Solving hunger 'starts by opening our hearts'

Nov. 24—WILKES-BARRE — Tracey Selingo, Founder and Chair of Fork Over Love, says the only way to solve hunger is to create access to food.

"That starts by opening our hearts," Selingo said.

Fork Over Love began as an emergency response in January 2021 to bridge the gap between two groups of people severely affected by the pandemic — the working poor and small, independent restaurants — both of whom experienced different levels and types of food insecurity.

Selingo said the working poor struggled to put food on the table, and restaurants struggled to keep their stoves on, staff employed, and doors open.

"We know that food is the foundation of a healthy life and that restaurants are the foundation of a healthy, culturally-diverse community," Selingo said. "We believe that by feeding our neighbors hot, nutritious, chef-made dinners from small, independent restaurant partners, we are creating a socially innovative and responsible solution to nourish our entire community with dignity, grace, and power — physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, culturally, and economically."

Selingo said Fork Over Love empowers people to change the narrative on food insecurity by feeding their neighbors like family, so that all who are struggling can feel safe, secure, seen, and fed.

"Love is the currency that connects us," she said. "When we share it unconditionally, everyone benefits."

Selingo said Fork Over Love relies on the generosity of the community — individually and collectively — to nourish the community. And, she said, this generosity comes in many different forms.

"We rely on donations, we rely on expertise, we rely on the investments of time, energy, and compassion so that we can alleviate hunger in all the ways it manifests every single day," Selingo said. "It's never just about food — it's always about food and connection — to each other, to our culture, to our shared humanity. It's about making sure we feed the whole person with dignity and grace."

Selingo said volunteers talk a lot about the "currency of love" because that's the center of gravity at Fork Over Love.

"Love for the person, love for the community," Selingo said. "We have over 55 restaurant partners, more than 50 host sites, and hundreds of donors and volunteers quietly working behind the scenes every week to help our restaurants feed our neighbors. There are a lot of moving parts, but it's shockingly easy because we're not reinventing the wheel to feed each other. We are investing in our places of business, where food is always cooked with love, and offering that to those in need."

Selingo said she believes that's why so many people step up during the holidays — because they can feel the weight and fragility of those who desperately need help getting through these very difficult days.

"Food is at the center of life's highest and lowest moments," Selingo said. "We gather around tables to celebrate life, death and everything in between."

Selingo said Fork Over Love distributed a total of 957 dinners on Nov. 22, in several locations and she said they will run out of food at every one.

"We can not meet the demand in our area, which is heartbreaking," Selingo said.

100th event marked

Selingo said Fork Over Love celebrated its 100th community events on Nov. 22 — a day on which three distributions were scheduled:

—Pittston Area High School

Sponsored by the William G McGowan Charitable Trust.

400 dinners — 100 were delivered using DoorDash to the home-bound.

Gertrude C McGowan, Esq., Trustee of the William G. McGowan Charitable Trust, noted that this is the second year that the McGowan foundation has sponsored a Fork Over Love event.

"This is what the McGowan foundation is honored to do — helping those in need both during the holidays and year round," McGowan said. "No one should be hungry, especially during the holidays. It is our blessing to help those in need."

Leo McGowan, President of the William G. McGowan Charitable Trust, said, "Our goal is to be good community members and by sponsoring this event and working with great organizations like Fork Over Love, we can provide food to those most in need for the Thanksgiving season."

—Hanover Area High School

Sponsored by Discover NEPA.

400 meals delivered.

—Hazleton Direct Delivery out of two restaurants — Adames Bakery and Restaurant and Rocco's

100 meals delivered.

Sponsored by Father Jim Paisley, St. Therese Church Shavertown.

Selingo said this effort engaged more than 30 volunteers, 8 restaurants and 3 donors to serve/deliver 900 dinners.

Father Paisley took top honors in the Rectory Set Cook contest, raising $31,500. His parish received half of that and Father Paisley said he decided to donate it to several organizations, including $3,000 to Fork Over Love.

"I'm not a cook," Father Paisley said. So the pastor of St. Therese and St. Frances Cabrini churches in the Back Mountain enhanced his cup of comfort video by singing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and, of course, a little "Let it Snow."

Father Paisley, who grew up in Hazleton, said hunger has become much more widespread.

"Hunger is hunger no matter where it is and it needs to be satisfied," he said.

In addition to Hazleton Direct Delivery, Father Paisley also donated to Dinners for Kids, the Back Mountain Food Bank at the Trucksville United Methodist Church, Hazleton Area Meals on Wheels and Wyoming Valley Meals on Wheels. He also said the St. Therese Stewardship Fund purchased gift cards that will be distributed to families in need within the parish.

Veterans being served

Nicole R. Guest has been with District 12 American Legion for nearly 10 years and she was the first female District 12 Commander for District 12. She currently serves as a deputy Commander and she also runs the District 12 American Legion Canteen Fund.

Guest, a U.S. Navy veteran, said 28 American Legions in Luzerne County in District 12 donate to the Canteen Fund and the money goes to the Veterans Administration in Plains Township for, as Guest says, "all our heroes.

"They are the loves of our lives," Guest says of the veterans. "We never leave any brother or sister behind. Many in our country could never fathom what so many went through in the wars that they were in and how horrific it was. I have heard hundreds and hundreds of stories over the past 10 years. They sacrificed so much for our country, our freedom and our American Flag. They deserve to be honored everyday for the heroes that they all are and they deserve the best care our country has to offer. They are our family and we will never leave them."

Guest talks the talk and walks the walk. She organizes parties for the VA veterans and all of the American Legion volunteers help out. They donate Target and Wal-Mart gift cards for the veterans in need.

For Thanksgiving Guest and the volunteers will be decorating the conference room with balloons and many decorations just like they did last week for a Veterans Day party they hosted.

Guest said they will serve the veterans hoagies, coleslaw, baked beans, smoked kielbasa, as well as pumpkin roll and pumpkin pie.

Guest never forgets the veterans, holding all holiday parties at the VA.

"We are always there on every holiday," Guest said. "Christmas of course is the big one and we are there at 9 a.m. and we have racks and racks of gifts in which we go to every part of the VA including the ER and we give our heroes gifts that were donated from Boscov's from their Angel Tree, as well as the thousands and thousands of items donated from the community for our veterans for Christmas.

Guest said at Christmas and Easter, the veterans are treated to a fully catered meal for them.

"We host and pay for everything — all of the decorations, balloons, catered food, holiday hats and leis, tablecloths, plates, etc., for all our veterans," Guest said. "We also have our DJ Mikey Mike who volunteers to play for them as well."

Since the pandemic, Guest said the volunteers have had big parking lot parties for the veterans with bands and singers and the veterans watch from their windows, while volunteers send in food and goodies for them to enjoy while everyone sings along with them at their windows.

Drop-offs are also done once a month with pizza or hoagies, boxes of tasty cakes, bags of assorted potato chips, boxes of their favorite snacks, and lots more goodies, holiday decorated cupcakes and holiday hats and necklaces for them in all five wards.

"For the past couple of months, we have been allowed to visit with a few of them outside at the Pavilion while the weather was warm and now inside the big conference room with a large table each weekend so we rotate and do our best to take turns with them," Guest said. "We ask them what their favorite meal is and for most it's lobster and steak so we purchase the food from our district 12 canteen fund from the Outback Steakhouse and we pick it up and take it up to the VA and we visit with them while they eat their lunch. We also decorated the lobby, which is right off of the conference room, with lots of decorations for Halloween and we recently decorated for Thanksgiving. Many go down to the lobby, there is a big screen TV down there and a fireplace and it's just something different for them to see. We also decorate the conference room as well for them to enjoy while we are having our holiday parties."

"All of this makes them feel so special and loved," Guest said.

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.