Chef creates program to feed families

James Beard nominee, “Top Chef” star and owner of four local eateries, Kevin Gillespie wears a variety of hats. But he’s made room for another: founder of the Defend Southern Food Foundation. Its goal is threefold: provide free, nutritious meals to families in Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School cluster; make good use of local farm products; and keep his employees working.

During the 2009 recession, Gillespie got the idea to reach out to local schools to provide meals made from the overabundance of ingredients that weren’t being used. It was also a way to keep his staff on the job.

“I tried to connect with local schools but didn’t get anywhere, so I put the idea to bed,” he said.

Fast forward 11 years, and with the pandemic taking off, the chef connected with a nonprofit in East Point that had the manpower, vans and contacts to deliver meals to needy families. That project ran until the end of 2020 when Gillespie solidified the original concept.

“I doubled down on the idea of being super-localized and went back to the schools in the Jackson cluster – kids we can see from our restaurant,” he said. “We don’t want families to know who we are, and we don’t want to know who the families are. The administration at the schools knows who is in desperate need; we just work independently to help them.”

This time, the schools welcomed the idea. Gillespie and partner Marco Shaw set up operations in the kitchen of their Cold Beer restaurant in Old Fourth Ward. Second Helpings Atlanta delivers the home-style meals twice a week. Through the schools, the food feedback has been a bit surprising.

“By far the most popular have been chicken and dumplings, oven-fried chicken, meatloaf, different catfish preparations – things that make you think of a home-cooked meal,” said Gillespie. “But surprisingly, people keep asking for more veggies. We’re happy to introduce them to food they wouldn’t otherwise try or have access to.”

Since starting in 2020, the foundation has provided more than 225,000 meals. Substantial financial support has come from Gillespie himself, who put up $400,000 of his own money to get it going. In lieu of pay for work he did with Swift Meats, he accepted about 8,000 pounds of meat.

In December, he donated another $25,000 of his own funds. Additionally, meals at Cold Beer directly support the project, and $20 online donations provide a week of meals for a family of four.

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