One of the biggest efforts to feed Austinites in need of hot meals during the Texas winter storm crisis and its aftermath has been led by Olamaie owner and chef Michael Fojtasek. This was all with the help of a monetary donation from the LEE Initiative, a Louisville, Kentucky-based nonprofit run by co-founders chef Ed Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek. Since Friday, Fojtasek and the Olamaie staff have been providing meals for the Palmer Events Center, one of the city’s designated warming centers for people who lost power and heat.
The connection began on Instagram. Fojtasek wrote out a lengthy post last week detailing the severity of the winter storm situation, especially for those in the restaurant industry (who were already dealing with the pandemic), and his frustration with the lack of clear resources and leadership from government officials on all levels. Lee, who knew the Austin chef already, reached out and told him, “‘‘I’m gonna send you a bunch of money, so you can start cooking,’” says Fojtasek.
Now, with the backing of funding, Fojtasek was able to convert his frustrations into action. “It gave me the ability to change how I was viewing our relationship to the challenges,” he says. “It put us in a position to create meals for people that are made with the same product that we always work with.”
Immediately, Fojtasek reached out to local farmers who have been severely impacted by the storms. Crops have been unsalvageable and frozen, power outages took out equipment and greenhouses, struggles provide food and water to livestock, not to mention the widespread lack of water, nevertheless clean water in areas. “These farmers are losing the next six to eight weeks of their work,” he says.
On Instagram, Fojtasek shared a video of Katherine Tanner, the co-owner of Hat & Heart Farm in Fredericksburg, who spoke about the farm’s power outage, which meant there was no running water. She said that electricity is expected to be back in three weeks, but the county hasn’t officially said anything at that point. He bought all of the farm’s frozen produce, including radishes. (Ofcacek shares that Fojtasekf was using a majority of his LEE funds to purchase products from local farms.)
Fojtasek and the LEE Initiative are providing 500 meals a day for those in Palmer through Sunday. And, boosted by the nonprofit’s injection of aid, which afforded him more time and energy, he was able to seek out and raise additional funds to expand into cooking for other organizations in need of hot meals into Monday at the very least. This was through the help of local group Good Works Austin and global nonprofit World Central Kitchen. These include City of Austin Emergency Medical Services, nonprofit Any Baby Can, housing and services nonprofit Foundation Communities, and nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.
Olamaie’s donated meals have included chicken/rice/roasted vegetables, cornbread, barbecued chicken, biscuits, and rolls. “Chicken is easy to work with,” explains Fojtasek, “and it’s a crowd-pleaser,” adding that he bought the poultry from longtime provider Dewberry Farm.
After the LEE Initiative’s immediate Austin efforts are done, Ofcacek and Lee are already making plans to further aid Texas farms in the spring. “We’re really going to try and help the farmers in a large way,” Lee says. “Farmers haven’t even gotten to their farms to assess the damage, but they’re all just preparing for the worst.” That, paired with the pandemic and loss of profits, presents an even bigger wallop to an already struggling essential industry. One of the initiative's programs actually focuses on helping farms. Through the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, the organization buys credits at farms meant to be used by local restaurants.
“The immediate crisis is over,” Lee continues, “but I think the long-term effects of this are going to be pretty brutal.”
The LEE Initiative is also funding a similar operation in Houston with Riel this weekend. Ofcacek and Lee originally began the initiative in 2018 as a way to support women and minorities in the restaurant industry. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, they expanded with running community kitchens and launched fundraising efforts.