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EDUCATING AGAINST FOOD INSECURITY: Chef Vivian Howard heads the table at food bank’s Chef’s Feast fundraiser

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The sold out Chef’s Feast is this year’s signature fundraiser, but the community typically holds more than 100 that benefit the food bank annually. The next big event will be the Street Turkeys food drive on Wednesday, November 25.

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The inaugural Chef’s Feast fundraiser for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina at Wilmington is sold out. This will allow the food bank to meet its mission of providing meals for nearly 75,000 people living with food insecurity in the Wilmington area. The food bank has a set goal for the 2015-2016 fiscal year to raise $9.2 million and, as of the end of September, they’ve raised 13 percent of their budget. Monies raised go toward food and supplies for more than 90 area food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and group homes.

The Chef’s Feast event on Monday, Nov. 16, at the Terraces at Sir Tyler will showcase an array of local, signature dishes for the cause, and welcome top chefs to the proverbial table. Special guest Chef Keith Rhodes of Wilmington’s Catch seafood restaurant will be joined by Chef Vivian Howard of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, NC. Folks may recognize both from tuning into a few foodie shows, including “Top Chef,” which Rhodes participated in during the 2011 Texas season. Howard’s award-winning PBS series, “A Chef’s Life,” is going into its third season.

Chef Vivian Howard brings a twist to the Chef's Feast table in order to support food insecure homes. Photo by Stacey Van Berkel

Chef Vivian Howard brings a twist to the Chef’s Feast table in order to support food insecure homes. Photo by Stacey Van Berkel

Food insecurity is an issue near to Howard’s heart. So when she was invited to be a part of the food bank’s inaugural Chef’s Feast, her answer was quite simple: “yes.”

“We live in an underprivileged area and our local food bank is always a topic on our agenda here [at the restaurant],” Howard says. “We live in a food desert, basically, [in Kinston], but we tout a farm-to-table restaurant. So I feel like if we contribute on one end, then I need to contribute on the other.”

Before opening the doors of the 100-year-old mule stable-turned-fine-dining restaurant in 2006, Howard lived in New York City. She started off living in nicer neighborhoods in the Upper East Side and SoHo.

“Then I progressively moved into worse neighborhoods, basically, so I could afford a bigger apartment,” she admits. “But I noticed that the ‘worse’ the neighborhood, the worse the choice of grocery stores and less produce in those grocery stores, and the less fresh it looked.”

It was Howard’s first introduction to the fact that not all residential areas have access to food, much less healthy options. Once she returned to her hometown, Howard realized Eastern North Carolina wasn’t a stranger to these types of food deserts—the nearest grocery store to Howard is a Piggly Wiggly, albeit one of the nicer ones, she says. Area-specific conditions can take a toll on perceptions and value placed on food. Affordability and access to healthy, nutritious options is another side to food insecurity that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“A lot people think it’s easier to buy something processed and cheaper to go to McDonald’s to get a quarter-pounder than to make something simple from scratch,” Howard says. “I think it has to do with education and access.”

Until about 40 years ago, low-income families in the area typically grew their own food. Whereas today those with higher incomes are the ones growing and cooking more, lower income families eat more processed, unhealthy food. “I’m not really sure how this happened,” Howard notes. “Really the only people with gardens anymore around here are older people, like your grandmother, who has done it every year, and then a few younger people or people like me.”

As a guest speaker at Chef’s Feast, Howard is going to address these issues related to hunger, as well as broach ideas on increasing farm-to-table resources and access for families. For example, enhancements to North Carolina farmers markets, like increased transportation to the markets and enabling them to accept food stamp benefits, could help. It’s also all a part of an ongoing initiative headed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Chef Howard will perform a live cooking demonstration at the event, too, and bring a new twist on a traditional Southern holiday staple: ambrosia. And sans marshmallows. “I so often find myself wanting to call my dishes ‘not your mama’s … whatever,’” she quips.

The holiday season often finds the food bank’s inventory low, which provides challenges to serve those in need. It’s also the time of year, Howard says, that people tend to think of others more, including giving to local food banks.

“I remember as a kid rounding up cans to take to the food bank around Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she continues. “I think it’s very important to have that focus this time of year, but it’s not the only time of year people need to eat either. This is a major drive, but hopefully it lasts longer than the holidays.”

The sold-out Chef’s Feast is the year’s signature fundraiser, but the community typically holds more than 100 events that benefit the food bank annually. The next will be the Street Turkeys food drive on Wednesday, November 25,  7 a.m. – 7 p.m. at The Landing (530 Causeway Dr.) in Wrightsville Beach.

Donations of frozen turkeys and hams, canned and dried goods, infant formula, diapers and wipes are encouraged and can also be made from 11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. on the same day at the following Harris Teeter locations: Lumina Commons (1940 Eastwood Rd.), Mayfaire Community Center (6805 Parker Farm Rd.), Hanover Center (3501 Oleander Dr.), and Oak Landing Shopping Center (8260 Market St.).

For more on these and future events by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, visit www.foodbankcenc.org.

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