Urban Recipe and Woodward Combine to Feed Those in Need
It was Easter Sunday and Jeremy Lewis woke up with an idea.
Lewis, ’96, is the CEO of Urban Recipe, a 29-year-old Grant Park-based nonprofit food cooperative. Rather than simply handing out food to those in need, it brings low-income families into the organization as members to create lasting food security.
This effort typically means families, staff, and volunteers work side-by-side in Urban Recipe’s 2,000-square-foot location, sorting food for families to take home.
Once COVID-19 struck, however, Urban Recipe faced a crunch. There was more need for food than ever with people stuck at home and thousands losing their jobs. At the same time, the demands of social distancing made it impossible to bring co-op members together safely.
They shifted the model to food delivery, rather than bringing families to the location. That was a struggle, though, packing tens of thousands of pounds of food each week using the location’s small driveway for a network of drivers—mostly volunteers and some help from Lyft and UPS. Then came the Easter idea.
Lewis knew that Woodward Academy had shifted to remote learning, and so the campus’s cafeterias were mostly out of use. He emailed Chris Freer, Woodward’s Vice President for Advancement, and they talked by phone on the following Monday morning about Urban Recipe temporarily moving into the Middle School cafeteria.
“I love Woodward and am so thankful for what they do and how they prepare students, the commitment to service,” Lewis said. “I told Chris, even if this didn’t work out, I was so grateful for them being open. We talked Monday, and signed an agreement on Friday. A week later, we were in the space and operating.”
Now, volunteers and staff have about 10 times as much square footage to remain socially distant while preparing food shipments. They also wear masks at all times while preparing boxes of food to go out to Atlanta-area families in need.
With the extra space, Urban Recipe can sort more food. And with the ability to bring in several vehicles at once along Cambridge Avenue, they can pack that food and ship it out even faster, allowing them to serve more people in need. Urban Recipe also has leased a refrigerated tractor-trailer, where they can hold perishable food before distributing it.
“Literally what would take us a full day in our Grant Park location, now we’re able to do in 40 to 45 minutes,” Lewis said. “It’s pretty amazing, and we’re still not at full capacity. This week alone we’ll do about 27,000 pounds at least. We expect to get up over 30-40,000 pounds a week.”
Lewis grew up in the Smyrna and Vinings area. His mom was the teacher sponsor of the Junior Civitan Club, and his dad was a pastor. They ran a food service and did homeless work as a constant part of life.
“From a really early age I remember being with folks and learning from homeless people who had been lawyers or bankers,” Lewis said. “There’s a thin line that separates us from each other, and we make that line smaller if we hear each other’s stories.”
He attended Woodward K-12 and his mom, Sandra Lewis, was a reading specialist in the Upper School for 18 years. They were both involved in service projects at Woodward. It was while in graduate school at Emory that Lewis did a site visit with Urban Recipe. Once he saw the way the organization empowered people, he was hooked.
When people aren’t constantly hungry and always worrying about where their next meal will come from, they can accomplish so much more, Lewis said. Urban Recipe also operates co-ops with school systems as well. “We need to make sure our kids are able to come to school with a full stomach.”
Freer remembered that Lewis was one of the first students he met in his first year of teaching in 1994.
“It was obvious even then that he would live a life of service to others,” Freer said. “Jeremy has always been a leader that’s concerned with inequities and social justice, so it’s not surprising that Urban Recipe is leveraging ways to help those in need during this pandemic. I’m grateful that Woodward played a small role in developing Jeremy’s strong character and can partner with him now.”
Food deliveries range from Norcross to Newnan, and with a regular driver needing the day off to watch his son, Lewis was back behind the wheel.
“I’m doing a little bit of everything right now,” he said. “Normally, I’m meeting with funders and donors, but I’ve done a lot of hard physical work over my life. I know how to handle a truck and a pallet jack.”
As Lewis sees how much more Urban Recipe can do with more space, he has started to think about the future, beyond the pandemic. They’ll likely continue to do emergency food aid, and he knows they need a larger, permanent space once Woodward reopens.
Urban Recipe has the ability to buy bulk food for pennies on the dollar, so it needs donations of money more than donations of food items. The need continues to increase, Lewis said. Just that morning, he had received a call from a high rise for seniors in Decatur and a group of families in Fayetteville in need of food.
As Lewis got back to work, he looked up at a banner that had been hung in the cafeteria before the pandemic. The banner says, “Gratitude.”
“We’re feeling very thankful for this opportunity, to respond in this moment as best as we’re able, even though we won’t be able to meet all the need,” Lewis said. “We want to be able to look back and say we did the best we could with what we had.”
Amid the pandemic, Woodward students, staff, parents, and alumni are maintaining the school’s commitment to service, working as medical professionals and civic leaders, or helping those in need. We would love to highlight more of these stories. If you would like to share your story, please email us at email@example.com. For more information on Urban Recipe, visit: https://urbanrecipe.org/.