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In the nearly two months since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Virginia, various groups have formed or reorganized in response to help Charlottesville area communities. Currently, several groups have intersected to continue feeding first responders, help local restaurants and address food insecurity together. 

“When we talk about the economy during COVID, the philanthropic efforts are the new economy we are working in,” said Shantell Bingham, of the Charlottesville Food Justice Network and Cultivate Charlottesville. 

The Charlottesville Food Justice Network, which falls under the recently unfurled Cultivate Charlottesville umbrella, has advocated for equity in food access prior to the pandemic, and Bingham said the coronavirus has magnified the challenges. 

“Prior to coronavirus, we had a high food insecurity rate in Charlottesville,” Bingham said. “We are coming into this pandemic with about 1 in 6 residents, or about 7,600 people, that have food insecurity. Now [COVID-19 is] exacerbating a lot of inequities that have already existed.”

Earlier in April, local entrepreneur and philanthropist John Kluge Jr. and Hunter Smith, of Champion Hospitality Group, teamed up to bring Washington, D.C.-based organization World Central Kitchen’s model to Charlottesville to bolster local efforts.

World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization formed in 2010 in response to earthquakes in Haiti, has fiscally supported local efforts and also has created a website where those interested can donate funds. By operating under the WCK banner, local restaurants can provide meals to the frontlines and those in need while also receiving some funds from the organization to alleviate some financial burdens the pandemic created. Bingham calls WCK “a good model” for blending the business sector with philanthropy.

Charlottesville Community Cares, a grassroots organization that has handled grocery delivery and funds to those most affected financially by the pandemic, and Cultivate Charlottesville have been collaborating with Charlottesville Frontline Foods to identify communities beyond first responders that could benefit from provided meals. 

Kluge said Frontline Foods has delivered more than 18,000 meals to medical workers and first responders between the city and county. The operation has more than 90 volunteers who assist with meal assembly and delivery. The list of participating restaurants continues to grow, and includes smaller restaurants and food carts, and so is the roster of people being delivered to. 

This week, Frontline Foods teamed up with Charlottesville Community Cares to deliver meals to Townwood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle County and Crescent Halls in Charlottesville. Collaboration between Cultivate Charlottesville and Charlottesville Community Cares is expected to help Frontline Foods  broaden and increase its deliveries to communities around the area.

“People are understanding that food insecurity has always been an issue … with the narrative of ‘we also need to save our restaurants,’ that’s when we start thinking about how can we use these philanthropic investments in our food economy to start doing things in an equitable way and giving all businesses a shot,” Bingham said.

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A volunteer preps food to be delivered on April 30.

Credit: Mike Kropf / Charlottesville Tomorrow

Restaurants that have been participating include Moe’s Original BBQ, Pearl Island Catering, The 106, Order Up Mobile Food Cart, DOMA Korean Kitchen, Mochiko CVille, Mahana Fresh, Farmacy, the Catering Outfit and Felinis.

Recent restaurants to come on board include Soul Food Joint, Sombrero’s Mexican Cuisine, Royalty Eats, Vivace and Smoked Kitchen and Tap.

Between the two local hospitals and 17 first responder agencies and squads in the city and county, Kluge estimates that the delivered meals will reach or exceed 20,000 over the weekend. 

While some restaurants have sufficient space and kitchens for the deliveries, Bingham noted how some businesses might not have been able to join if there weren’t an atmosphere of collaboration and sharing.  

“Our community has done a good job of giving those folks access to commercial kitchens if they need to. Hunter [Smith] has been sharing his space,” Bingham said. 

Bingham noted the existing barriers other establishments have had, like the cost of rent for space or access to loans. 

“There are a lot of restaurants run by people of color or immigrants. We saw that because of the Downtown Mall and how much it costs to rent a space, a lot of businesses run by minorities or immigrants tend to be food trucks,” Bingham explained. “Now that COVID is here, those that had full-service commercial kitchens and space indoors have had more capacity to crank out a large amount of meals if tapped.” 

As live performances at venues like The Jefferson Theater on-hold for the time being, Red Light Management offered its downtown venue as additional prep space for delivery efforts. With kitchens being shared and space for volunteers to prep at the theater, a broader coalition of eateries can contribute to the ongoing efforts. 

Bingham said that with federal, local and nonprofit funds going through the crisis relief pipelines and a global pandemic highlighting food insecurity, various groups can work to bring equity into the conversation even more than before COVID-19.

“That’s when we start to say, how can we utilize all these dollars pouring into focus on folks in our food economy that didn’t have as much access before?” Bingham explained.  “Then maybe on the other side, things will be more equitable.”

While the goodwill of volunteers, restaurants and nonprofits can help the greater Charlottesville community during this time, it won’t solve systemic challenges of food access and security overnight. Kluge echoed how it will take continued collaboration and work past the pandemic.

“If there’s something that this crisis can do is to put a spotlight on those issues,” Kluge said. “When we get through this — and we will get through this — hopefully the community that has been responding to this work can carry it on and address the more systemic issues and support the people who have been doing that for a long time.”