Usually this time of year, Morgan Allen is busy booking Michelin-star chefs for each fall’s Euphoria food festival in downtown Greenville.
Coronavirus severely scaled back the annual event two months ago and the pandemic’s recent surge has left prospects for the 2021 festival uncertain. Still, Allen and her small staff are as busy as ever, working nights and weekends, elbow-to-elbow with 10 restaurant owners and dozens of volunteers to box up and deliver thousands of meals to people and organizations affected directly by coronavirus.
Money for the effort — a total of $500,000 — came earlier this month via Greenville County’s portion of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Greenville County’s government received $91.3 million this past spring and has until the end of December to spend it all.
“I didn’t realize how impactful this was going to be,” Allen said this week. “I honestly didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”
The project is a win-win-win-win.
The county is hustling to find worthy projects to fund. Restaurants need to serve meals to stay afloat. Charities whose missions include feeding people have seen a spike in demand amid the coronavirus pandemic. And in the middle is Euphoria, which is handling the logistics and keeping its own small nonprofit staff intact in the process. The organization has taken a hit financially, just as all nonprofits and charities have amid the economic decline nationally, Allen said.
For the past three weeks, Euphoria has worked with more than 30 recipient organizations, the largest of which is Greenville County Schools. Nine high-poverty “Title 1” elementary schools are receiving more than 3,300 meals a week from Larkin’s restaurant, which has in turn hired an extra person to keep up with demand, Allen said.
Altogether, the food lift delivered 5,000 meals its first week, 6,700 its second week and is on track — with the coming holiday — to deliver more than 9,000 this week.
“This is all the restaurants really stepping up,” Allen said.
Restaurants include frequent Euphoria festival participants — Table 301 Catering, Grits & Groceries, Fork & Plough, Bobby’s BBQ, The Cook’s Station, West End Events at Fluor Field, Jianna, Nard’s Backyard BBQ and The Habitap.
The concept of delivering restaurant food to charities originated with Table 301′s Carl Sobocinski and Advoco, a local software consulting company. Advoco had booked Table 301 for an event in the spring but asked that the food instead go to charities when the pandemic shut the event down. That initiative, called Connect for Good, continued through the summer and fed nearly 19,000 people before Euphoria took over, secured the CARES Act money and expanded it drastically.
“Carl Sobocinski approached Euphoria with this idea,” Allen said. “He hadn’t finished his sentence before I said, ’Yes!”
Spending deadline approaches
Allen said Euphoria is spending about $80,000 a week on the community meals program and plans to ask the county for more money. She submits a report to County Administrator Joe Kernell every Thursday explaining what was spent and why.
That documentation is important, because the county must prove to federal authorities the money is spent on coronavirus relief. Failing that, the county will have to pay the money back.
“Basically I felt like the $500,000 was like a trial, that you can actually do this,” Allen said. “They can see the impact we’re making.”
A parallel $500,000 program the county is also funding — this one through ReGrow SC — is partnering up local nonprofits and an additional 40 restaurants to provide up to 200 meals for vulnerable populations in low-income neighborhoods for nine weeks. This program will source at least 70 percent of ingredients from local farms.
The county has just one more month to get through its CARES Act funding. About 52 percent remains unspent, though Greenville County Councilman Lynn Ballard said about $30 million has been committed. That leaves $10 million to $12 million the county must still find a home for, and Allen said she is applying.
On Thursday afternoon, 16-year-old Janiah Sweeney scooped sweet potato crunch and green beans into dozens of Styrofoam boxes.
“It’s really fun,” Sweeney said. “Community service is one of my favorite things to do.”
Sweeney’s father, Tay Nelson, runs Bobby’s BBQ on Main Street in Fountain Inn. Business, he said, is down about 20 percent, and the restaurant expects to take a bigger hit in the coming holiday season.
“A lot of businesses are not doing their holiday catering,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you have to count your blessings.”
The 70 meals departing the Bobby’s BBQ kitchen every Friday go to the Greenville branch of Mental Health America and Pleasant Valley community center, a facility in Greenville County District 25 that is an underserved, high-minority area where Nelson said he spent a lot of time in his teens.
“The biggest thing is helping people in need,” Nelson said.
Calls are up 300 percent
Greenville’s Mental Health America (MHA) branch handles a crisis hotline center that it staffs with volunteers 24 hours a day, said Taliyah Riddick-Waters, the organization’s education and outreach coordinator.
In recent months, Riddick-Waters said, MHA’s call center in Greenville has received about 2,000 calls a month — triple the number they were receiving a year ago. These are people going through a financial, health, emotional or substance abuse crisis somewhere in South Carolina, and COVID is driving up their stress, Riddick-Waters said. Volunteers do not want to leave their stations to eat. Most of the calls they miss come in overnight, when restaurants and grocery stores are closed.
Some calls last five minutes, she said. Others go on for hours.
“You can’t interrupt a call and say, ‘I’m going to get a bite to eat,’” Riddick-Waters said.
MHA receives 20 meals on weekends from Bobby’s BBQ. Volunteers gobble them up.
“I want to thank Euphoria for even considering us for this opportunity,” Riddick-Waters said.