See how a small group is having a hugely positive impact on the restaurant industry and those who need meals the most.
The restaurant industry is the backbone of many small businesses in our communities. While they keep our bellies full, they are not without faults and struggles.
That’s where The LEE Initiative comes in. “The LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative is a non-profit dedicated to providing creative and forward-thinking solutions to issues of diversity and equity in the restaurant industry, as well as providing work and mentorship opportunities in the industry,” says LEE Co-Founder Lindsey Ofcacek.
The inspiration for The LEE Initiative came from the #MeToo movement, according to Ofcacek.
“Chef Edward Lee and I spent many hours talking about how we could help the industry we love so much,” she explains. “Everything relies on women having the resources and support they need to thrive – this country, our communities, our families, the restaurant industry. Empowering women directly changes everything. We started our Women Chefs Program and have grown tremendously as we opened relief kitchens in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Since the relief kitchens were opened in mid-March with one relief kitchen in Louisville, Ofcacek says that they’ve grown to a total of 19 relief kitchens across the country. There is a program getting meals to families in Jefferson County, another program that helps support small farms and restaurants in the re-opening process, and now a series of relief kitchens for live music staff.
“Since March, we’ve given out over 1 million meals,” adds Ofcacek.
The team behind The LEE Initiative includes Ofcacek, Lee, and a small, all-women team who are working hard to help the programs run.
With the dawn of a new year finally here, Ofcacek says The LEE Initiative will focus on sustainable rebuilding in 2021.
“You won’t be surprised to hear that as a restaurant industry veteran and former General Manager, I deal with uncertainty by throwing myself into my work,” she says. “ONone of us would ever have asked for this rupture, but now that it’s here, it is an opportunity to address so many issues that would have been ongoing problems.”
The mission at The LEE Initiative will continue to be focused on creating a more effective supply chain between small farms and restaurants, improving practices to support the future workers in the industry, and putting new energy behind the Women’s Chefs program.
“Thanks to our partners at Audi and Maker’s Mark, we’re dreaming huge,” says Ofcacek. “Our work in direct aid can be so difficult, and dreaming of the better future we’re going to build helps keep me motivated and sane.”
Ofcacek says that while the work is hard, she finds her inspiration to keep going by watching the way the restaurant and food community has come together in the midst of the crisis.
“Every person in this industry was financially, emotionally, and often physically affected by this pandemic,” she says. “But every chef, cook, bartender, server, distributor, and farmer I know, and many that I don’t, reached out to help. Our nonprofit is very small, but we could have never fed a million people without our partners and community support. We all truly believe that programs are not solved by one sweeping motions, but by a million tiny acts and an army of people doing good. I have seen so much kindness over the last year. The beauty of something being broken is that we get to rebuild it the way we want to. I have so much faith that we will rebuild a more sustainable and equitable industry where people can thrive.”
As we head into 2021, Ofcacek says she’s looking forward to being able to safely take a road trip to meet all of the partner restaurants and farms. “These incredible folks are what made our mission possible and I have only met a handful of them in person despite the fact that we spoke on the phone 5 times a day for 9 months,” she says.
She’s also looking forward to long leisurely dinners, and says as a full-time working mom that she wouldn’t be upset if schools re-opened.
To learn more about The LEE Initiative, visit https://leeinitiative.org.