THE EQUAL PLATES PROJECT
Asheville nonprofit offers a uniquely local solution to food insecurity
BY TOMMY DOTT
Twenty chickens are bronzing in an oven at the Central United Methodist Church on Church Street in downtown Asheville. At the moment, the entire commercial kitchen is under the watchful eyes of chef Chad Holmes. The chickens, which were organically raised by Fiddler’s Green Farm in Marshall and Wild East Farm in Marion, were processed earlier the same morning, making them about as fresh a meal as you can find. In fact, it can be said that every meal created by the Equal Plates Project is about as fresh as it gets.
The Equal Plates Project is an Asheville-based nonprofit that has a simple and yet profound twist on a common mission. Like many organizations, it provides food to local residents who are struggling with food security. But the difference is, the Equal Plates Project purchases its food from local farmers, paying fair market rates for fresh ingredients, and then turns those ingredients into scratch-made meals.
It’s a win-win situation. By buying food locally, the Project supports the network of regional farms. And by creating prepared meals, it provides local residents and families with wholesome and nutritious food that they might otherwise struggle to get.
Nearly 70% of Equal Plates Project’s food budget goes to roughly 20 small WNC farms and every meal created averages 60–70% of local ingredients, including veggies, fruit, eggs, grain and meat.
“We pay our farmers the same wholesale prices as restaurants do,” says the Project’s Executive Director Madi Holtzman. “Paying fairly to farmers is the only way to sustain a viable local food system.”
Lyric Antio owns Wild East Farm and feels that by working with Equal Plates she can merge her farm’s commitment to organically raised animals and food accessibility.
“Each week, we deliver meats to the Equal Plates Kitchen, where the chefs craft gorgeous meals to distribute for free to the community,” Lyric says. “It is truly a joy to watch the creative expression of such talented chefs, often combining our meats with vegetables grown by fellow farmer friends.”
The project, originally called We Give a Share, was started in 2020 in response to the pandemic by farmer and current board member Aaron Grier of Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester. With farmers facing financial hardships during restaurant and outlet shutdowns, it was a way to purchase local produce to keep small family farms in business.
By partnering with the Southside Kitchen, local produce was transformed into more than 500 meals per day to share with residents living in the Southside community through the City of Asheville’s Housing Authority.
Since those early days, the Equal Plates Project has grown and now operates a second commercial kitchen. It partners with over a dozen community organizations, including Homeward Bound, United Way’s Community Nights, and the Buncombe Partnership for Children, to distribute thousands of local meals weekly.
Particularly exciting, the Project is also now participating in an innovative state-wide program called the Healthy Opportunities Pilot. Acknowledging that a person’s health and well-being is influenced by their diet—along with other things like access to housing and transportation—the pilot program is using Medicaid funding to help supply fresh, healthy food to those who need it.
“We’re really excited about this first-in-the-nation pilot program,” Holtsman says. “We can now deliver 14 meals a week directly to the doors of referred Medicaid clients.”
Results from the pilot suggest that meal delivery programs such as Equal Plates Project are not only effective in providing food security, but that home delivery also promotes trust and community cohesion, and can hinder feelings of isolation. As they say, good food is good medicine.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Equal Plates Project relies on individual donations to purchase fresh food from local farmers and transform it into nourishing meals for our neighbors facing food insecurity.
If you would like to support this mission, go to EqualPlatesProject.org. A donation of $100— whether made once or quarterly—provides funding for 50 meals and supports the local network of farmers. You can also gift meals in someone’s honor for the holiday season.
Equal Plates Project is running a capital campaign to equip a second kitchen with walk-in cold storage—a project that will significantly increase the number of meals the organization can share, and therefore the impact on both small farms and community members who rely on these meals.
Chef Chad Holmes (at left) with a volunteer at Equal Plates Project.