Providing a weekly restaurant meal to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic is the goal of Pullman Serves It Forward, which has raised more than $19,600 through community contributions over the past two weeks.

The project is the brainchild of two Washington State University employees, Jamie Callison and Jeanne Weiler. They were looking for ways to help households needing food assistance while also supporting Pullman restaurants through purchases of gift cards.

“As a chef and as a community member, I was almost distraught trying to figure out how I could help,” said Callison, executive chef and culinary educator at the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management in the Carson College of Business.

Meanwhile, an article about a similar project at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania crossed the desk of Weiler, community engagement coordinator for WSU’s Pullman campus.

“Like a lot of good ideas, the stars aligned on this one,” Weiler said. A mutual acquaintance steered her to Callison to help adapt the concept for Pullman.

Pullman Serves It Forward resulted from their collaborative work with local restaurants and the nonprofit Community Action Center, which administers the donation fund.

The goal is to raise $5,000 per week through the end of August, or about $120,000 total. About 80 low-income households would receive gift cards each week for a takeout restaurant meal.

Need for food assistance increasing

A customer picks up a take-out meal at Paradise Creek Brewery.
A customer picks up a take-out meal at Paradise Creek Brewery.

Food insecurity in Whitman County is increasing, said Jeff Guyett, Community Action Center’s executive director. The local food bank is serving 35 to 40 households daily during the two days per week it’s open. That mirrors demand during the winter holidays – typically the food bank’s busiest time of the year.

With 1,400 Whitman County residents filing unemployment claims over the past five weeks, Guyett expects the need for food assistance to continue to grow. The gift cards will be distributed to clients of Community Action Center and other agencies helping low-income families, children and seniors.

“The response has been so heart-warming,” Weiler said. “This gives families the opportunity to enjoy really good quality food and at the same time, it supports the Pullman economy and local restaurants.”

“We want each family that uses the service to get a night out – a night they don’t have to worry about dinner,” Callison said. “When times are tough and you have that one dinner out every now and then, it’s a big deal.”

Along with the generous donations from community members, Pullman restaurants have stepped up to support the project.“None of these restaurants are financially successful right now. They’re just barely staying open,” Callison said. “All of them gave extra to support this program.”

Kitchen staff work on lunch entrees at South Fork Public House.

Participating restaurants include Birch and Barley, Black Cypress, Heros N Sports, New Garden Restaurant, Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, O-Ramen, Paradise Creek Brewery, Rico’s Public House, South Fork Public House, Subway, and Zoe Coffee and Kitchen. The list could expand if other restaurants are interested.

‘The generosity is contagious’

At Black Cypress, owner Nick Pitsilionis was already donating meals to people in need. Pullman Serves It Forward will allow him to expand those efforts by helping pay for the cost of ingredients. “We’re contributing our facilities and our know-how,” he said.

Money spent at restaurants ripples through the local economy, paying suppliers, vendors and “even the company that cleans our stove hoods,” Pitsilionis said.

“It’s really nice to be part of this effort and to live in a community where people are so willing to help out,” said Jonny Handy (’16), general manager of Paradise Creek Brewery and a Carson College alumnus. “This money will go a long way. Every order gives us an opportunity to hire back kitchen staff and delivery drivers.”

Closeup of Jim Harbour
Jim Harbour is the co-owner of South Fork Public House and an associate clinical professor in the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management.

Jim Harbour (’99), co-owner of South Fork, hopes to see Pullman Serves It Forward continue in some form after the stay-at-home orders are lifted.

“What I think is so creative about this is that everybody wins,” said Harbour, associate clinical professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management.

“The donors – whether they are large or small contributors – feel good,” he said. “You’re taking care of families who might not otherwise be able to enjoy a restaurant meal. And restaurants are getting an influx of people.”

“When the giving begins, the generosity is contagious,” Harbour said. “I guess that’s the epitome of hospitality.”

More information on Pullman Serves It Forward is available here.

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