How Restaurants stepped up to make Atlanta More Edible during the Pandemic

Hank Reid has lived in the suburbs of Atlanta for more than 20 years. In 2019, he decided to use his years of restaurant experience to start his nonprofit, Lettum Eat. The organization is a mobile outreach ministry that is dedicated to ending hunger and food insecurity in the city, work Reid says became much more important during the pandemic.

Initially, Reid planned to sell his food out of a food truck. But, one day he says God told him to “give it away for free” because the people in his community needed help. Now, Reid says he and his team of volunteers are making between 200 and 500 meals every weekday and distributing them out through various churches in the Atlanta area.

“I wanted to find a way to use that experience to feed people that, along with the way all these years, I didn’t have the opportunity to feed,” Reid, who has cooked for more than 30 years for restaurants in downtown Atlanta, Gwinnett County, and Athens, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“I worked in tons of restaurants where people couldn’t afford the meals we served,” he added.

Reid, who has earned the moniker “Chef Hank,” previously owned a small bistro in Snellville, about 30 minutes outside downtown Atlanta. However, the business closed after the 2008 recession. He told the newspaper that this experience helped shape how he views his mission during COVID-19. Reid says he hopes to distribute 175,000 meals before the year ends.

While Chef Hank is making an impact on Atlanta’s north side, two Grammy-winning music artists are helping keep a decades-old Black-owned business alive and well on the Westside. Bankhead Seafood closed abruptly in 2018 after its owner Helen Harden fell ill. Shortly thereafter, Bankhead natives Michael Render and Tip Harris—also known by their stage names, Killer Mike and T.I., respectively—stepped in and purchased the business, vowing to Helen to keep it alive, according to a report by Thrillist.

Amid ongoing gentrification in the area, Killer Mike and T.I. helped modernize Bankhead Seafood by adding a food truck. Initially, the food truck was set to debut in the summer of 2020. But, after the pandemic, the truck was repurposed as a mobile grocery store and pharmacy for the Grove Park neighborhood, one of Atlanta’s most barren food deserts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines an urban “food desert” as an area in which residents live more than one mile away from healthy food, and rural residents live more than 10 miles away. As of December 2020, 17.7 percent of the U.S. population lives in a food desert.

Research by the USDA found the COVID-19 pandemic “greatly disrupted many disenfranchised families’ lifestyles and subsequent access to quality food,” according to a report by Michigan State University. Researchers found that over one-third of low-income families across the country. That number was 4.7-times higher in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

To address these issues locally, The Conservation Fund purchased a former pecan farm after a plan to redevelop it into a townhome community fell through in 2016. The 7.1-acre property is now home to Food Forest at Browns Mill, an ecosystem that offers more than 2,500 edible plants and herbs for local residents.

The forest is part of a larger strategy put forth by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms-Cole to ensuring that at least 85 percent of city residents live within a half-mile of affordable and healthy food by 2022. In 2015, just 52 percent of residents lived within that perimeter, according to the city’s fresh food access report. By 2020, that number jumped to 75 percent.

According to Second Helpings Atlanta, a food rescue organization, approximately one-in-six Georgia residents suffer from food insecurity. In Browns Mill, that total is one-in-three.

Michael McCord, a certified arborist and expert edible landscaper who helps manage the forest, told CNN that the forest serves a much larger purpose for the community than simply providing food.

“Access to green space and healthy foods is very important. And that’s a part of our mission,” he said.

Sustainable America, a food education nonprofit, has counted over 70 similar free food forests in cities across the country. Each of them shares similar meanings in the communities which care for them.

“Forests are places, but forests become social spaces through physical, cultural, environmental, and emotional connections. One such connection is food, which can bring people together, but others such as dialogue, wildlife, and recreation are also important,” the group wrote on its website.

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