Pay It Forward Charleston’s founding team member Drisa Lamb shares how the lowcountry food community came together in the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown to take care of eachother, forging an organization committed to serving those who serve us.
By Drisa Lamb, Butcher & Bee Manager
Pay It Forward Charleston began when Michael Shemtov first brought the idea to the table the night the Bee shut down on March 17th, 2020. I felt inspired and could not wait to get started, waking up the next morning to immediately begin to round the troops. It seemed natural to bring on Growing New Farmers program graduate Josh Kleiger with his farm contacts and Butcher & Bee manager Flo Languell for her organizational skills. We were determined to help feed our newly unemployed colleagues. We immediately started getting systems in place and reaching out to farmers for help. Tara Pate joined the effort and her marketing expertise was the final touch we needed to get things off the ground.
Outreach began with employees from Butcher & Bee and The Daily and quickly grew as Michael put us in touch with more and more restaurateurs that wanted to help their employees as well. The first day we passed out groceries was March 28th and we were able to procure enough food to get it into the hands of about 200 out-of-work F&B employees. Tara, Josh, Flo, and myself all personally called each recipient to give them instructions for pick-up and safety protocols. We wanted to keep this as personal as possible because we knew that reaching out for assistance of any kind when you are in need can be difficult, and the intention was to make the process comfortable and approachable on all levels. My husband and I assembled the first round of bags, and all the bags that came out of Butcher & Bee for the duration of the program, which was very helpful in getting SOPs together in order to add more distribution points as things expanded.
By the second week of distribution we were already seeing a demand for more assistance. John Zucker’s team at Cru Catering (Beth Walton, Todd Anis, and Steve Boyer) had reached out to help and they could not have had better timing. The list of F&B employees in need was growing, and it was growing fast. Beth hopped on board with my side to help with outreach, while Steve and Todd paired with Josh to help with sourcing, receiving, and distributing products. We still only distributed 200 bags that week, but with their help and bringing in new distribution points we were able to expand to 1200 bags by week four, and consistently pass out about 1000 bags per week moving forward.
As COVID cases dropped and restrictions lifted, there was a downshift in the demand for bags. This also coincided with the ability of distribution points to participate due to the fact that they were all trying to get back to normal operations within their restaurants. Mickey Bakst, the original fiscal sponsor with Feed the Need, had an excellent suggestion that we reach out to all the directors of the local shelters he had worked with to see if they could help. So we did, and of course, they were more than happy to do so. Operations were quickly transferred to Our Lady of Mercy, One80 Place, and Tricounty Ministries. These locations were spread out enough that recipients could pick up provisions close to home which was an added bonus. This transition was also instrumental in reducing the amount of weekly waste from no shows, as these organizations serve communities beyond the enrolled F&B recipients. The founding team carried on with the bags as long as we could sustainably do so, which was until about mid September.
Over the first eight weeks Pay It Forward Charleston provided more than 11,000 grocery bags to over 2,250 individuals. Donation amounts ranged from $5-$10,000 totaling over $116,000, which was in turn spent locally. Food from over 20 Charleston-area farms, food producers, and local-independent businesses filled the bags, serving employees from more than 250 restaurants who received the grocery assistance at no cost. It was a tremendous effort to be a part of during this whirlwind year.
The team engaged now Executive Director Carrie Larson and gained 501(c)(3) status by the close of 2020 and the organization continues to serve the foodservice and hospitality community through its Emergency Relief Fund. Pay It Forward stands ready to offer provision assistance when crises strike, though is now also able to offer financial assistance to individuals facing financial uncertainty due to physical or mental health setbacks, bereavement needs, family support needs or an accident. Learn more, donate to the Emergency Relief Fund or apply for assistance at www.payitforwardcharleston.org.
Businesses whose products filled Pay It Forward’s provision bags:
Rooting Down Farms
Spade & Clover Gardens
Butcher & Bee
Balzac Brothers & Co.
Dalai Sofia Kombucha
Keegan Filion Farm
Rio Bertolini Pasta
Pay It Forward Charleston is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable foundation. The Emergency Relief Fund provides support in the form of grants to those employed by or who own restaurants or bars or are employed by a restaurant or bar supplier that are faced with unforeseen financial hardship. The organization stands with those in the food and beverage community and is committed to “serving those who serve us.” EIN #: 85-1238004