Community Issues

This Chef Is On A Mission To Feed Her Community

After her restaurant closed (twice!), she's decided to go a different route - now she's feeding thousands of families in need.

Owning a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. Along with the day-to-day challenges, like keeping up with inventory, staffing and menu planning, you also have to be prepared for the unexpected.

Millie Peartree knows this well. In 2019, Peartree invested her heart, soul and cash into opening her restaurant, Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food, in the Bronx, NY. She was inspired by her mother's homestyle southern cooking to become a chef. Having her own restaurant would allow her to share her passion for food with the world.

Millie Peartree started off as a baker, then started cooking Southern style cuisine that she grew up making with her mom. Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food/Facebook

After years spent pouring money into the restaurant and its expansion, Peartree got a call from Con Edison telling her they had to immediately shut off the gas line to her building due to gas leaks and faulty plumbing work.

Peartree reflected on the experience in an article for TODAY, "My first inclination was to ask the food gods if this was a prank. A bad joke. But after hearing nothing in response, I shook my head and sent my employees home indefinitely."

Peartree was forced to close her restaurant in the Bronx, NY twice. Once due to a gas leak, and the second time during the pandemic. Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food/Facebook

Once the shock of losing her restaurant started to fade, Peartree quickly switched gears and started offering catering services. She booked several large events, including a soiree for 1,200 people scheduled for September 2020 – the biggest event she's ever taken on.

Then, the coronavirus happened. Clients began contacting Peartree to cancel their orders, and soon she found herself in a very familiar situation – but she didn't give up hope.

Peartree specializes in homestyle comfort food, like cornbread.Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food/Facebook

"The two questions I kept repeating over and over again in my head were: 'Are you serious?' and "What now?' she wrote. But I knew I could and would bounce back like I have so many times before."

Relief came from a friend who contacted Peartree about donating meals on behalf of her company. Soon, she was feeding thousands of first responders, hospital staff and other essential workers.

When New York started its re-opening phase, Peartree decided that she wasn't going to bring her restaurant back. At least, not in the same capacity as before.

Peartree started 'Full Heart Full Bellies,' an initiative to give prepared meals to local students in grades K through 12. The Bronx is the poorest of NYC's five boroughs, and, according to a 2015 study by the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, 31% of children living there are food insecure.

"With many summer programs canceled due to COVID-19, we want to assure that children have at least one hot meal three times a week to fill their bellies and help close the city's ever-expanding meal gap," Peartree said.

video c/o Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food/Facebook

And it's not just any old lunch fare. Jerk chicken, rice and peas and sweet potato mash are a few of the staples Peartree includes in the prepared meals, giving the students "a sense of comfort during such a tumultuous time."

Community partners like Amazon and Audi help with providing a kitchen space and getting the meals from Peartree's kitchen to families in need. Other restaurants and companies offer raw food ingredients and supplies to keep the project going. All of the money for Full Heart Full Bellies has been donated by individuals via GoFundMe.

Over the summer, Peartree and her team have served 600 meals, three times a week – that's 1,800 meals per week! The organization's goal is to feed children and families for an entire school year, which would mean providing 250,000 meals over 10 months.

Full Heart, Full Bellies helps to feed families in need in the Bronx, New York City's poorest borough. Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food/Facebook

For Peartree, it's just part of the job. As she said in a recent interview with NBC New York, "I don't have the most, but I don't have the least either. I just feel like, as human beings, we should give what we can. You never know when any of us could be in a situation where we need something."

How can you start something good?

You can support Full Heart, Full Bellies by making a donation on the organization's GoFundMe page.

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