Food on the Stove is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization founded to promote healthy lifestyle management among firefighters. With programmes ranging from healthy cooking demonstrations to partnerships with local farms that supply food to firehouses, this firefighter-operated and focused organization has found innovative ways to fulfil its mission, with much more to come. We interviewed founder Jonathan Tate ahead of his appearance at Equipped 2021 to learn more about this dynamic community programme.
In the United States, the leading cause of death for firefighters isn’t fire, it’s cardiac arrest, according to the American Heart Association. Tate, a second-generation Washington, D.C. firefighter, is on a mission to change that. ‘Our first responders are left vulnerable to health issues that threaten their lives in greater numbers than fire. I started Food on the Stove to change that narrative – so that meals in firehouses could nurture unity and enable physical wellbeing,’ he said.
As the son of a firefighter, Tate grew up around firehouses. He saw first-hand how the need for inexpensive but satisfying meals often resulted in less than healthy menus, even as he prepared to join the ranks himself. Seeking better choices, he began to visit farmer’s markets – using his own money, earned by working overtime, to bring in fresh ingredients and healthier meals.
Expanding on the idea of better nutrition, Tate found an opportunity to combine education with community. Partnering with a certified nutritionist, he began a monthly class that included heart-healthy cooking demonstrations and advice for interpreting nutritional information. His efforts were so successful that his fellow firefighters began fundraising efforts to expand the programme to other houses outside of their district.
‘I believe in starting with what you have,’ he said. ‘I like to say that God showed me the ending before showing me the beginning. If I saw the beginning, I probably would have gotten discouraged and wouldn’t have gone forward with it.’
From 2018 to 2019, the ‘Local Food for Local Heroes’ initiative selected one firehouse a month to receive a chef-cooked meal created with healthy, local ingredients – plus recipes. For 2020, they partnered with chefs from Cookology and a team of nutritionists at grocery chain Giant to design a 12-month programme of cooking demos and in-person classes.
When Covid-19 hit, making in-person programming impossible, resources were shifted toward building Farm to Firehouse, a meal service that delivers healthy meals to firefighters on the job. Their partners at Giant were eager to make it happen, producing educational videos to replace the live classes and providing a $20,000 donation – enough to cover the costs for 2,000 meals.
‘Our goal was to create a meal delivery service like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh where the recipe is given, we put all the ingredients in a box, and we deliver it to the firehouse,’ Tate said. ‘Our first recipe was Peruvian chicken, which came with sweet potatoes and coleslaw. It was a 640-calorie meal, all packaged up and portion sized.’
Tate specifically wanted to keep the actual cooking within the firehouse. ‘That’s such a big part of the culture in the fire service, and it builds camaraderie for them to be able to cook together. We just wanted to give them these healthier ingredients for them to prepare.’
The donation from Giant was followed by a $7,000 donation from UnitedHealthcare. Now, in partnership with local farms and grocers, Food on the Stove can source, package and deliver kits for less than $10 per meal. Through support from private donors and corporate sponsors, more than 10,000 Farm to Firehouse boxes have already been provided, at no cost to the firefighters.
‘I took a leap of faith… and it has grown substantially in a short period of time,’ Tate said. ‘But we have so far to go. We mark our success not just on the growth of the organization but on the impact we’re having. I always tell my peers that it would be pointless if we were to raise a ton of money and pass out a ton of food, but nobody is getting healthier. Though we’re happy about the growth, and I love to continue see it grow, we’re really focused on how many people we can continue to serve and how many people we can help.’
Building on the success of Farm to Firehouse, Tate and company are preparing to beta test the Food on the Stove app, which will offer grocery delivery and meal prep to firehouses. The app will also include a mechanism for aiding firefighters who have been placed off duty due to health concerns over A1C levels or high blood pressure. After a health assessment, Food on the Stove will provide these firefighters with meals for 30 days, free of charge, to help them lower their levels and get back to work faster.
Also in the works is a plan to purchase and renovate a vacant historic firehouse, converting it into a food resource centre. ‘The first floor of the market will have a butcher shop, a fish monger, some light-fare food and some locally sourced vegetables and fruit,’ Tate said. ‘On the second floor, we’ll have our commercial kitchen where we’ll be packaging up meals to deliver to the firehouses. Every dollar that’s spent at that market will go into funding our Farm to Firehouse programme so that we can continue to deliver these meals to firefighters. As it stands currently, these programmes are free to firefighters, and we would like to keep them free, but we also want to have some scalability.’
Tate says he hopes the transformation of the firehouse will serve as proof of concept – the first of many resource centres around the country supplementing food costs and providing education for the firefighters of these communities.
For more information, go to www.foodonthestove.org