Chef Hank fights food insecurity in Gwinnett one meal at a time

January 29, 2021 Norcross - Chef Hank Reid, of Lettum Eat, hands out ready to eat meals at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
January 29, 2021 Norcross - Chef Hank Reid, of Lettum Eat, hands out ready to eat meals at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On a sunny afternoon in January, a group of volunteers line Jimmy Carter Boulevard in front of Nett Church in Norcross with yellow signs advertising free to-go meals. Cars cruise through the church’s parking lot, where the drivers are met with smiling faces and freshly prepared meals from Hank Reid and his teammates.

Reid, commonly known as Chef Hank, started handing out meals throughout Gwinnett County at distributions like these with the launch of his nonprofit Lettum Eat in 2019. He had no idea just how badly his community would soon need him.

He initially wanted to sell food out of a truck, but Reid recalls, “God clearly said to me, ‘Give it away for free.’” Now, as a pandemic and business closures have left many needing help feeding their families, Reid and volunteers that work with him are making 200 to 500 meals each weekday that are distributed around the county out of churches.

Having lived in Snellville for more than 20 years, Reid said he felt compelled to use his years of experience in the restaurant industry to fight food insecurity, a problem he saw in his own community.

“I wanted to find a way to use that experience to feed people that, along the way all these years, I didn’t have the opportunity to feed,” said Reid, who has cooked for more than 30 years for restaurants in downtown Atlanta, Gwinnett County and Athens. “I worked in tons of restaurants where people couldn’t afford the meals we served.”

Reid previously owned a Snellville bistro and coffee shop that closed in the wake of the 2008 economic recession. More than a decade later he’d launch Lettum Eat just a few months before the pandemic caused the next large-scale economic downturn.

Hank and the Lettum Eat volunteer chefs prepare hundreds of daily meals in the kitchens of local churches. They package and freeze each meal to ensure the food stays at safe temperatures during hour-long distributions.

Lettum Eat distributes food at various locations throughout Gwinnett County during the week. Before the holiday season, the organization handed out about 2,500 meals per week. It finished the year with 80,000 meals distributed, and it hopes to distribute 150,000 to 175,000 meals by the end of 2021, Reid said.

January 29, 2021 Norcross - Woojin Kang and Vicki Tyler (left), volunteers from The Nett Church, assist clients, who line up to pick up meals and essential items that Chef Hank Reid and volunteers prepared, at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
January 29, 2021 Norcross - Woojin Kang and Vicki Tyler (left), volunteers from The Nett Church, assist clients, who line up to pick up meals and essential items that Chef Hank Reid and volunteers prepared, at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

More than 80,000 people, or 9% of the county, were estimated to be food insecure in Gwinnett in 2018, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, an annual food insecurity study.

Woojin Kang, a member of Nett Church, distributes meals for Lettum Eat as a volunteer at his church every Friday. He got involved as a way to give back as the pandemic continues.

“We’re in some crazy times right now, and something that we see is a lot of new faces every week,” Kang said. “That just shows how many people need this, and I think there’s nothing that shows love like some food.”

The distributions couldn’t happen without funding, though.

Coming from federal funding as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the county provided Lettum Eat with a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement grant for any business-related expenses.

The grant expired in December, meaning Lettum Eat relies on donations, fundraisers and catering events to pay its expenses, including selling meals out of its food truck to teachers at local schools on Fridays. The nonprofit has fostered partnerships with about 70 private and corporate donors, as well as seven schools.

After seeing the amount of food thrown away by restaurants, Reid works against food waste by getting food from local farmers, restaurants, food manufacturers and anyone else who calls Lettum Eat offering a donation.

January 29, 2021 Norcross - Janice Osborne, volunteer, holds a sign on Jimmy Carter Blvd to draw attention as Chef Hank Reid and volunteers hand out ready-to eat meals at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
January 29, 2021 Norcross - Janice Osborne, volunteer, holds a sign on Jimmy Carter Blvd to draw attention as Chef Hank Reid and volunteers hand out ready-to eat meals at the parking lot of The Nett Church in Norcross on Friday, January 29, 2021. Hank Reid has been driving a food truck to carry meals where they're needed in Gwinnett County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Williams Sims joined Lettum Eat at its inception after Reid pitched him the idea. He now considers Reid a brother, hoping to work with him for the rest of his life in some capacity because of Sims’ appeal for passionate people that “love what they do and know why they do it.”

Going forward, the organization plans to increase the number of meals it distributes and find new ways to raise money, said Sims, who serves as Lettum Eat’s marketing director.

Reid wants to secure a permanent building for Lettum Eat with a kitchen for preparing meals. Its current food truck is the size of a mail van, and the organization hopes to purchase a food truck with a working kitchen, Sims said.

Running Lettum Eat and giving meals to those in need comes natural to Reid, he said. Whether it’s coaching sports, teaching culinary classes or preparing food for others, Reid said it’s his calling to help others.

Reid received a proclamation of recognition for his nonprofit’s work from the City of Snellville in early January. “That just meant the world to me, (that) after 20 years of trying to find out how I can best serve my community, I’ve found a way,” Reid said.

Reflecting on his career, Reid said he felt proud the first time he saw his name lit up on the marquee board of Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint. But nothing compared to seeing his name lit up on the marquee board for Wednesday night meals at First Baptist Church in Snellville, he said.

“I tell people all the time everybody’s from somewhere,” Reid said. “I’m from Griffin, Georgia, and we have pride. Our charge growing up is to go out there and have an effect in whatever community you’re in. My goal and obligation was to go out and make an impact in the world. I’m supposed to be serving and helping.”

MORE INFORMATION

For a weekly calendar of Lettum Eat’s food distributions, visit https://lettumeat.com/.