Stephanie Morales, who works in craft services for the film industry, has pivoted during the pandemic while filming has paused, to feeding first responders. She exits a local Sam’s Club with Lt. R. Palms recently. Palm had a group of firefighters, police and others gathered outside the store to thank her for her efforts. (Photos: Cindy M. Brown)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A Georgia film industry chef pivots to serve first responders

When cameras stopped rolling, sets were abandoned and sound-stages emptied across Georgia’s film industry back in March, it wasn’t just the actors and directors who found themselves on hiatus due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

There were people like Stephanie Morales of Pine Lake, industry veterans who’d worked for decades out of the cameras’ gaze. Morales, 52, works in craft services, which is a technical and professional way of saying she cooks the food that feeds the talent and crews on set. She left her trailer in Atlanta and went home to Pine Lake to wait out what she hoped would be a pause in production. After a few days, the enormity of the situation settled in. She watched news reports of medical professionals becoming overwhelmed, police and firefighters responding to calls for service from people possibly infected with the virus. She saw grocery store workers trying to keep shelves stocked for panicked buyers.

They were helping everyone else, but who was helping them, she said she wondered. So, Morales decided to do what she does every day; feed people. In this case, the first responders.

“My talent is cooking, and that’s how I’m going to serve,” Morales said last week, as she darted back and forth outside her mammoth mobile kitchen trailer. “I want them to feel safe.”

Morales, originally from Nashville, worked with her union and Pine Lake Mayor Melanie Hammet to get her trailer moved and parked in the Pine Lake Police Department’s parking lot. Each day from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. she feeds any first responder, regardless of jurisdiction, for free. What she’s doing is on smaller scale, what some chefs, most notably Jose Andres — who has received international acclaim for his work — are doing in response to disaster. They are feeding those in need.

“There was not any red tape in setting this up,” said Hammet. “She said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and I thought it was great. Being a mayor during a pandemic, this is feel-good gasoline for me.”

Morales said she began paying for the ground beef, pork sausages, vegan burgers, tater tots and bananas for pudding out of her own pocket. Her crew members Jen Jesse and Keyon Staples manned the grill station with her as she churned out meal after meal to order.

Word spread. Nurses from Gwinnett County showed up, and sanitation workers from DeKalb County and firefighters from nearby communities. By the end of April she was serving more than 100 meals a day, she said.

As popularity grew, Morales set up a Go Fund Me page to help defray costs, which helped some, she said. Then, last week, a couple of days before the governor essentially lifted Georgia’s stay-at-home order, Morales asked Pine Lake Police Chief Sarai Y’hudah-Green if an officer could go with her on a grocery store run to Sam’s Club in Tucker. Y’hudan-Green said Morales was worried about leaving the store with such a large volume of food and supplies.

Stephanie Morales, of Pine Lake, exits Sam’s Club recently after the retailer donated more than $1,000 in food and supplies to her “Feeding the Front Lines” project, which provides free meals to first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.(Photos: Cindy M. Brown)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lt. R. Palms went with Morales but didn’t tell her what would await her once she exited the store. Palms had eaten her food and knew what the gesture of her service had meant to the responders he knew. They too had enjoyed her barbecue meatball sandwiches and Philly cheesesteaks. Once in the store, the first surprise came to both Palms and Morales at the checkout line. The store paid for all of Morales’ groceries, which came to just over $1,000.

“That wasn’t in the plan,” Palms said. “I was overwhelmed.”

But when she walked outside, the part Palms had orchestrated went into effect. Nearly 20 police, fire, municipal and other vehicles with lights blinking were outside the store encircling Morales’ car. Officers and other frontline workers stood there applauding her.

“It was insane,” Morales said. “I just started crying.”

“We are so thankful and blessed that she’s even doing it,” DeKalb County Schools Officer Z. Brown said later.

Subsequently, the DeKalb County Municipal Association gave Morales a $7,000 check to help keep her project — now called “Feeding the Front Lines in Pine Lake” — going.

While the meals can’t prevent them from contracting the virus, they do provide some comfort, said Pine Lake Police Officer J. Cooper. Danger has always been part of his job, but now it has taken on a different shape, he said.

“Everybody else is sheltering in place, but we can’t,” he said. “We’ve got to be out here. Criminals don’t stop.”

But it’s more than that, he said. It’s facing every day something handcuffs or service revolvers can’t address.

“It’s very scary,” Cooper said. “We don’t know what we’re up against. I have wipes, hand sanitizer, anything I can use to stay safe. I mean it’s sanitizer and Lysol saving our lives out here right now.”

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