Just outside the gentrified area of South End, a nondescript brick warehouse on Distribution Street hides a whirlwind of activity. Inside the offices of Friendship Trays, bright lights glint off a row of grocery-store style coolers. Instead of soft drinks or pizzas, however, these glass doors reveal neat stacks of plastic-sealed trays filled with nutritionally balanced meals cooked in the professional kitchen right behind them. In front of the coolers, one group of volunteers checks lists and stacks the trays inside shiny silver tote bags. These are carried out by a second group of volunteers trickling in and out of the front doors all day long.
Welcome to Charlotte's answer to Meals on Wheels. Five days a week, nearly 750 meals are delivered from this humble building to homes all over the city. You may imagine the work of this nonprofit as a boon for the disabled and elderly of the area, but Friendship Trays has a much broader scope, encouraging healthy eating for everyone. And today, that includes you.
The local nonprofit, established in 1976, has long sought to do more than simply sustain its clients. Through a collaboration with Slow Food Charlotte, its Friendship Gardens initiative has established a network of more than 100 gardens run by churches, schools and individuals, most of which donate a portion of their harvest back to the kitchen. A new urban farm supplies vegetables from 3 acres at Garinger High School. A mobile market sets up at the Transportation Center downtown, bringing fresh produce to those most likely to live in a food desert. And the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, operating out of Friendship Trays' kitchen since 1997, has helped hundreds of students struggling to find substantive employment launch careers in our city's exploding food industry.
It is the success of that last program that has opened up new opportunities for Friendship Trays, allowing it to spread its outreach to a greater part of the community. When the culinary school moved out on its own in August to a new location on Monroe Road, about 8,000 square feet were freed up at the offices, estimates executive director Lucy Bush Carter.
"We've painted and we're getting ready to create a really unique market space over there," she says, referring to the fledgling Friendship Market that is set to serve up Friendship Trays' nutritious meals to the general public.
"It won't be hamburgers and French fries," she says about the ready-to-eat meals. "It will be healthy and as locally sourced as possible."
The new initiative had its first roll-out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, taking orders for holiday meals and offering samples at both the Distribution Street location and at Atherton's pre-Christmas market. Featuring favorites like roasted turkey and ham, the menus also offered healthy variations on traditional dishes, such as green bean casserole. According to volunteer coordinator Lani Lawrence, who is overseeing the new enterprise, nearly 90 dishes went out to local holiday tables, "without much promotion or advertising."
With the retail market slated to open mid-January, chef Tom Carrig, a personal chef and dietary technician, is partnering with Friendship Trays to develop everyday menus and recipes for quick, healthy meals.
"We're developing some signature items that people will think are so delicious that they're going to come back again to get them," says Bush Carter. The Thanksgiving menu included a sweet potato bread pudding that she describes, in a voice suggesting she wished for some right then, as "dynamite."
Once open, the market will sell ready-to-eat meals from the organization's offices at 2401 Distribution St., as well as at nearby Atherton Market and Julia's Café at the Habitat ReStore on Wendover Road.
But there's more up the sleeves of this multi-faceted enterprise. Behind the new market is a new Friendship Kitchen. While provisioning the market and offering its own catering services, Friendship Kitchen will continue the nonprofit's endeavors in culinary education. Along with a 12-week job training course that adds life skills such as financial management to traditional culinary classes, Carrig will also offer cooking classes to the general public. Sticking with the overall theme of local and healthy, classes will run the third Thursday of each month; the first on Jan. 22 focuses on grains and legumes.
At the heart of this new flurry of activity, Friendship Trays maintains its original mission. As Bush Carter explains, the primary function of both the Market and Kitchen is to generate revenue supporting the continued delivery of healthy meals to those who cannot obtain or provide their own. "The kitchen's at the core of the whole thing," she says.
That's a sentiment any food lover can agree with.