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I'm not going to reopen my shuttered restaurant. I'd rather feed children in need

In the Bronx, New York City's poorest borough, 50% of food pantries and soup kitchens closed during the pandemic.
Chef Millie Peartree packs to-go containers with balanced meals for families in need to pick up.
Chef Millie Peartree packs to-go containers with balanced meals for families in need to pick up.

I remember it like it was yesterday: Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 at my restaurant in the Bronx, New York, Millie Peartree Fish Fry & Soul Food. Just after receiving my weekend order of 150 pounds of whiting, 50 pounds of shrimp and 50 pounds of catfish, I got the call that no restaurant owner ever wants to receive. Con Edison told me that they had no choice but to immediately shut off the gas line to my restaurant due to gas leaks and unauthorized gas plumbing work in the building.

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. Just months earlier, I had expanded my restaurant by taking over additional space in the building. More space. More customers. More employees. Steady growth is a good thing, right?

Peartree's motto is "I don’t have the most and I don’t have the least."Johnny Miller

After the initial shock of losing everything wore off, I went back to my true love: the private chef and catering world. I put pen to paper. I sent out emails and advised all my clients that Millie Peartree was back and available to provide private chef services in their homes and on the road.

I booked several events and it truly turned the tide of tragedy. I booked a large-scale catering event for this September for 1,200 people — my biggest event ever. But on March 9, I received multiple emails from clients informing me that the events I was asked to cater would be put on hold until we figured out what was going on. From that point on, the hospitality industry started shattering from the effects of COVID-19.

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

My original plan was to keep on as many of my six employees as possible with the catering prospects, but because of COVID-19, most have moved on to find other employment and a few are still trying to bounce back from the pandemic’s effect on their lives.

A few weeks later, my dear friend Laura Brown, the editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine, reached out because she wanted to donate meals on behalf of her company. In a matter of months, Millie Peartree Catering had fed nearly 6,000 essential workers, including hospital staff, USPS workers, MTA employees and bodega workers, as well as protesters.

Peartree's team served 600 meals three times a week throughout the summer — that's 1,800 meals each week to families in need.Courtesy of Millie Peartree

As New York began to plan the various phases to open the city back up, I had an epiphany: I would pivot my efforts toward feeding children, because I knew that some of the city’s food distribution programs had been canceled or reduced due to the pandemic. I created Full Heart Full Bellies to provide prepared meals for children in grades K through 12, from July 6 to Aug. 28, in the Bronx, which is the poorest of the five boroughs.

In the Bronx, 31% of all children live in food insecure homes, according to a 2015 report by the NYC Coalition Against Hunger. That means one in three children do not know where their next meal is coming from. And, according to new data from the Food Bank for NYC, 50% of food pantries and soup kitchens closed during the pandemic, and 90% of those are in the highest-need communities.

"In order for a child to have a chance at a bright future, they need to eat healthy meals every day," Peartree wrote in an Instagram post.Share for Life

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.

We provide the children with composed meals of six ounces of lean protein, four ounces of fresh vegetables and four ounces of starch, serving everything from jerk chicken with rice and peas to roasted turkey, cabbage, sweet potato mash and roasted zucchini. These kids deserve great-tasting food — a sense of comfort during such a tumultuous time.

A typical Full Heart Full Bellies meal: barbecue chicken, Creole rice and beans and smothered green beans.Courtesy of Millie Peartree

We served 600 meals three times a week throughout the summer — that's 1,800 meals each week to families in need! — with the help of our delivery partner Audi, kitchen space donated by Amazon, support from Restaurant Associates, water and juices from Coca-Cola, pasta from Barilla, muffins from Bread Gal Bakery in New Jersey, meal-pickup location coordination by nonprofit Share for Life, donations to our GoFundMe by ordinary folks and volunteers from all over the city.

A family from the Bronx collects their meals from a designated pickup location.Share for Life

My team and I just learned that Amazon has agreed to continue our hospitality partnership until December. By then, we’ll have served 14,400 meals to kids in need and an additional 2,500 to nursing homes in the Bronx. But we hope to keep going after that. The goal is to feed children and their families for an entire school year, providing 250,000 meals over 10 months.

When we talk about social justice, we often get hung up on the hashtag instead of the actual work. You may not march, but maybe you can feed a protester. After the money is donated, what can we do in the community to change things?

As I told NBC New York recently, 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.