Chris Bernard has done countless interviews about food insecurity across the state during his time as executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma, but it wasn’t until recently that he’s been more liable to cry.
“It’s been a lot,” Bernard said of launching Tulsa Kitchens Unite, a program meant to bridge meal gaps for Tulsa families while providing income to local restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s been really fun and really cool to see all of these people who want to help.”
Bernard spent Wednesday morning driving a cargo van full of boxes of pre-chilled, adult-sized meals between Tulsa Public Schools sites. And although he and others in his organization have spent many long days and late nights planning and organizing the effort, it’s the others who have stepped up to the plate that have blown him away.
The cargo van? It was loaned by a local catering company. The to-go boxes? Made possible by a partnership with the food bank and a leveraging of their contract with a food supplier. The meals were prepared by employees of 10 local restaurant partners across Tulsa, with some of them even chilled in a hotel kitchen that offered its space.
When one calls on Tulsans for help, they answer, Bernard has seen, and that list doesn’t even mention the volunteers who give their time to help distribute the meals. It also doesn’t include the numerous donors who have made the start of the program possible. And it’s not near capacity.
In just one week of operation, TKU provided nearly 9,600 free meals to recipients, and it aims to serve about 30,000 a week in the coming weeks.
Bernard said he thinks it will take about four weeks to get to that point operationally as more restaurants and partners sign onto the effort, but he also emphasized the continued need for support.
The program, designed to run for 12 weeks, has been funded for six with a little more than $1 million from prominent foundations in Tulsa, Bernard said, which leaves about $500,000 to be raised.
Any donations will support TKU’s three goals: keep local restaurants open, keep workers paid and keep local families fed, Bernard said.
Hunger Free Oklahoma doesn’t normally function as a direct service agency, Bernard said. Its role is to advance policy and collaboration among agencies, but with Tulsa Public Schools seeking more resources to provide for their students as well as their caretakers and local restaurants looking for a way to help while keeping their workers employed, there was an immediate need to be met.
Bernard said one business partner told them TKU is going to save their operation. They thought they were going to have to shut their doors forever.
“This program is bringing immense hope in such difficult times,” said Rob Stuart, co-owner of Chimera and a TKU partner, in a news release. “Our cooks get to cook, our business stays busy, and families in need are fed. We’re grateful to live in a community that mirrors our ideals and values, and especially grateful to foundations and others who will invest in programs like Tulsa Kitchens Unite.”
The gratitude on recipients’ faces is also unbeatable, Bernard said. The first week’s meal was grilled chicken with glazed carrots and rice pilaf. This week’s consists of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans. Next week features spaghetti and meatballs with a vegetable medley.
Scarcity and perceived scarcity can severely affect peoples’ functioning, Bernard said. When you’re a parent, possibly out of a job, and the kids are at home, it can be even worse.
“If my four-year-old sits there and yanks on my pants saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ as he does, and I don’t know how I’m going to feed him dinner, my patience level is going to be much lower than normal,” Bernard said. “If we can play a small part in easing some of that toxic stress in a family for one day, that’s awesome — to be able to help them and give them the comfort of at least knowing the next meal is handled.”
Gallery: 130 Tulsa restaurants offering curbside service and delivery following closures
160 restaurants offering curbside service and delivery following closures
The Bistro at Seville
Mahogany Prime Steakhouse
Bluestone Steak House & Seafood
Texas de Brazil
Billy Sims BBQ
Amelia’s Woodfire Cuisine/Amelia’s Brasserie and Market
Antoinette Baking Co.
Bill and Ruth's
Billy's on the Square
Bird & Bottle
Black Bear Diner
Blue Moon Cafe
Bodean Restaurant and Seafood Market
Boston Deli Grill and Market
Bohemian Wood Fire Pizza
Brookside by Day
Burn Co Barbecue – Jenks and SoBo
Cafe Ole and Ol Vine
Carrabba's Italian Grill
CHERRY STREET KITCHEN
Coney Island Hot Weiners
Cotton Patch Cafe
Dalesandro's Italian Cuisine
DoubleShot Coffee Co.
El Viejos Mexican Grill
Fat Guys Burger Bar
Fiesta Mambo and Casa De Reyes
Forest Ridge Golf Course Rockin' R Ranch House
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
Flo's Burger Diner
Flying Burger & Seafood
Foolish Things Bar and Biscuit
Fox and Hound Pub & Grill
Freckles Frozen Custard
Freddie's BBQ & Steak House
Herbert's Specialty Meats
High Dive Tulsa
The Hungry Ninja
In the Raw
J.J.'s Gourmet Burger Cafe
Jimmy's New York Pizzeria
Knotty Pig BBQ, Burger & Chili House
La Roma Pizza and Mediterranean Food
Le Louvre French Café
Livi Lee's Daylight Donuts
Lone Wolf Banh Mi
Lot A Burger
Lowood Modern Woodfire Restaurant
Ludger's Bavarian Cakery
Margaret's German Restaurant
Mikes BBQ & Catering
Mom's Family Diner
Mother Road Market
My Thai Kitchen
Peacemaker Lobster and Crab
Pita Place Mediterranean Grill
Prairie Fire Pizza
Rocking “R” Ranch House Restaurant
Ron's Hamburgers and Chili
Russo’s Coal Fired Italian Kitchen
S&B's Burger Joint
Saffron Mediterranean Cuisine
Shawkat's Mediterranean Restaurant
Shuffles Board Game Cafe
Siegi’s Sausage Factory: Restaurant and Deli
Shades of Brown
Stonehorse Cafe and Market
Tacos 4 Life
TAKE 2 — A RESONANCE CAFE
Ted's Cafe Escondido Cafe
Thai Village Cuisine
Ti Amo Ristorante Italiano
Topeca Coffee Shop
The Tropical Restaurant and Bar
Ty’s Hamburgers and Chili
Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant
White Lion Pub
White River Fish Market