The cafe at the Food Hub in Omaha’s Florence neighborhood was dim and quiet Wednesday, but the kitchens were bright, bustling and brimming with the warm aromas of garlic, tomatoes and roasted squash.
In the main-floor kitchen, No More Empty Pots nonprofit workers scooped freshly prepared penne pasta with a lentil and delicata squash marinara sauce into microwaveable trays. They heat-sealed the trays with plastic, and packed them into paper bags for delivery or pickup by people who had ordered them.
Downstairs, chefs and volunteers worked on this week’s other meal, roasted red potatoes with spicy cabbage and spiced, crispy chickpeas. Most of the vegetables in both meals came from local growers.
The meals — 1,900 of them — were destined for delivery or curbside pickup for people from across metropolitan Omaha and Council Bluffs. Since early March, No More Empty Pots has provided nearly 50,000 plant-based meals and distributed hundreds of boxes of fresh, locally grown produce. It’s part of helping to make sure that people have healthful food, not just something to eat, during the pandemic, and that local farmers can keep growing.
This isn’t exactly the way No More Empty Pots leaders 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 slinging a lot of meals,” Nancy Williams, the CEO of No More Empty Pots, said amid the hubbub Wednesday. “Supporting our neighbors by ensuring that when they come to us for food, we have food, and supporting our farmers by buying as much food as we can.”
The economic fallout of COVID-19 has made it hard for many Nebraskans and Iowans to put food on their tables. The hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that the number of people in Nebraska and western Iowa experiencing food insecurity has increased from about 200,000 to about 300,000 during the pandemic. Food pantry lines have been long in Omaha.
As government aid falls short, organizations and individuals have stepped up efforts to try to help close the gap. No More Empty Pots is among them. It’s helping out in an unusual way that is in keeping with its unusual mission. In its 10th year, the organization endeavors to promote economic self-sufficiency and food security through education and connecting urban communities and local producers. That includes CSAs, or community supported agriculture, in which people subscribe to receive boxes of produce from local growers.
No More Empty Pots usually has up to seven programs in action, from culinary training to educating people of all ages about food. They had things rolling as 2020 began. They had just completed renovating an old building at 8501 N. 30th St. into what they call the Food Hub.
It includes the Cups Cafe, where entrepreneurs can introduce people to their wares. Beginning restaurateurs were having pop-ups in the cafe space. Various kitchen spaces were used for teaching children about nutrition and cooking, for catering and events, for rent by the hour to small food businesses and for preparing meals. Shared office space is designed to help incubate businesses.
Most of that came to a screeching halt in March, when the coronavirus reached Omaha.
“Pretty much all of our attention went to emergency services,” said Emily Barber, food justice and access manager for No More Empty Pots.
No More Empty Pots already had a system in place to make and distribute meals. The organization expanded it greatly.
“We didn’t think about lowering our standards,” Williams said. “Our intention was to even improve the quality of food that was going out, do it at a larger scale and in a way that’s responsive to what the community says they need.”
The effort has taken putting almost the whole staff to work in the kitchens. It also has cost a lot more money. The foundations that support No More Empty Pots increased their funding. The organization has received federal CARES Act assistance through Douglas County.
Many of the meals are going to families with children. A lot go to elderly and disabled people, too, with many meals being delivered to Omaha Housing Authority towers and the Intercultural Senior Center. Eric Burgin, an OHA Board member who lives at Crown Tower in northwest Omaha, said the meals are good and have been helpful to people.
Based on feedback, Williams said, the organization is going to start reducing the number of meals and providing boxes of produce and other foodstuffs that can be assembled into meals.