The work never stops at Umi Feeds, an Atlanta-based food rescue organization dedicated to serving the hungry and homeless with healthy and nutritious meals. On any given day you’ll find the organization’s founder Erica “Umi” Clahar traveling around the city delivering fresh mobile dinners to citizens in need. The busy food waste enthusiast has served more than 10,000 people in the metro Atlanta area with her team of dedicated volunteers and it’s a mission she continues to carry after watching her Aunt Umi’s passion for giving back to the homeless community growing up in New York City. Umi Feeds sources food from a number of consumers, restaurants, and their very own garden at the Whitehall Terrace Community Garden in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood, to include in their health-conscious meals. The best part about it is that there are no strings attached. Folks can pull up to the organization’s truck at any time and get a hearty meal free of charge in addition to a number of personal care items.
Through both initiatives, Clahar hopes to help people build a better relationship with food as she believes the current food system has been colonized, separating people from their traditional food sources. Umi Feeds is her answer to reconnecting people with food in a healing way.
MADAMENOIRE spoke with Clahar about the genesis of Umi Feeds, the importance of planting and food production, and the organization’s gardening program that aims to teach community members alternative food waste strategies.
You’re not new to this, you’re true to this! The spirit of giving back is something that runs deep in your family. Could you tell us about your Aunt Umi and how her passion for feeding the homeless inspired you?
My aunt, her name is Nadia, but she’s Muslim, so her children called her “Umi.” Growing up with five kids, you had a whole village. So everyone just started to call her Umi. Me and my cousins would help package and prepare the foods to distribute in Manhattan and then we would go to the city and we would give out the food. When I did it, I didn’t really think this would be something I would be doing some 20-odd years later, and here I am doing the same, being called the same thing. So it’s a beautiful thing to be able to continue the legacy that my aunt started and she’s watching me do my thing, my uncle is also watching me. I’m grateful to carry on the tradition of what my aunt started and pick up and continue to serve people with the same amount of love and the same amount of tenacity and fervor for people and hunger which is a big problem unfortunately around the world. Specifically in Georgia, 1 in 7 people are suffering from food insecurity, and 1 and 6 children are food insecure. That’s a really big problem here.
When did you start Umi Feeds?
I started in 2015. I was volunteering at an event and they had leftover food. As we were packing up and they were throwing things out, I was like ‘hey can we do something with this?’ It was a Publix pinwheel platter. I just felt like why would we take food that looks perfectly fine and untouched and just throw it in the trash when we could just give it to somebody else? I wasn’t looking to start this as a business.
So I took it. I went to the park and I’m thinking they’re going to mob me there, it’s going to be this scene, but it was like I was a waitress handing out platters. People were like ‘do you have this, do you have that?’ It also made me realize that there are people in the park who are vegetarian, and a lot of times when people come out, they don’t always consider a person’s dietary restrictions. Maybe they don’t eat meat or they may have different things going on where they can’t eat certain foods. So it was really at that moment that Umi Feeds was born.
We read that sometimes you’re up until 1 am giving out food? Is that true?
I feel like I’m not in control of my days sometimes because I think I could have a free day and then someone says ‘hey we have some good leftovers would you like to come get it?’ So you have to go get it when it calls. Like today, A Sunday when a lot of people are off, I am going to pick up food this afternoon and I have to distribute it at some point. Sometimes I distribute it as soon as I get it, and sometimes I distribute it later, but a lot of times you’re not always in control because you don’t know when someone is going to have leftover food. I used to pick up from this organization and our pickups were at 12 midnight. So 12 midnight you had to be ready. We would go out and serve people at midnight and a lot of people were up. This was prior to the pandemic. I’m a child of hip-hop, so we were calling it Midnight Marauders in honor of a Tribe Called Quest, and we would approach homeless folks right where they were because a lot of times they don’t always have the ability to come to a facility or there’s red tape where you have to have your ID, you have to have this shot. We were going right up to them with no strings attached. You don’t have to have anything. You just have to be able to take the food. We were going places where you wouldn’t think they were. We were in tunnels, we were by train crossings, giving out food because we know sometimes people are not always visible and when you’re not visible, sometimes, you don’t get the food that you need.
You absolutely love gardening! Could you tell us about the work you do at the Whitehall Terrace Community Garden and how that also aids in Umi Feeds’ mission?
That started in 2018. I joined because I just wanted to be able to give them fresh whole foods The community where it’s located is in a food desert. They don’t have access to healthy foods and we know that people thrive much better if they have healthy diets. Now there are stores over there, but there’s no fresh produce. One of the stores I went into just to see what their experiences were has this plastic petition that’s bulletproof. You can’t touch the food before you get it, you have to point to it and then they pick it for you. I feel like that experience, that visual to me is not something that I want to ingest in any kind of way because food is visual. We eat with our eyes, but also when you ingest something that you have to point to or that’s behind some plastic barricade or its 99 cents, you know it’s some garbage! You’re not going to get anything healthy from a place like that.
We wanted to be able to grow fresh food to engage the community, you know put your hands in the dirt. There’s a special thing when you can say that you grew the food that you eat and you tend to waste it less because you actually have a hand in making it. We consider it a pantry garden so all that food that we get is for distribution at no charge. We encourage the community to get involved. We have volunteers that come through. We built a garden bed to be able to grow more food and we want to teach classes there. I just signed up a lady that is going to teach fermentation which is good for gut health.
How is your Food Truck fundraiser going? How many meals do you typically deliver a day now?
We have a fundraiser to be able to get a food truck and it will allow us to increase the amount of food that is served. Currently, whenever I go out, we generally serve around 150 meals and we want to be able to serve more because we want to be able to reach people that are not always able to make it to a food bank or soup kitchen. I found that because we are mobile right now, we are able to reach more people when you go directly to them, especially seniors who have chronic illnesses or mobility issues. We also want to be able to teach classes outside of the food truck.
We loved your recent Instagram video where you were being transparent about experiencing doubt and feeling a bit unsure about your life’s mission. Could you tell us more about your beautiful encounter with “Charles” and why his comment helped to uplift your spirit during that time of uncertainty?
Let me tell you really where it came from. So I have these different consultations with an advisor sometimes. And this one consultation I had with this advisor, he was like ‘you really need to focus on fundraising, you really need to pull back from doing so much of the day-to-day. We need to get money so you can have all these programs that you want to have.’ So I thought, this is true. I do need to do this. I was thinking about it and then I thought It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t come out there because there are fifty-eleven people doing the same thing. I’m constantly compared to other organizations. So if I came, it wouldn’t make a difference. I was in the spirit of that while I was serving one of our dinners. Then one of our main volunteers came into the kitchen in the prep area where I was at and said someone outside wants to talk to you. As I came outside, there was this guy sitting out there, he saw my tag, and he remembered me because my car says “Umi Feed.” So when he saw the tag he came up to me and said ‘I don’t know if you remember me but one night I was walking by and you were serving some folks and you gave me something to eat and you were talking to me. I just held on to that moment.’ He said I felt encouraged by you. You stopped. You engaged me. He said I gave him eye contact because you know a lot of times when we see homeless people, we look straight ahead. We don’t want to look and make any eye contact, we just ignore them and act like they don’t exist. I don’t do that because I know that everyone wants to be acknowledged. I will talk to you because you’re a human being and I see you and I acknowledge you. He didn’t know I was in the spirit of indecision and him coming up to me and saying we need you, not another service that provides food, what YOU give is what meant a lot to me. It was so encouraging. I thought to myself that it was so divine that I met him because he was feeding me just like I was feeding him and it was something that I needed that day and he didn’t even know it. We have to be thankful for those reminders when the creator sends people to let you know that what you are doing is important, what you are doing is important, not the act of what you’re doing but the YOU in the business is what is necessary for people.
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