When Lori turned 91 on Friday, her friends from the Harbor Dish stopped by with cards, flowers and food.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” said Lori. “They have been absolutely wonderful to me.”
Lori, who has lived in the area 44 years, injured her back and fractured her skull in December when she tripped and fell.
She is recovering but is homebound, so Dish volunteers have been bringing her meals. Lori said that she can afford to pay but she “just can’t go out right now.”
“My refrigerator is full of goodies, and, most of the time, when they bring me food, they take time to sit and chat. And I like to talk,” said Lori, a widow and former secretary at Jim Walter Homes where her late husband was an international sales manager.
Providing meals, support and friendship is what the Harbor Dish is all about, said Dish founder Christina Sauger.
With more than 300 active volunteers, the Dish has been serving the Safety Harbor area since 2013.
Because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the non-profit group has seen need for food more than double since Florida’s safe-at-home restrictions began in March.
“We are helping a lot of working families that aren’t working right now and don’t qualify for other programs,” said Sauger, who along with other non-paid volunteers work out of the kitchen at the First Presbyterian Church at 255 5th Avenue South.
“And we’re delivering meals to a lot of elderly people who aren’t supposed to leave their homes now,” she said.
“Over the course of the pandemic we’ve given away over a thousand boxes of food,” said Cameron Zamanian, Dish Volunteer Coordinator.
Zamanian said that the Dish has a good relationship with the Whole Foods Market, collecting food every Sunday that is still good but nearing expiration.
“It’s a lot of food, and we bring it to the church and pack it in boxes for families that have signed up for our services,” he said. “We give each family a box with food and produce that could be five to 10 meals.”
Zamanian, who joined the Dish volunteers at the outset of the pandemic shutdown, said this program helps people while reducing food waste. The Dish is also partnered with Panera Bread, Nature’s Food Patch, Bonefish Grill and other food vendors and restaurants to receive donated food and prepared meals.
Sauger said that the Dish also cooks for children at the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in Safety Harbor on Tuesdays. “We haven’t been able to prepare meals at the Ranch because of the COVID lockdown, but we still cook the meals and deliver them,” she said.
The Dish also prepares and delivers meals to people suffering from debilitating health conditions, including elderly citizens and cancer patients.
Sauger said that some people have a misconception about the Dish.
“We are not a soup kitchen,” she said. “We give a hand up and not a handout. It’s about more than just food. It’s about providing friendly support and a sense of community.”
“We don’t qualify people,” she said. “We get referrals. We don’t require a lot of personal information, and everybody is treated with respect. You won’t often see pictures of the people we serve on social media. Everything is done privately.”
The Harbor Dish is modeled after the One World Everybody Eats community cafes, including Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchens in New Jersey. There are about 60 cafes nationwide where patrons pay what they can or pay it forward for someone in need.
“But no one is paying right now because of the virus situation,” Sauger said.
And beyond the COVID-19 crisis, there is a need. Nearly half of the children in the three elementary schools serving Safety Harbor qualified for free or reduced-price lunch during the 2019-2020 school year.
Zamanian said there is always a need by the Dish for committed volunteers as well as for donations. The Dish has one delivery vehicle, an SUV, but could use another, said Sauger.
“Our next step is to open a café where people can come in and see what we do,” Zamanian said.
“The space we are using at the church is donated and it is shared,” Sauger added. “We need a commercial kitchen.”
Plans to open a Harbor Dish café on 4th Avenue South were scrapped several years ago when bringing the building up to city code proved too costly.
The Dish is actively seeking a space for a small cafe, where everyone can dine together in dignity, regardless of means.
Sauger said that in general in these cafes, about 80 percent of customers pay the suggested amount or pay it forward for the other 20 percent, who pay whatever they can. It has been a successful model that allows everyone respect and fosters a strong sense of community — something that everyone is looking forward to getting back to after the pandemic.
To get in touch with the Harbor Dish, call (727) 796-8286 or e-mail: harbordish.harbordish.org