If Jesus could do it, why not Flagler County? He fed the multitudes—multiplied those loaves and fishes by the thousands—and on Wednesday, Flagler County did likewise, serving almost 4,000 free meals at 11 locations to whoever sat at hundreds of tables set and decorated by volunteers in the culmination of a two month effort known as Feed Flagler.
“Obviously we’re feeding a multitude,” Rev. Beth Gardner, the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church, one of the 11 locations, said. “A lot of times people will say it wasn’t necessarily a miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, it was about getting people to share what they had. That’s how some would interpret that passage or that miracle. So in some sense, between the monetary donations that come in, and the gifts of the non-perishable foods, that it’s all brought together and it gets turned into this meal that’s shared throughout the county. And in that sense we are feeding the multitudes. Is it a miracle? I’m not sure. It’s the way community is supposed to be, the way it’s supposed to work.”
For three hours between 3 and 6 p.m., people streamed into places like the Methodist church’s Fellowship Hall, the Wickline Center in Flagler Beach, the Hidden Trails Community Center in the western part of the county, Buddy Taylor Middle and Bunnell Middle Schools, and several other sites. There were neither loaves nor fishes, but almost 2,000 pounds of turkey, 725 pounds of ham, 780 pounds of corn, 780 pounds of green beans, at least 55 gallons of gravy (that’s almost two barrels). Many of the sites ran out of food and had to be replenished– Hidden Trails, Wickline, mount Calvary.
On Thursday, the old Bunnell City Hall will be open and serving an additional 500 meals.
It was all prepared Tuesday and Wednesday at the Buddy Taylor Middle School kitchen under the guidance of Master Chef Jason Hall, volunteering from the Hammock Dunes Club. (The master chef designation isn’t just a local title: it’s the highest attainment a chef can have in the country. Hall is one of just 67 Certified Master Chefs in the nation, earning that designation in August.)
This is the fourth year of Feed Flagler, a countywide project began by Milissa Holland, the (barely) former county commissioner and spearheaded by her since, even this year (as she ran for a House seat). Tuesday she was at the Buddy Taylor kitchen all day with Undersheriff Dave O’Brien (Holland’s husband), her daughter Tori (who usually handles children’s entertainment at some of the sites), a large contingent of Matanzas High School’s culinary students, and Hammock Dunes General Manager Jesse Thorpe.
“We’ve been involved every year,” Hall said, “each year it gets a little bit easier. We streamline it.” He could have spoken for the entire organization, which has become the single-largest annual philanthropic community effort by far. Companies and individuals contribute the $15,000 necessary to buy the food, companies and civic organizations also collect many tons of non-perishable food (at least 30,000 pounds this year) to give away to some 500 families in boxes filled with a week’s worth of food.
Those boxes ran out fast today, an indication of a persistent need among poorer families in the county, at a time when, just this week, the Census Bureau ranked Florida as having the third-highest poverty rate in the nation. When Buddy Taylor Middle School’s cafeteria doors opened at 3 p.m., there were already some 60 people ready to eat, Holland said. But the afternoon went on without a hitch.
“The volunteers I cannot say enough about, they came through and came through big,” Holland said. “Nothing that didn’t go smoothly.” Among the afternoon’s benefits: every bag or box of groceries included a packet of information outlining the county’s social services. And the Flagler County Health Department provided blood pressure screenings, as the department’s Diane Greenhalgh, a registered nurse, did at the Methodist Church. (For the record, the chamber of commerce’s Gretchen Smith’s blood pressure was alarmingly high, but Christa Colletti’s was, despite a salty trip to Salsa’s, the Mexican restaurant, the evening before, just fine).
“This is my favorite holiday,” Jenny Crain-Brady, Bunnell’s vice mayor, said as she volunteered on the serving line at the Methodist church, alongside Mayor Catherine Robinson, Carla Traister—who’s largely responsible for the cold-weather homeless shelter the church hosts—and newly-elected County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, also a shelter volunteer.
“It’s a chance to give back to our community at a level of need, because of someone is hungry, nothing else matters,” Robinson said.
“Right, and it’s hands-on, straight-up hands on,” Crain-Brady said.
“And it’s a wonderful opportunity for the whole community to finally get behind one thing that really means something,” Robinson said, as a Flagler Youth Orchestra quartet alternated sets with the Island Duet (Caren and Paul Umbarger, Caren being the artistic director of the youth orchestra).
The mayor and vice mayor credited Holland as the central force of Feed Flagler. Holland herself was, for the first time in four years, leading it no longer as a commissioner, but as a private citizen. “It’s actually always an emotional day,” Holland said. “You get way more back than what you give to this initiative, and it always touches me very deeply every single time.” Feed Flagler has been taking a life of its own separate from Holland, with innumerable groups and individuals now willing to be involved.
“The residents keep coming and wanting to do more,” Holland said. “We really do have an unbelievable community, and the residents never fail us, so I would very much enjoy continuing to be a part of this.”