After joining Food & Friends 20 years ago as the organization’s delivery-volunteer coordinator, Carrie Stoltzfus was hired for the top spot in January of 2019.
Conventional wisdom might hold that her first year as executive director at an organization that literally deals in life and death daily would be her most challenging. But the way Stoltzfus tells it, it seemed like a breeze.
“Turned out to be the easiest year on this job that I’ve had so far,” she recalls, even managing a bit of a laugh. It was easy by comparison, it turned out, as she had no idea how difficult the job was about to become. Thanks, Covid.
“That was a really interesting time,” she begins, taking the tale to early 2020. “Nobody wanted to go through this. It was hard. But we were founded in a pandemic. We kind of had a culture of leading in uncertain times to build on.”
Stoltzfus is referring to Food & Friends’ roots in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In 1988, in the early years of AIDS, amid fear and stigma and a community of Gay men and others fighting for their lives, Westminster Presbyterian Church, guided by the Rev. Carla Gorrell, stepped in.
“We were in the basement,” Gorrell remembers, as written in a Food & Friends profile. “In the corner, there was a little table with a telephone and a folding chair. That was my office. I would make calls to all the restaurants and go around picking up the meals. We started delivering in Dupont Circle, and I initially got five restaurants to provide lunches one day a week, and we found five volunteers to deliver each day that week.”
Today, Food & Friends deliveries cover more than Dupont. The delivery area is actually a bit bigger than the state of Connecticut. And more than a million meals go out in a year. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has evolved into something far less devastating than it was in 1988.
Accordingly, clients dealing with HIV/AIDS account today for about a fifth of Food & Friends’ work. The largest cohort is now clients with cancer. And the organization has further expanded its nutrition mission to people with diabetes, and into maternal health.
While the organization is healthy and may have entered Covid with more pandemic experience than most, there were absolutely challenges.
“There were volunteers who couldn’t volunteer with us anymore, because they were in susceptible groups themselves,” Stoltzfus says. “We followed all the rules, all the times they changed. People were working six feet apart. We had markers on the tables as to where six feet was. ‘This is where you have to stand.’ We upgraded all of our HVAC stuff. We’re still running floor air purifiers and that kind of thing. We did everything we could. We followed all the rules and it was successful. Our purpose was to take care of people who are at really high risk. We couldn’t not do that. We couldn’t slow that down.”
And not slowing down means bringing back Chef’s Best. This Food & Friends annual flagship fundraiser was sidelined by Covid. On Aug. 21, the gala, replete with stars of the DMV culinary scene and a blockbuster auction, marks its return.
“We’re happy to be back,” says Stoltzfus. “Chef’s Best is a celebration of our work, bringing the community together. We’re happy about everything it stands for. We’re happy to have our restaurant partners back. The first year of Food & Friends in 1988, our food was restaurant food. That was the foundation. There’s a shared desire to take care of other people through food. That’s something we’re excited to have back.”
Beyond the excitement, there’s also the practical matter of raising money, as Stoltzfus points to challenges such as higher costs and needing to recruit more volunteers to augment the thinned-out covid crew. And while Stoltzfus seems genuinely proud of how her organization weathered the covid storm, she’d also like to shake off its indirect offspring.
Says Stoltzfus, “I’ll be happy if I never hear the phrase ‘supply chain’ again.”
Chef’s Best Dinner & Auction is Monday, Aug. 21, at the Marriott Marquis Washington, D.C., 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The President’s Reception is from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Gourmet Chef Tastings Reception & Casino games, 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Dessert, Program and Live Auction at 8:15 p.m. Attire is business/cocktail. Tickets are $350. Visit www.foodandfriends.org/engage/chefs-best.
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