Omaha group “hurl a variety of meals” for folks in want | way of life

OMAHA, Neb. – The coffee shop at the Food Hub in Omaha’s Florence neighborhood was dark and quiet, but the kitchens were bright, busy, and full of warm aromas of garlic, tomato, and toasted pumpkin.

In the kitchen on the ground floor, non-profit employees from No More Empty Pots shoveled freshly made penne pasta with a marinara sauce made from lentils and Delicata squash into microwaveable trays. They heat-sealed the trays with plastic and put them in paper bags for delivery or collection by people who ordered them.

Downstairs, cooks and volunteers worked on this week’s other meal, roasted red potatoes with flavored cabbage and flavored, crispy chickpeas. Most of the vegetables in both meals were from local growers.

The meals – 1,900 of them – were intended for roadside delivery or collection for people from across metropolitan Omaha and Council Bluffs. The Omaha World-Herald reports that No More Empty Pots has delivered nearly 50,000 plant-based meals and distributed hundreds of boxes of fresh, locally grown produce since early March. This helps ensure that people have healthy food, not just something to eat, during the pandemic and that local farmers can continue to grow.

This is not exactly the way No More Empty Pots envisioned serving the community with their recently renovated Food Hub complex in historic downtown Florence. But it’s what the community needed.

“What we’re doing during the pandemic is tossing lots of meals,” said Nancy Williams, CEO of No More Empty Pots, amid the hustle and bustle on Wednesday. “We support our neighbors by making sure we bring food to us and we support our farmers by buying as much food as possible.”

The economic impact of COVID-19 has made it difficult for many Nebraskans and Iowans to put food on the table. Famine relief organization Feeding America estimates that the number of people in Nebraska and western Iowa suffering from food insecurity rose from about 200,000 to about 300,000 during the pandemic. There have been pantries in Omaha for a long time.

With government assistance inadequate, organizations and individuals have stepped up efforts to fill the gap. There are no more empty pots among them. It helps in unusual ways, which is consistent with its unusual mission. In its tenth year, the organization seeks to promote economic self-sufficiency and food security through education and connecting urban communities and local producers. These include CSAs, or community supported agriculture, where people subscribe to products from local producers.

No More Empty Pots typically offer up to seven programs, from culinary training to educating people of all ages about food. They got things rolling when 2020 started. They had just completed the renovation of an old building at 8501 N. 30th St. into a so-called Food Hub.

This includes the Cups Cafe, where entrepreneurs can present their goods to people. Beginning restaurateurs had pop-ups in the cafe. Various kitchen spaces were used to teach children about nutrition and cooking, for catering and events, to rent out to small food companies by the hour, and to prepare meals. Common office space should help to set up companies.

Most of it came to a screeching halt in March when the coronavirus hit Omaha.

“Most of our attention has been focused on emergency services,” said Emily Barber, food justice and access manager for No More Empty Pots.

No More Empty Pots already had a system for preparing and distributing meals. The organization has expanded it a lot.

“We didn’t think about lowering our standards,” said Williams. “Our intent was to actually improve the quality of the food that ran out on a larger scale and in a way that met the needs of the community.”

The effort meant that almost all of the staff worked in the kitchen. It also cost a lot more money. The foundations that support No More Empty Pots have increased their funding. The organization has received federal CARES Act support from Douglas County.

Many of the meals go to families with children. Elderly and disabled people also receive a lot of money. Many meals are delivered to the Omaha Housing Authority towers and the Intercultural Senior Center. Eric Burgin, an OHA board member who lives in Crown Tower in northwest Omaha, said the meals were good and helpful to the people.

Based on the feedback, Williams said, the organization will begin reducing the number of meals and providing boxes of products and other foods that can be put together for meals.

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