John Rivers can’t shake what happened on his first day serving drive-thru meals at an elementary school in Orlando. He arrived an hour early to set up.
“I couldn't get in,” he recalled. “There was a line of cars for three blocks down the road, waiting. They knew that they were waiting an hour to get in. That's when the severity of the issue started to sink in for me.”
Seemingly overnight, the coronavirus took Rivers from cooking up barbecue at his Florida restaurants to making free meals for kids and families. Like many in the culinary community, his 4 Rivers Smokehouse chain saw a steep decline in business with the arrival of the coronavirus and stay at home orders. He was losing revenue and staff.
“Our restaurants were going dark, and I said, ‘We have all this capacity. Let’s kick into gear,’” he shared.
A longtime supporter of No Kid Hungry and advocate for hungry children, Rivers reached out to Orange County Public Schools to support and expand their school feeding sites, asking where kids might not be getting the food they needed.
“It started with filling the gaps,” he said. “One of the safest and most impactful ways to fight is through food.”
He turned his kitchens from prepping brisket to packing PB&Js, vegetables, milk cartons and more – following federal nutrition guidelines for school meals and getting reimbursed by the government for those meals in the process.
Suddenly, he was able to help feed hungry kids and bring back staff he had been unable to support. In Orange County alone, they’re now serving almost 11,000 student meals a day, seven days a week.
“It was really tough on everybody,” he said of initial layoffs. “But when we figured out that we could do this program, man, it lifted everybody’s spirits. They were just so thankful to have a job and to be back with their friends and family.”
Thanks to donors, we provided Rivers’ 4R Foundation and 4Roots Farm with the funds, research and best practices to help them to not just feed hungry students, but their siblings, parents and grandparents – and also provide work for the culinary industry that’s been a pillar of support for No Kid Hungry.
Now, Orlando-area meals sites often feature several drive-up stops at each location: one for a student meal and two others for fresh produce and family meals.
He brightens up when he thinks about the experience of giving meals to the daily car lines.
“The kids are so excited when the food comes in. Last Saturday, I think, this little girl with pigtails was singing a song. All operations stopped, and we got to listen,” he shared. “And this one cute, patient grandma, she wanted to get out of the car and hug us. Just stuck in my heart.”
But hunger exists far outside the Orlando area.
Under the banner of Feed the Need, Rivers and his foundation are working with state officials and creating a network of restaurants and caterers to replicate his model from the Florida Panhandle down to Miami and everywhere in between.
So far, they have more than 800 restaurant locations involved, and that number is growing by 100 or more a day. The effort is bringing food to thousands of kids and employing hundreds of culinary professionals.
“We have to protect these businesses, and we have to protect these kids. This is about taking care of people,” he said. “There's a DNA of somebody who’s in this service industry. You have to like to serve.”
After years of partnership with us through our culinary fundraisers Taste of the Nation and Dine for No Kid Hungry, and now in this new chapter, Rivers still encourages those who can to donate to help us advocate, fund and advise programs like his feeding children nationwide during and beyond this crisis.
“I've never seen such a direct correlation of a dollar representing a meal going out and a life that's affected,” he said. “Those dollars are impacting lives.”
Despite the growing success of his work across the state, he looks back on his first day and the carloads of families waiting for food for their kids. He sees a crisis that’s long been present and will require all of us to address, from Florida to Alaska and every state in between.
“As the days are going by, more and more need is becoming evident,” he said. “I would hate for this awareness to cease at the end of the coronavirus. Because it’s not a result of the coronavirus. It’s existed in our community since day one.”
Help us support programs like Rivers’ feeding kids in communities coast to coast during this crisis and in the recovery to follow. Learn more about No Kid Hungry's coronavirus response, and please donate now.