The LEE Initiative keeps hope afloat for restaurants and farmers in need.
Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek by Neon Bites
Chef Edward Lee and former restaurant manager Lindsey Ofcacek founded The LEE Initiative (that’s Let’s Empower Employment) in 2018 to address issues facing the eternally embattled restaurant industry. Their mission: create programs that make a real difference in the lives of restaurant industry professionals, help their broader community, and inspire others.
When COVID-19 hit, the Initiative refocused on keeping those workers fed, and empowering other restaurants around the country to do the same for their staffs. As the crisis continued far longer than anyone imagined, they expanded their scope to support local independent farmers.
Chefs like two-time James Beard Award winner Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe outside Chicago credit the LEE Initiative as instrumental in keeping restaurants and farms afloat. Stegner was thrilled to be included in the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, receiving an account at four local farms that allowed her to get ingredients for free, backed by a credit from the Initiative. “This was a huge help financially, and it also introduced me to a farm I was not currently buying from, creating new relationships,” Stegner says. “I am committed to supporting farms to secure their survival through the pandemic and beyond.”
Prairie Grass Cafe also set up a program for doctors and essential workers, providing 120 meals a week to a local hospital, using food primarily sourced from local farms. The Lee Initiative helped offset those costs and extended the time the cafe could offer meals.
Their second round of funding from the LEE Initiative included meal relief funds for laid-off and furloughed restaurant workers, and people with very little access to food. Prairie Grass was able to feed people in the restaurant industry and send meals to two women’s shelters weekly.
Stegner cannot fully express her gratitude to the LEE Initiative. “I believe that without the funding we would not have made it through this past year. It’s as simple as that. There are only so many months you can sustain a loss,” she says. “The funding was the first sign of hope that we were going to have a chance to make it through. It added purpose and dignity to our lives within the restaurant. It facilitated our ability to employ people. When people were under intense pressure both financially and the strain of worrying if we would get COVID-19, it kept us focused that we had a higher purpose and were making a difference in the community around us.”
A third level of support came for another of Stegner’s passions, a new not-for-profit called Abundance Setting started by Beverly Kim to support working mothers in the culinary industry. For three months, recipients get three free meals a week from primarily local women farmers, and mentoring with local women chefs. The LEE initiative helped fund the first round of those sponsored meals.
For chefs like Stegner, The LEE Initiative was exactly what the doctor ordered during these difficult times.