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Food Hub Supports Restaurant Workers, Sells Safe Meals

Carrboro United
Carrboro United

Restaurants and farmers in a North Carolina town known for arts and cuisine are joining forces to offer residents safe and healthy dishes while also supporting food-service jobs threatened by COVID-19.

Carrboro United sprouted in the town of 20,000 when a retired retail CEO and a longtime restaurateur came up with selling prepared and raw food packages online to residents, who then line up in cars at a central location to receive their boxes while still practicing social distancing.

Packages equivalent to about 1,000 meals were distributed at the first pickup on March 21 in the town about 30 miles northwest of Raleigh. Carrboro United said 3,800 such meals were being sold on Tuesday, one of three pickup days per week.

"It's very impressive, the community support," said Justin Platt, a food hub worker. "I'm thanking them. The community is trying to pull together."

Platt was among 44 employees at Acme Food & Beverage laid off last month following a statewide order to close restaurants for dine-in services, leaving only eight workers employed. Restaurants also rely on farmers for fresh produce, so they're hurting, too.

The layoffs "happened so immediately. It was just shocking," said Acme owner Kevin Callahan, who helped devise the project. "It's a little overwhelming."

Several area eateries and farmers have put together locally-grown offerings, from quarts of mixed mushrooms and fresh beef and pork to tarts and brownies. Box meal prices work out to about $8 to $12 per person. One gourmet dish box, for example, includes Acme's smoked salmon hand pies for four, and asparagus and red pepper strata with goat cheese and mozzarella.

"We want to have an affordable option," said Tom Raynor, the former retail CEO who helped launch the hub. He added that the public is increasingly worried about whether fresh foods at big retailers could be compromised.

"People don't want to go to the grocery store anymore," he said.

The food-hub proceeds go to the restaurants, eateries and workers like Platt, one of 20 people hired at living wages to run the hub's logistics last weekend. Using a walkie-talkie, Platt manages the line of vehicles arriving to ensure they get their orders in a timely and safe way.

Raynor said the hub also allowed more than 35 workers to return to their previous jobs, and has put almost $800,000 back into the Carrboro-area economy.

"Our vendors have told me that this effort is the difference between them keeping their staff and laying them off," said Zoe Dehmer, Acme's operations director. She said communities and restaurant owners in North Carolina, South Carolina and Maine have expressed interest in the copying the initiative.

The effort is a labor of love for Raynor, who came to Carrboro nearly 30 years ago as Fleet Feet opened its first East Coast store. Raynor said he's put up some his own retirement funds to offer $10,000 emergency bridge loans to local businesses hurt by the stay-home order. So far $120,000 in loans have been disbursed — a somewhat risky move in today's economy.

"The risk is if I don't do it," Raynor said. "The risk is Carrboro's future."

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