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A Madison chef and his crew fix a Thanksgiving meal for those who might go hungry without it

Late Tuesday morning in a former restaurant space on the far west side of Madison, Fiona McTavish was cutting up smoked turkeys and piling the meat in a plastic food storage bin while Jeff Brogan mashed potatoes and Dave Smith cubed slices of bread for stuffing.

Those were some of the ingredients being prepared for more than 600 Thanksgiving meals to be delivered Thursday across Wisconsin’s second-largest city. They include more than 530 to be distributed by Feeding the Youth and another 100-plus going to the Madison Dairy Drive community for unhoused people.

Dane County has the sixth-highest median household income among Wisconsin counties, according to the National Institutes of Health.  But poverty and need are no strangers to Wisconsin’s capital, says Chef David Heide.

Heide operates a pair of restaurants in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg, but the kitchen veteran has had a double life for the last five years: preparing meals for those for whom a night out on the town is an unlikely dream if not an impossible one.

Chef David Heide (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“We’ve set our city up to never have to see the other side of Madison,” he says. “There are so many humans [who] are teetering on the verge of total loss. Food insecurity isn’t someone who’s homeless. Food insecurity is like that single mom with three kids who can’t afford day care and can’t afford anything and is working two jobs, just to make sure she can try and pay rent, like she needs to. We need to support her, so she doesn’t become homeless.”

Heide and his crew, a mix of volunteers and employees, cook dinners to be delivered to the elderly and others in need in the community every day. On Tuesday, Sam Gronski was scooping shepherd’s pie and spooning broccoli and applesauce into row after row of compartmentalized trays for the evening’s deliveries.

But for Thanksgiving, the operation turns on the gas: Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, sweet corn, rolls, cranberry sauce — and pumpkin bars for dessert.

“To me, food is love, right? And we know this, right?” Heide says. “Our two biggest holidays of the year in America are what — they’re Thanksgiving and Christmas. And both of those revolve around food, right?”

Heide began this side mission about five years ago, inspired by relatives active in Food Not Bombs, a peace collective that serves vegetarian and vegan meals to people.

“They get ingredients, they volunteer to cook and they just hand out free food for people to have,” Heide says. “There’s no, ‘How much do you make? Do you deserve this free meal?’”

After hearing about people who went dumpster diving to find discarded but still edible food, Heide thought about the difference between why households or restaurants throw out food — because it’s spoiled or on the verge of spoiling — and why a grocery store discards food.

“It’s not throwing it out because it’s bad,” Heide said. “It’s throwing it out because it’s unsaleable” — because it has a sell-by date that is about to expire, or simply isn’t far enough in the future, while what’s inside the package is still wholesome.

Collecting that food from stores and using his restaurant kitchen as the preparation site, Heide started Little John’s food truck. One day the truck would go out East Washington Avenue to places such as a temporary encampment of unhoused people located in a park on the far East Side. The next day it would go to a business campus to offer meals for sale — generating income from hungry lab workers or computer programmers to subsidize free food in the unmoneyed parts of town.

We throw away 40% of all food produced in the United States pre-consumer. So why are people who should get good food, getting food that no one would want to eat?

The COVID-19 pandemic cut the experiment short, but connections with nonprofits, starting with Reach Dane and its Head Start programs, helped Heide and Little John’s pivot to a meals-on-wheels approach.

Heide is passionate about food — and about the plight of those whose constricted access to food doesn’t make room for the sensual pleasures of a well-crafted meal.

Fiona McTavish cuts up cooked turkey meat for the Little John’s Thanksgiving dinners. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner

He thinks of four groups of people who are the least likely to experience that pleasure — school children, elderly people living alone, residents of shelters for the unhoused and people in prison.

“If I were to ask you to name four populations that really needed love and really needed caring and really needed someone to tell them, ‘You’re going to be OK,’  my guess is those are the four you’d probably pick first,” Heide says.

“We throw away 40% of all food produced in the United States pre-consumer. So why are people who should get good food, getting food that no one would want to eat?”

All three of Heide’s operations are named for his kids. In addition to the nonprofit Little John’s, named for his youngest son, his restaurant business was the upscale Lilliana, serving Louisiana-style dishes.

Then the child for whom it was named came out as trans and took the name Ollie. Emerging from the pandemic, Heide rethought his plans for the establishment.

The result was Ollie’s, a fast-casual style family place with burgers, pizza, Mediterranean sandwiches like gyros, and in the other half of the building, St. Charles Station, a further twist on New Orleans and finer Crescent City cuisine.

This week will mark the end of Little John’s tenure at its current location in West Towne Mall. The shopping center is going to be leasing the space out to a money-making eatery — a sushi bar, Heide has heard.

The last time he had to relocate, the spot he had hoped to occupy — another vacant restaurant space — fell through at the last minute. It was four months before Little John’s could resume its work. He took some public criticism for the outcome, but weathered it once he was able to resume operations.

This time he expects a smoother transition. He can’t say where yet — the details will have to await a public announcement, coming soon. But he says he’s already working out the logistics for the transfer.

“One of the reasons why I do Little John’s is this — I think people, especially now with all the negativity you’ve seen, right? People think the world is in the worst place ever right now, for social issues, civil liberty issues, like everything, than it’s ever been,” Heide says.

Despite the enormity of problems, however, he has come to believe that change for the better isn’t only possible, it’s happening — and can happen more.

“We’re making little strides and changes, it’s just not happening fast enough. And I think the biggest problem today is that people are giving up. And I think people think that the problem is unsolvable.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, Heide says.

“If we can flip the switch, and we can say, ‘Hey, maybe we can make a difference. Maybe feeding one family might actually change something’ — It actually will,” he says. “And that’s the coolest thing, right?”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F11%2F22%2Fa-madison-chef-and-his-crew-fix-a-thanksgiving-meal-for-those-who-might-go-hungry-without-it%2F by Erik Gunn

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