Family Table Collaborative, which grew from distributing free, nutritious prepared meals during the pandemic, is continuing to expand its outreach.
Founded in March 2020 by Jeni Wheeler and Harry Henry, the Family Table Collaborative was created in response to the immediate needs of families and seniors who faced food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Helped with volunteers from truck drivers to chefs to people packaging meals, the organization distributed meals at announced locations around the Cape.
Not only did they help people without means to buy nutritious food, they fed the front-line healthcare workers who were too busy to go home and cook a meal after their endless hospital shifts. Nurses and doctors told Wheeler and Henry. It was the only nutritious meal they had had to eat all week.
“The need was unbelievable,” said Henry. “It was staggering, what we learned. We decided we needed to help them more.”
What makes Family Table Collaborative unique, Wheeler says, is that it’s a creative business model. Both she and Henry hold master’s degrees in Business, Wheeler’s with a focus on social entrepreneurship from Babson. Henry is an experienced high-tech marketing executive and entrepreneur. Wheeler, Executive Director is founder and Chief Culinary Artist of Jeni’s Joy, a boutique prepared foods, private chef and catering company. The Collaborative is a meld of their collective business experience, colored by Wheeler’s recent personal experience.
Some years ago, Wheeler suffered a serious fall that left her with a traumatic brain injury, unable to work. She lost her income and her home. Before the accident she’d been on the verge of opening her own business. She was introduced to the Cape through her best friend’s family in Barnstable who took her in during her rehabilitation at Spaulding.
“I know what it is firsthand to lose everything,” she says. “This community showed up for me and I’ll spend every day trying to pay the community back.”
In fall 2021, the Collaborative moved into the former Riverway Restaurant in Yarmouth, which it hopes to purchase through a capital campaign to fulfill its wider mission of community engagement, although its mission remains the same: “To end hunger and improve nutritional security on Cape Cod by breaking down the barriers of access to both prepared meals and education.”
Since its inception, the Collaborative has recruited an army of more than 200 volunteers, has established partnerships with Whole Foods Market, Chatham Bars Inn Farm, Cape Abilities Farm, Cape Cod Organic Farm, Gustare Oils and Vinegars, Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance and others, as well as with local fishermen, to secure produce and other staples to make their meals. Partnerships with social agencies have increased their distribution range to more needy clients. Funding from the Cape Cod Foundation and Cape & Islands United Way has allowed them to grow their reach as well. To date, the Collaborative has prepared and distributed more than 97,000 meals, soups, and other food items for and into the community.
“Last year, we did our Fund a Need at our annual gala, Best Night, to benefit Family Table Collaborative and $75,000 was raised,” said Mark Skala, President and CEO of the Cape and Islands United Way. “Our donors made it possible for the Family Table Collaborative to jump start its efforts at the former Riverway Restaurant and now the home for FTC. The need in the community is great and the will of the FTC to make it happen is even greater. There is so much potential impact yet to be discovered.”
The Collaborative also sells to the public grab-and-go homemade meals, soups and baked goods made on the premises out of the Riverway, and recently started hosting a Woolfie’s Bakery pop-up on Saturday and Sunday mornings, starting at 8 a.m. Groups can also rent the space for their events and Wheeler teaches cooking classes, in-person and virtually, to teenagers and adults. Items from local makers are for sale inside the lobby.
All profits from the café and tavern, local makers’ market, kitchen space rental, special events and classes go to running, sustaining and growing the Family Table Collaborative.
“In order to create sustainable change, I believe we have to offer nutritious meals,” says Wheeler, who laments the fact that so many people don’t eat well. She feels an educational approach is what’s needed. “Most people don’t eat a wide variety of foods. The more you diversify your food sources, the more you increase your nutritional density and health.”
The nearly hundred cases of produce received each week from Whole Foods Market and in-season from local farms are made into nutritional, ready-made meals in the commercial kitchen. Volunteers pick through the produce and repackage the best quality items (Wheeler calls it food rescue) for agencies that do the actual food distribution.
“We are not trying to duplicate the great work that the agencies do, but we have the ability to amplify their offerings,” Wheeler emphasizes. “The food system is broken in the U.S. Our focus is nutritional security. Working outside the system gives us more flexibility.”
The kind of food donated determines what’s made into prepared meals. One day, a fisherman offered a whole tuna, which was carved into steaks; another time the Midnight Our fishing boat donated sea scallops. There’s always a soup of the week and Wheeler is famous for her chicken soup (all the soups are gluten-free). “Soup is food for the soul!” she says.
When the property at 1338 Route 28 in South Yarmouth is purchased, Jason Siscoe, the “community-minded” owner, will loan back $500,000 in operating capital to the Family Table Collaborative, which will cover more than a year and a half of operating expenses. The property is valued at $2 million.
The ambitious future plans can be seen inside the Collaborative, where conceptual drawings show plans for an eight-bedroom workforce housing, a teaching community garden, a community kitchen for more in-person and online classes, and renovations to the existing dining room, kitchen and tavern.
To learn more about the Family Table Collaborative, make a donation, volunteer or to collaborate, visit https://www.familytablecollaborative.org/support-us