The Greatest Gift of All

Project SHARE volunteers include The PLAYERS families

When COVID-19 hit the United States in late January, few could imagine its enormous consequences. Even after the World Health Organization declared a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, no one could foresee the grim future.

The first COVID-19 cases were reported on March 12th in Northeast Florida, the same day The PLAYERS canceled its annual Sawgrass event. The next day, President Trump declared a national state of emergency and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry declared a local state of emergency, closing schools, event venues, city parks, libraries, and the Jacksonville Zoo. In less than two weeks, restaurants, shops, bars, theaters, and most other venues open to the public shuttered their doors and sent workers home.

On a personal level, we all know what happened next, but what you might not know is how canceling The PLAYERS started a chain reaction that would keep many local workers employed while feeding thousands of needy Northeast Florida residents. When golfer and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Billy Horschel heard the tournament was canceled, he asked The PLAYERS if the food could be donated to Feeding Northeast Florida. The PGA Tour then called Susan King, president and CEO of Feeding Northeast Florida, to see if the regional food bank would accept the food. The hand off event took place on March 13th, and the next day trucks began transporting the goods. That’s when Jon Insetta, owner of Orsay, Black Sheep, and Bellwether restaurants, reached out to King and asked how he and his staff could be of service. “It was just instinct,” Insetta says. “We have a specific skill set and I wanted to find a way to take care of our staff and our community.”

“It was divine intervention,” King says. “Soon we were getting truckloads of restaurant-packaged food from Disney and other institutional donations. It all came in so fast and at this point we didn’t even know what we were getting, much less how we could distribute it.” King says they received pallets of food that included 25-pound bags of lettuce and big slabs of meat but were unable to repackage it. “We don’t have the facility and aren’t licensed for that,” she says. “But we used it all. We didn’t waste a thing.”

Project SHARE volunteers include Bellwether employees

What they had was food, empty kitchens, and furloughed workers. What they needed were prepared meals to feed seniors in need and money to pay the restaurant workers. King named the effort Project Share, an acronym for solving hunger and assisting restaurant employees. Immediately, she and some board members set out to raise the money needed,  bringing in $460,000 in just a few weeks. At the same time, King began talks with Florida Blue to see if the Jacksonville-based health insurance company would lend a hand.

Then, like the virus, Project Share took on a life of its own. Within weeks, nine Jacksonville restaurants, with nearly 80 formerly furloughed or laid off restaurant workers, were preparing meals in their own kitchens, which enabled their staffs to earn a wage while helping their community by feeding those in need.

“Susan did a great job bringing this together and the whole thing kind of grew organically,” Insetta says. “It helped our employees’ morale. Especially when everything was so dark and scary, this was a bright spot in our community.”

Kerri Rogers, executive chef at Insetta’s Bellwether restaurant, says that on the first day they received six full pallets from The PLAYERS that were “as tall as me and I’m five feet nine.” One pallet contained 500 bags of potatoes and another had pineapples and jalapeno peppers. There were cans of crab meat, wasabi, caramel, and

Susan King of Feeding NE Florida and Florida Blue employees commemorate the 300,000th meal prepared at Florida Blue for Project SHARE.

cheeses. To say it was a hodgepodge would be an understatement. “It was like that TV show Chopped on steroids,” she says. “At first we were overwhelmed by the amount of product. We’d never done anything like this—then our creativity kicked in. Everybody was excited at the opportunity to create a new menu that fit the product. The challenge actually raised our morale giving us the chance to be creative, to think outside the box.”

Within two weeks Florida Blue was onboard, donating its large institutional Deerwood campus kitchen, footing the bill for its third-party provider, FLIK Hospitality Group, and providing all of the packaging necessary for each meal. “This speaks to who we are,” says Damian Monticello, Florida Blue senior manager of hospitality services. “It’s our mission to help people in need and people need nutrition. This is just a different means to step up and provide true hospitality.”

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By Donna Cooper

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