throwing away good food and we're grateful for them too."

 

 

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