Most disasters come unexpectedly, like a downpour on a sun-drenched summer afternoon that sneaks up suddenly. And when they do, life can change forever. But as history proves, it’s during times of trouble when people band together most.
We’ve seen it during natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, raging floods, diseases—and during manmade catastrophes, too. When tragedy strikes, there’s a great sense of community that grows from it. Neighborhoods, civic groups, and complete strangers rally together for a common cause, and if you look closely, you’ll find that at the very center of many efforts is food.
Southerners have always had a deep-rooted connection between comfort and food; it’s why we make casseroles for the grieving and cherish meals our grandmothers made for us growing up. But when disasters occur, food becomes more than a comfort; it’s one of the first necessities sought out. And yet oftentimes, it’s those who provide food—restaurants, farmers, suppliers, and makers—who are among the hardest hit.
There’s no looking past the toll that severe weather like hurricanes and tornadoes can have on the food industry. From destroying crops, such as Florida’s orange industry that was wrecked by Hurricane Irma in 2017, to infrastructural damages like what Nashville, Tennessee, experienced earlier this year from a tornado, the aftermath can be detrimental.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a different kind of destruction for restaurants and food providers. Sudden mandated closures slowly became permanent shutdowns for some eateries, while others were left on life support, pivoting their business strategies overnight to try and survive.
A decrease in business and, in turn, income meant devoted employees were furloughed and left jobless for indefinite periods. Small farmers who supplied those now-closed restaurants with fresh produce had to find new outlets to stay afloat, and grocery stores faced opposite issues—they couldn’t stock shelves fast enough. These obstacles weren’t new to disaster zones, but it was the nationwide magnitude that worsened the impact. Yet, while hit with an astounding list of adversities, the food industry, in many ways, found resilience.
Restaurants were some of the first who changed their game plan during the pandemic, shifting sit-down service to takeout followed by curbside pickup and noncontact delivery as the days progressed. Others were able to take their food trucks to open-air spots for people nearby to enjoy their food. From restaurant owners, there was a resounding sense of worry not just about their own future as owners of operating businesses, but also the livelihood of their employees and those suffering in the community.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Carrie Morey of Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit gave away baker’s dozens of biscuits out of their food truck to anyone in need, and all donations collected went to pay their employees. In Atlanta, Georgia, Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours enacted a “pay what you can” system for takeaway meals.
Many distilleries also joined in, halting their liquor production to make hand sanitizer for first responders and hospitals. For small farmers, it was also important to adapt. As food vanished from the shelves of big-box grocery stores, the importance of strong local food systems became that much more apparent.
But without restaurants and regularly operating specialty stores, getting the food to consumers proved difficult. Some turned to online sales and local deliveries. In cities across the country, farmers’ markets pivoted as well, adopting a drive-thru concept. Consumers could pre-purchase their desired foods online and when the farmers’ market opened, orders were safely loaded into their cars as they waited in line. This mutually beneficial system provided an avenue for consumers to obtain garden-fresh food in a safe environment, and it also gave farmers and makers the opportunity to sell their goods.
For most businesses, this kind of sudden devastation was uncharted territory. Yet the extraordinary support found in cities and towns across the country shed light on just how close-knit our communities can be.
Restaurants and markets can make great efforts to enact new strategies, but it’s up to the public to respond, and that’s exactly what the community did during the COVID-19 outbreak. People took to social media, sharing their favorite local restaurants and encouraging friends to rally in support of them. For those who wanted to help but didn’t know how, some business owners also posted online messages explaining the best ways to contribute.
In Birmingham, Bandit Pâtisserie posted on Instagram offering ways people could help. “Order online … Buy gift cards … Literally use whatever influence you have for the greater good,” parts of their message read. People banded together to rescue local restaurants and shops by purchasing gift cards to use at a later date and designating certain nights of the week to order out. And this is what kept many businesses going—the taste of normalcy that only a Friday night rush could offer.
One of the most impactful ways restaurants and businesses are helped is through charitable aid. There are always more key players affected than seen at the surface. Restaurant owners are among the hurt in almost any disaster, but along with them comes a long line of cooks, bartenders, and waitstaff who also suffer. Some nonprofit groups that served during the recent pandemic were years-old organizations dedicated to disaster relief while others, seeing the immediate need in their local communities, seemed to pop up overnight.
Chef Edward Lee’s LEE Initiative, a Louisville, Kentucky-based nonprofit seeking to bring more diversity and equality to the restaurant industry, shifted their focus to a relief program for restaurant workers who had been laid off or whose hours had been cut. Through this organization, relief centers were set up at restaurants around the country where impacted workers could receive food and supplies seven days a week.
Southern Smoke Foundation, a charitable group established by Houston chef Chris Shepherd in 2015, also focused on emergency relief for those in the food industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other well-established organizations like Feeding America and No Kid Hungry, along with local food banks, offered assistance to families who had lost jobs and to children who were without food due to school closures.
Mercy Chefs, a disaster relief organization that began in 2006, opened their community kitchens in Portsmouth, Virginia, and Panama City, Florida, to of er professionally prepared meals to those in need. Other impressive groups found ways to nourish healthcare heroes and benefit local restaurants in unison through donation-based work. Locals could call the day’s designated restaurant to make a donation and the organization would deliver meals to area hospitals.
Others set up systems where you could tip a local restaurant worker or bartender any time you made a meal or sipped a cocktail at home. Across the country, there are hundreds of other organizations that offered a hand to people who needed their assistance most.
COVID-19 was not only novel in its scientific makeup but also its impact on the country and the world. For most businesses, this kind of sudden devastation was uncharted territory. Yet the extraordinary support found in cities and towns across the country shed light on just how close-knit our communities can be.
This isn’t the first heartache that our country has experienced, nor will it be our last. As our communities navigate the days ahead and eventually recover, it’s important that we remember, when times are tough, we have to lean on each other.