The tradition of neighbors helping neighbors has taken on new meaning during the time of coronavirus, pushing many of us to become creative in figuring out ways to help each other. There’s no better example of this than in the Charlottesville-area food community, where business as usual came to a screeching halt two months ago. To combat that, many food professionals turned to collaborations to help get their products to customers in a safe and efficient manner.
Responding early was the Local Food Hub, a nonprofit that partners with Virginia farmers to increase community access to local food by providing support services, infrastructure, and market opportunities. With farmers’ markets unable to open, LFH scrambled to launch two alternative low-contact markets.
“We developed the drive-through markets when we saw the traditional sales outlets our farmers rely on drying up,” says Portia Boggs, the Hub’s director of advancement and communications. “The old infrastructure that connected the two was just no longer functioning. Our markets are great for people who have the capacity [income, car, and time].”
For people who don’t? “Our Fresh Farmacy program is catered to those who don’t have those resources—for example, the homebound, elderly, unemployed, and low-food-access,” says Boggs. “This program provides 400-plus weekly shares of locally sourced products, either via home delivery or a centralized, accessible drop point.”
Wilfred Henry of Mount Alto Sungrown in Esmont recognized that his neighbors needed to get their products out, and organized a contact-free delivery of goods to Charlottesville and Albemarle and Nelson counties, including farmers’ market favorites such as cheeses from Caromont Farm, pork and lamb from Double H Farm to soaps and lotions from Grubby Girl, and Henry’s own full-spectrum hemp and CBD products.
“The idea evolved naturally out of my friendship with each of these people,” he says. “We’re neighbors. This is our community. Working together and helping hold each other up is what we do.”
Kristen Rabourdin hadn’t even signed the paperwork to purchase the Batesville Market when everything shut down. A volunteer with the Community Investment Collaborative, she’d planned to showcase local products. “We had anticipated the market being a local music venue [on weekends], and didn’t anticipate having to shift so quickly, but this pushed us…to be this great little country store for people to get their basics without having to go to a large grocery store,” Rabourdin says.
She’s already sourcing locally produced naan and samosas to sell in her market, and she enlisted area baker Maria Niechwiadowicz—herself about to open a bricks-and-mortar location for Bowerbird Bakeshop when everything shut down—to provide macarons.
When she heard that a nearby cannery had closed, Rabourdin applied to get her commercial kitchen approved for use by area purveyors such as Yvonne Cunningham, of Nona’s Italian Cucina tomato sauce, who hopes to shift her sauce production to the Batesville kitchen.
Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen answered the call to provide food for those in need by offering free meals daily for anyone who wants them, and in another response to food insecurity, Pearl Island Café went from providing snacks at the Boys & Girls Club, to getting 400 meals (such as BBQ chicken, rice and beans, fruits and vegetables) per week into the hands of club and community members, an effort privately funded by Diane and Howie Long.
Whitney Matthews, proprietor of Spice Sea Gourmet food truck, was surprised when a friend from culinary school donated money to help her prepare meals for frontline workers. After contacting more alums, she’s been able to prepare 160 meals to date.
“I’ve [also] been reaching out to other female-owned businesses to help with things like desserts,” she says, such as Cocoa & Spice’s Jennifer Mowad, who’s prepared brownies. Maliha Creations’ Anita Gupta, who crafts boutique wedding cakes, donated other desserts; Kathryn Matthews of Iron Paffles & Coffee donated softshell crabs; and Cunningham contributed her sauce and time, preparing food and delivering it. In addition, Matthews has been collecting donations of food and supplies for immigrant families in need.
Jessica Hogan and her husband Gabino Lino of Farmacy Food Truck joined the list of locals who are working with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to feed frontline workers, preparing 300 meals a week for area police departments. Fellini’s Chris Humphrey, who is also contributing to WCK, has been providing two meals a week to his restaurant’s furloughed staff, and is selling frozen meat from local farmers through Foods for Thought.
Junction Executive Chef Melissa Close-Hart says her place and The Local have contributed over 500 meals to various community members, including frontline workers, while also providing one meal a day to the restaurants’ staff.
While the virus’ grip on the ability to operate as usual remains tight, local restaurants and food workers—including too many others to list here—have looked within their community to help where it is most needed, and to maintain each other’s businesses. Henry says the key to carrying on is staying loyal to the food and product sources that are closest to home. “We’re all committed to the sustainability of the local economy, and together we’re working to not only keep each other afloat but also expand access to and knowledge about all the great products we have on offer right here,” he says.