A week before the 10th annual Project Host barbecue fundraiser April 26-27, executive director Sally Green was busy tracking down enough cotton candy for the weekend’s festivities.
“We used to make it, and it always rained, or the children who were making it would end up wearing it,” she says.
She ran around from BI-LO to Ingles before finding a wholesale location that could sell the premade version to them cheaply.
“So we can make some money,” she says.
As an executive director of a nonprofit that relies on donations to feed as many as 650 food-insecure adults and children a day, the making-money part of the equation is a priority, and no task required of her to accomplish that is too menial.
And it’s a good thing. Project Host, 525 S. Academy St., Greenville, encompasses an active soup kitchen and evening meal program, the CC Pearce Culinary School, garden and greenhouse, bakery, Cooking for Kids, various other food outreach partnerships, and just this week added a fully operational food truck that will serve as a mobile soup kitchen and revenue generator.
All of those separate programs are achieved with three full-time staff members (including Green), four part-time staff, and dozens of volunteers.
“Anything and everything and what somebody else doesn’t want to do,” Green says of her daily tasks. “It’s very much a team effort. There are no ‘I’s’ down here. It’s very much a team and a family.”
She breaks it down: Associate director Savannah Porter writes the grants; director of culinary operations Tobin Simpson fulfills the grants; garden manager and volunteer David Hull starts the seeds and plants the produce that will feed multitudes; and the soup kitchen volunteer coordinators make sure the kitchen is staffed with cooks and servers six days a week.
It’s an enormous undertaking – they served nearly 145,000 meals last year – that wouldn’t be possible without continued fundraisers, grants, and corporate donations.
“Funding is changing in Greenville,” Green says. “Everybody wants to fund some sexy new project. It’s the maintenance and the operations of things [for which] nobody wants to give you money.”
Almost four decades old, the Project Host soup kitchen began in 1981 as an extension of St. Andrew’s Church. At the invitation of a friend, Green volunteered in that first year and met her now-husband, who currently holds the distinction as the longest-running living volunteer.
A decade later, Green began volunteering regularly. By 1994, the kitchen was feeding more people than it could accommodate and moved to the current location in Greenville’s West End. A schoolteacher, Green was in between teaching and volunteered to step in as director in 1996 when the organization needed to fill the full-time position. She landed there permanently when the interview process confirmed she was the one for the job.
“It was a great job for me,” she says. “It was like coming home.”
Green grew up in Conway as one of four children. Her mother always cooked for the neighborhood, and both parents were involved in helping the community.
The Project Host soup kitchen volunteers, mostly retirees, quickly became family, as well, with one common goal – to alleviate food insecurity for anyone within their reach.
Porter, who’s been with Project Host as associate director for about two years, says if she could pick one job in the organization, it would be working in the soup kitchen.
“Archie brings in his own garden produce. Ron and Ken make Friday hilarious,” she says, explaining the dynamic of the regulars.
It’s obvious that they and the half-dozen volunteers on a recent Thursday take their service seriously. Medium-rare roast beef is not normally on a soup kitchen menu, but these folks show up to cook real, restaurant-quality food – not just open cans – for the 125 or so lunch diners who would come through the line.
“It’s a personal connection you’re making with people over food,” Porter says. “It’s pretty magical when you stop and think about how it all happened.”
Just how all of the Project Host programs happened was in response to a wide variety of needs, all of which stemmed from the need for food.
The garden program was started in 1998 to subsidize the soup kitchen, to teach neighborhood children about growing their own food, and later to provide the majority of the produce for the Cooking for Kids program launched in 2007. The culinary school program was developed in 2003 to meet multiple needs – provide employment training and also prepare food for needy children off-site.
The backbone of the operation, the soup kitchen, continues to meet the community’s changing needs. The kitchen used to feed about 250 people, six days a week. With the surrounding neighborhood in flux, that number has dropped to 125-150 but has stabilized, Green says.
“There are now $400,000 houses on the street across from the soup kitchen,” she says, noting the demographic change.
Those who frequent the kitchen, free of charge, are never asked about their income or background, but the volunteers and staff have a pretty good idea whom they’re serving. Green says about half are working poor, likely holding down minimum-wage jobs that don’t provide enough income to consistently buy enough food. The other 50 percent is composed of the elderly living on a fixed income and people who are homeless and often suffering from mental illness. Porter says the proportion of men to women is about 9-1, with a more evenly balanced racial mix.
Most of those meal recipients on-site are adults. The on-site culinary school, led by Simpson for nine years, provides meals for more than 400 children off-site in Greenville County every day through the Cooking for Kids initiative.
Students entering the culinary program are offered six free weeks of culinary training, during which they are preparing meals that will be delivered to children in 11 locations who don’t have a guarantee of nutritious meals outside school.
Green says she once spoke to a principal who told her that toward the end of the school year, students who previously were model students would begin to act up. When asked why, they would reveal they wanted to attend summer school so they’d have at least one meal a day provided.
“That hits you in the breastbone,” Green says. “Children shouldn’t be worrying about those kinds of things.”
“What do we do about people who can’t get to us?” Green asks.
One answer, for now, is the food truck Project Host rolled out last week. Three days a week, it will operate as a normal food truck, parking at breweries, taprooms, and office parks for customers to buy soups, sandwiches, salads, and whatever else Simpson adds to the menu, which he says will be a sort of homage to the soup kitchen but elevated.
The other three days, it will serve as a free mobile soup kitchen to reach those in need who can’t get to brick-and-mortar.
Simpson, whose background is in fine dining, joined Project Host to make a difference after a stint at the former American Grocery.
“I enjoy making pretty, expensive food,” he says. And he still does get to do that to an extent for catering events, wine tastings at The Community Tap, regular community meals, and the Campfire Social fundraising event each fall at Greenbrier Farms. But that’s not his main purpose.
“Feeding children? That’s a no-brainer,” he says of the career move.
Teaching his culinary students career and life skills while also providing them a chance to help others is an added benefit.
Two of the most recent culinary graduates will be staying on with Project Host part-time on the food truck and in the bakery, which will make baked goods for all of the various branches.
Courtney Williams, a vegetarian who learned a lot about meat working her first kitchen job at Husk Greenville, is one of those grads who will be working on the food truck three days a week while trying to grow her food photography business. The longer-term goal is to open her own small restaurant using the skills she learned and will continue to learn at Project Host, she says.
The growth of these programs relies on sponsorships and donations. Rain during the April 26-27 barbecue fundraiser could deter enough paying guests that it affects Project Host’s entire fiscal year. Because of that, developing more revenue streams is always on Green’s mind.
“We need to be bringing something in to make it sustainable,” she says.