Dandelion Meal Project: Bringing Food and Hope to Omahans in Need
Sep 01, 2020 08:24AM
By Sarah Wengert
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Sometimes a little magic happens when you need it most.
Elizabeth Wallace, general manager at 801 Chophouse, said that’s what occurred when Dandelion Pop-up and Over Easy proprietor Nick Bartholomew had a little idea that ended up making a big impact.
In March 2020, as the nation quickly shuttered restaurants, schools, and offices, leaving many Omahans unemployed and quarantined, Bartholomew and others in the local restaurant industry moved quickly to coordinate an effort to avoid food waste and feed folks in need.
After 801 Chophouse closed on March 16, Wallace spoke with Bartholomew, who was in an early stage of the yet-to-be-defined effort. Wallace offered kitchen space at 801 Chophouse, and food that would otherwise have gone unused. The next thing she knew, other helpers dispatched by Bartholomew came knocking on her door. Together, over the course of 12 weeks, they formulated meal plans, prepped, cooked, created an ordering system, and distributed approximately 4,000 meals plus additional groceries to individuals and organizations.
“A few strangers just showed up one day and we didn’t quite know what we were doing at first,” Wallace said. “It was kind of like an episode of Chopped and Survivor all at once, except it wasn’t a competition and nobody got booted off.”
While Wallace noted that the effort “had a lot of different hands involved at different points,” she said the core culinary group behind the effort included herself, chef Bryce Coulton (formerly of The French Bulldog), 801’s executive chef Ivan Dondiego, Spencer’s executive chef Glenn Wheeler, and two Metro Community College culinary students, Emma Osentoski and Witney Stanley.
“This could not have worked without them at all,” Wallace said. “The way these people came together is special. These strangers just showed up and we all meshed together perfectly. It was one of those magical moments in time.”
Wallace said the effort was never officially named, but volunteers dubbed it the Dandelion Meal Project, to distinguish it from Dandelion Pop-Up’s regular model of rotating notable chefs each week in warmer months. The team quickly got in a groove of gathering supplies on Thursdays, planning and prepping meals on Fridays, and distributing on Saturdays. Wheeler also provided space at Spencer’s to help with social distancing, but the majority of planning, prep, and packing occurred at 801 Chophouse.
“We had plenty of space at 801, so we could properly social distance while prepping,” Wallace said. “Once we established our crew, we just kind of created this little restaurant out of nothing.”
In addition to Bartholomew and the rest of the core group, Wallace was quick to thank the many supplementary volunteers, donors, and distributors, including Kristina Lee, Katy Jo Rose, Nick Holloway, Deven Rieck, Michael Anderson, Sarah Xiong, Ryan Gillespie, Brandy Rettele, Kane Adkisson, Lindy Pearson, Sara Cerasoli, Julia Tatten, Omaha Steaks, Sysco, Reinhart, Karlsberger, Morgan Ranch, Culprit Cafe, Farine + Four, individual donors, and many others.
“This couldn’t have worked without every single piece of the machine and it’s really cool how it all came together,” Wallace said.
After a couple weeks distributing meals at the Dandelion Pop-up “shack,” as Wallace affectionately called the kiosk at 1300 Howard St., distribution moved to Archetype Coffee’s Little Bohemia location and Montessori Children’s Room. As supplies and monetary donations continued to come in, the team also had bandwidth to give meals and groceries to local organizations such as Child Saving Institute, Victory Apartments (military veteran housing), Table Grace Cafe, and Santa Monica House (a women’s recovery home). The team also did ingredient swaps with neighboring restaurant Kitchen Table, and Wallace said nothing went to waste.
“Sometimes our math skills weren’t totally accurate. Each week we tried to get better at portioning and buying supplies with donation money, but it was almost like a loaves and fishes situation, where you always ended up with more so you had more to give somewhere else,” she said.
Although the project began by doling out grocery bags, it quickly moved to prepared meals such as lasagna, meatloaf, dirty rice, Wagyu beef and mushroom stroganoff, egg and veggie frittatas with overnight oats, gnocchi with roasted veggies and herb-pesto sauce, smoked pork chops, and more. Bread pudding was a common dessert item. The goal was to have a main dish, salad, and a vegetable side or something sweet. Fresh fruit and snacks were also incorporated.
Wallace said the project originally focused on suddenly out-of-work restaurant workers, with “kind of a family meal vibe.” She explained the family meal tradition in restaurants where, prior to service, front and back of house employees sit down and eat together before opening their doors to customers. She noted they wanted to “make everybody who was displaced feel like they were still part of the family.” Quickly, the effort transitioned to include families of any kind who were out of work, kids who depended on school for hot meals, and others.
Wallace, who said the project gave her purpose during her furlough from 801 Chophouse, was deeply touched by meal recipients’ gratitude.
“It was very emotional to see all this gratitude come in. I had moments where it overwhelmed me a bit,” Wallace said. “I felt very lucky to happen upon this opportunity and then to see this incredible impact…I feel honored to have been a part of this small thing we did that had such an impact.”
Indeed, while volunteers worked to give to their fellow Omahans, their lives were also enriched through their involvement. Coulton said the effort helped keep him healthy and allowed him to get out of the house and use his skills for the greater good.
“I’m grateful beyond words to have participated in this with this specific group of people,” Coulton said. “It’s an especially unique person who shows up every week in the way they all did to work towards this singular goal of feeding others. That was it. No egos, no hierarchy, just an inherent understanding to do what we could to provide the most out of what we had at hand.”
Osentoski, who’s midway through MCC’s culinary program, got involved to keep busy and get back in the kitchen.
“This was different for me because I’m not used to preparing food in bulk. In my first week we made about 300 meals, so it was different seeing what goes into making that much food as opposed to preparing one meal at a time for a person at a table,” Osentoski said. “Towards the end, Witney and I went with Elizabeth and Bryce to hand out food and it was really nice to see the people we were helping and connect faces with all the thank-yous and comments they entered when they requested bags.”
Even though the Dandelion Meal Project started off as the culinary equivalent of a jazz ensemble playing it by ear, the group became well practiced. The project came to a close in early June as many of its contributors were called back to their everyday posts.
“Honestly, part of me wishes that we could still do it, but everybody had to go their separate ways because restaurants were reopening,” Wallace said. “But I feel like if we ever needed to assemble again, we’d be ready to go—we’re like The Avengers.”
This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.