Volunteers relaxed in the Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church kitchen on Monday morning, awaiting the weekly delivery critical to their food bank that feeds dozens of needy families.
Meanwhile, at LongHorn Steakhouse near Westfield Citrus Park shopping mall, the awaited meats, vegetables and potatoes were readied for the short trip to the food bank, a program at the church on Kelly Road since the mid-1970s.
The donation is part of a program created by LongHorn parent company Darden Restaurants to help feed hungry people in communities in which the restaurants operate. Since the companywide Darden Harvest program was launched 10 years ago it has contributed 62 million pounds of food with a fair market value exceeding $560 million, according to the company figures. LongHorn locations alone have contributed 18 million pounds.
“It’s not food coming off the tables; it’s a surplus of stuff we prepare,” said Richard Hayden, managing partner of the 8212 Citrus Park Drive restaurant, one of a dozen Tampa Bay area LongHorn steakhouses.
All items are cooked, chilled for four hours, then bagged and frozen to await the weekly pickup by food bank volunteer Ed Templeton. The Town ’N Country resident also makes a Monday morning pickup at Olive Garden, another Darden Restaurants’ brand.
“For the past 10 years it has been part of the Darden Restaurants’ process,” taught as part of new-employee training, said Hayden, a New Port Richey resident and manager of the Citrus Park location for seven of his 15 years with the company.
“For us, it’s a simple process. We do it every day. But it has a huge impact,” Hayden said, citing figures showing that since inception, Darden Harvest has donated enough food to provide three meals a day for one year to 19,300 families of four. “It’s pretty amazing.”
His restaurant’s weekly donation to Chapel in the Pines averages 150 pounds. On this particular day, it tallies 114 pounds, including 22 pounds of prime rib, two pounds of salmon, 12 pounds of vegetables and 63 pounds of potatoes. Breads and sauces are also included.
Stressing Darden Harvest contributions are not leftovers, but surplus wholesome food, Hayden said several situations result in items being designated for donation.
LongHorn policy, for example, requires baked potatoes served to guests must have been cooked in the past 15 minutes. Potatoes exceeding that shelf life are designated for food bank donation.
Cuts of raw beef and other meats trimmed to comply with menu weights are saved and later cooked for the food bank donation process. A steak ordered “medium” that ends up “well done” also becomes a food bank selection. Salmon, which the restaurant serves only fresh, is frozen for the food bank if not served to patrons.
Leonard Black of Lutz has led the Chapel in the Pines food bank since 1998. “LongHorn and Olive Garden, they really help us a lot,” the 86-year-old Air Force retiree said Monday after helping load the food into several freezers. “That’s where we get a lot of our food.”
The food bank, which currently has 27 families on its list of approved recipients, based on federal household income guidelines, is also on the receiving end for food donations from Pizza Hut and Publix, plus inexpensive food it buys from Feeding America.
Additionally, canned goods and other nonperishable foods are received through today’s Stamp Out Hunger Campaign conducted nationwide by the National Association of Letter Carriers (see related story).
Most church members who volunteer three days weekly to receive, organize and distribute the food have years invested in the program.
At age 92, Lurie Cook is the oldest volunteer, starting 12 years ago after she and her late husband moved here from LaGrange, Ga., and joined the church. “We’ve always contributed to food causes; that’s one of our charities,” she said. “We give back to somebody that needs it.”
Marjorie Whyte has been a food bank volunteer since moving to Town ’N Country from New York about 20 years ago. “The people enjoy it. They leave with a smile on their faces,” she said.