This story is produced in collaboration with the 901 Save The Food campaign and Clean Memphis to highlight the food heroes in Memphis who work to support a more sustainable, local food system.
With recovered food, volunteers make beautiful meals
Outside on a Thursday morning in Memphis, summer is doing its work of slowing down the city. But the energy inside the kitchen at Church of the Holy Communion is anything but slow. A team of Recover Food Feed Hope volunteers are engaged in a well-practiced dance of food preparation.
Their dance floor? A large island in the center of the kitchen. It’s covered with stainless steel bowls filled with yellow squash, cardboard boxes of tomatoes, and pans of pulled pork. By the end of the morning—through intricate steps of chopping, seasoning, and cooking—these individual ingredients will be turned into meals. Those meals will then be packaged, some into half sheet pans to feed crowds and others into servings to feed one or two people. Then they’ll be slid into refrigerators and freezers to await delivery around the city.
Some individual portions will stock 901 Community Fridges, where hungry Memphians can take what they need free of charge. The half sheet pans will make their way to places like First Congregational Church, to be part of community lunches. Smaller portions are shared with the Lisieux Community women’s drop-in center. Other meals will feed children and their parents at the Emmanuel Center, which serves kids in one of the country’s poorest zip codes, and at Hope House, which supports people affected by HIV and poverty.
It’s not surprising to see a Memphis church sharing food with neighbors in need. In a city full of food deserts, programs that offer food to hungry people are relatively common. What sets Recover Food Feed Hope apart is where their food comes from.
Much of what they use to make tasty, nourishing meals is food that otherwise would have been thrown away.
They have some regular donors. “When school is in session, Rhodes College brings us 100 to 300 pounds every Sunday,” says Barbara Boucher, one of the Recover Food Feed Hope leaders.
They also recover food from the FedEx Event Center at Shelby Farms and soon will have a partnership with the Germantown Performing Arts Center. Caterers often donate food after weddings and other events.
“We recovered some beautiful meals from A Movable Feast Catering—pork tenderloin and mashed potatoes and spinach,” says Barbara.
Food left from a St. George’s school faculty meeting was turned into 60 salads and 75 individual meals.
A restaurant owner once received 90 40-pound cases of the wrong kind of chicken wings. Recover Food Feed Hope had space for only about 10 cases, but they reached out to partners to find homes for the rest.
Farmers markets often donate produce that customers have overlooked because of an odd shape or other imperfections.
“It’s amazing when this food comes in,” says Nancy Kelso. “You think, ‘We just need to throw that away.’ But then you clean it up, cut it up, and it’s beautiful.”
Last year, one morning’s worth of working on tomatoes yielded enough to last them through most of the winter. “We were able to make all kinds of sauces and soups,” says Judy Horning.
And all of the volunteers are adamant about this point:
“We never make anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” says leader Dorothy Brownyard.
Recover Food Feed Hope started accidentally during the early days of the pandemic. Barbara received a call from a fellow parishioner who was involved with Constance Abbey, which supports unhoused people in the neighborhood near St. Mary’s Cathedral. “They were hungry because all the food programs had really shut down,” says Barbara.
The friend said, “Barb, we need food. What can we do?”
It was March of 2020, and Barbara wasn’t sure what to do—so she made 300 sandwiches and drove them to Constance Abbey herself.
The work grew from there, with volunteers from Church of the Holy Communion and other congregations. “By June we were sending 180 to 200 bagged lunches five days a week,” says Barbara.
Soon after, they started delivering hot meals.
Eventually, Clean Memphis learned of Barbara and her team’s work and connected them with the Jewish Federation, who were gleaning produce from a farmers market. “They would get a lot of things they couldn’t use,” said Barbara. “We started sending someone on Wednesday afternoons to pick up their excess.”
That’s when Recover Food Feed Hope as it exists today began to take shape. Barbara and four other women serve as leaders, who take turns being in charge of a week’s work. When recovered food arrives, the week’s team leader assesses it, decides what meals can be made from it, and then creates stations. When volunteers arrive at the church kitchen, each is assigned to a station and the dance of meal prep begins.
Then, through an intricate system of freezer storage, insulated bags, and delivery drivers, all of the meals eventually get to the people who need them.
Now they’re looking to the future and to the sustainability of their work. They held a food-handling class in June so all volunteers would understand food safety. They’re putting systems in place and recruiting more people so volunteers won’t be overworked and burned out, and they anticipate needing additional locations for food preparation and storage.
“We’d love to get more restaurants involved,” says Dorothy. “And having enough volunteers is always a challenge.”
They’re hoping that other groups will get involved and replicate their model. “We don’t own this,” says Janice Hall, who’s another volunteer leader.
“Our vision is to help other groups get organized and be able to do this. There are so many people that need to be fed.”
And they’re working to address challenges. In summer, for example, when Rhodes College isn’t in session, they have a hard time finding recovered protein, though they have an abundance of produce gleaned from farmers markets.
Despite the challenges, the volunteer leaders are passionate about what they do—both feeding people who are hungry and reducing food waste in Memphis.
“All of this food would have been thrown away before we started doing this,” says leader Nancy Kelso.
Janice has found that her Recover Food Feed Hope work has decreased the amount of food she wastes in her own kitchen. For example, she’s learned that storing produce in glass containers can dramatically increase its longevity. “I’ve had lettuce for three weeks, and it looks beautiful,” she says.
For Barbara, the physical work of preparing and serving food is also spiritual.
“This is spiritual for me—being with everybody, knowing that we’re doing good,” she says. “I don’t think of it as work because I love doing it. I’ve always said that God gives us gifts, and the gift he gave me was the love of cooking and feeding.”
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves telling stories and helping other writers tell their stories.
Stacey Greenberg is the editor in chief of Edible Memphis. You can follow her at @nancy_jew.