WLAA Exclusive: Local women step up to the plate to help feed under-served in time of crisis

The list is long, but somewhere near the top of the list of local folks who have given not only their time but talents to help others in need during this pandemic, are the names Allison Anastasio and Lilian Anderson. The two Ann Arbor volunteers have stepped up to the plate – literally – to help feed local residents in need in and around Ann Arbor.

“From the beginning of this disaster, it was heavy on my heart to pitch in some way to help the under-served population,” says Anastasio, who has a culinary arts degree from Schoolcraft, teaches culinary arts at Washtenaw Community College and owns Last Bite Chef. “For the past four years, I’ve had my own personal chef business (Last Bite Chef), where I cook meals for Ann Arbor families, do small scale catering, and offer private culinary education. During this time, it felt more appropriate to convert my energies, resources and skills to serving those who really needed it, and so I put a pause on my personal chef business to focus on this effort.”

The effort is helping feed families in the Ann Arbor area who would otherwise be missing important healthy meals. The group of volunteers prepare home-cooked meals for the kids who attend the Community Action Network (CAN) After School Program. They deliver these meals Monday through Friday to four different community sites in town – Green, Arrowwood, Bryant and Hikone.
Westminster Presbyterian Church has generously offered the use of their industrial kitchen free of charge.

The group started a Go Fund Me effort early on and continue to be funded by the generous donations received. They initially were cooking just under 200 meals daily but the numbers have decreased over time. They are still preparing on average about 140 meals per day.

“Food insecurity is an issue that is really important to me,” says Anastasio. “It is a dream of mine to open a soup kitchen associated with a culinary training program and workshop space. In the meantime, I’m looking for ways to make small impacts here and there.”

Anastasio’s teenage kids have volunteered at the after school program at the CAN sites, so they were well aware that Food Gatherers sponsored dinners every evening as part of the support program.

“Knowing I wouldn’t be able to tackle this effort in the same magnitude on my own, I called around to my AA Women Food CEO’s cohorts and others that I knew would be interested in collaborating,” Anastasio says.

And Lilian Anderson was one who answered the call.

“I was incredibly grateful that Lillian stepped up to be a full partner to me, taking on organizing volunteers, scheduling and logistics while I took on the food side,” Anastasio said.

Anderson, a registered dietitian and culinary professional, owns Sprouting Chefs, LLC, which hosts hands-on cooking classes for children and young adults.

“We are a small group of volunteers in the kitchen (four to five) made up of friends, Westminster Church members and family members,” Anderson says. “Another small group of volunteers delivers the meals daily to the various sites.”

Anderson says the small group consists of about 25 volunteers who make sure the meals are prepared and delivered to those families in need. “I would like to acknowledge Beth Ellis and Elizabeth Tidd as they are both volunteers who help out on a daily basis and who have taken on extra duties (picking up grocery orders, helping with kitchen management).”

Anderson says that she feels “fortunate to be able to use my skills during this time.”

“To hopefully put some smiles on the faces of these kids,” she says. “To hopefully provide some nourishment that they may otherwise not have access to. It is very satisfying working side by side with others who are able and willing to help so regularly.
“There are others who wanted to help but we have tried to keep our volunteer numbers to a minimum in order to minimize our overall risk. Really, it just feels good to feel useful during this challenging time. And I get to schedule my three teen kids to take on one shift a week.”

Derrick Miller, the executive director of Community Action Network, is grateful for the work being done by Anastasio, Anderson and their team.   

“They have been truly incredible and have really stepped up to the plate (pun intended),” he said. “They have been so flexible and the meals, as you can see from the pictures, are absolutely beautiful, delicious, and healthy. It is continuing to fill a growing need in our community and we cannot thank them enough for being so kind with their time, expertise and resources. They are a big reason why I and those at CAN love Ann Arbor.”

The team is cooking kid-friendly nutritious meals from scratch – dishes have included Vegetarian Fried Rice, Beef Chili, Breakfast Dinner (pancakes, turkey sausage and hash browns), Enchiladas, Turkey Tacos, Pasta Alfredo with Broccoli, Pasta Bolognese and Baked Ziti.

“We have received generous pasta donations from Al Dente Pasta of Whitmore Lake (they make wonderful fresh pastas),” says Anderson. “As we have become more productive/efficient over time, we find we can prepare more things such as baked homemade Ginger Molasses Cookies.”

The group has a Go Fund Me page and has already raised thousands of dollars.