The core values that drive Greenville’s Project Host are reflected in its name—“Host” evokes the belief that every person should be welcomed as a valued guest, and “Project” recalls the organization’s emphasis on growth and experimentation to better engage with the community to meet local needs. CEO Tobin Simpson says the nonprofit, which started as a soup kitchen in 1981, has welcomed change in its nearly four decades of service.
“We try new things, adapt and learn from our mistakes; we’ve learned to be nimble,” he says. “We’re addressing the needs of food insecurity through our soup kitchen, HostMobile, and Cooking for Kids program, while improving lives and circumstances of students who attend C.C. Pearce Culinary School.”
Designed to provide a pathway to financial stability, the culinary school’ s free, six-week sessions include ServSafe food safety instruction, employment readiness training, and opportunities for internships and jobs with the HostMobile and the Bakery, which operate on a social enterprise model. Culinary students develop hands-on skills by preparing meals for Project Host’s Cooking for Kids program.
“The culinary program is for anybody looking to improve their circumstances or take the next step toward stable employment. We have some students who come with a strong culinary background and others who have never worked in a kitchen,” Simpson says. “It’s a great way to get the experience you need and walk away feeing proud.”
The school also offers classes teaching different skills for high school students with special needs. Simpson recalls one student who struggled with hand-eye coordination, requiring assistance to tie an apron and put on gloves, and the enthusiastic reaction of the whole class the first time he accomplished the tasks on his own.
“Passion is 90% of success, and they bring all of their passion,” Simpson says. “You couldn’t ask for a more engaged class.”
This year, the Cooking for Kids program is making family-style meals for four centers that provide child care for students on virtual school days. All are in areas where 50% or more of the population of the local elementary school is approved for free or reduced lunch.
“We’re serving nutritious, healthy food — but also meals they’ll eat — two times a day, five days a week, for more than 150 children,” Simpson says. “We have the capacity to do more, so we’re exploring partnerships with other sites.”
Project Host’s soup kitchen serves an average of 48,000 free meals annually. Because food insecurity isn’t limited to one neighborhood, the HostMobile food truck also serves 550 free meals weekly at four sites in outlying areas. Gardening for Good, staffed by volunteers, provides fresh produce.
“We’re trying to create self-sustaining programs. In addition to free meals, the HostMobile has a pay-it-forward model attached, selling food in the community, and the bakery provides catering,” Simpson says. “Funds go to pay graduates a living wage, and the remainder is rolled back into our other programs.”
Philanthropic support, including a recent grant from United Way’s COVID-19 Community Relief Fund, is essential to keeping these programs going, Simpson says. Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville, which contributed to the fund, said Project Host maximizes its impact with complementary programs to fight hunger while also addressing its root causes.
“Project Host is an affirming place that provides a hot meal and a warm greeting,” he said. “Its culinary program has given many adults the skills and pathway for positions in the local restaurant industry. The Cooking For Kids effort to get nutritious meals to kids doing virtual learning is a shining example of adapting to meet current needs.”
For more information, visit projecthost.org.