Nothing says “community” like a sit-down meal with a stranger. The intimacy of meal-sharing is the engine that drives Harbor Dish. Based in Safety Harbor, this nonprofit serves cafe-style nutritional meals to those in need. It operates alongside the rest of the community in a casual setting that helps build relationships.
Unlike a traditional food pantry, Harbor Dish focuses on connecting neighbor-to-neighbor in a dignified setting, one meal at a time. With $56,000 from Pinellas Community Foundation through the Pinellas CARES Nonprofit Partnership Fund, Harbor Dish weathered the COVID-19 storm. With the grant, Harbor Dish bought equipment to activate mobile services and start a delivery program for seniors.
One World Everybody Eats
Chris Sauger knows the value of mealtime conversations. She founded Harbor Dish in 2012 in her home kitchen in Safety Harbor, where she and other volunteers started cooking for the homeless. Today, professional chefs volunteer their time to cook in a licensed kitchen with provisions donated by Whole Foods, Panera Bread, and other business partners.
Harbor Dish is affiliated with One World Everybody Eats (OWEE), a nationwide network of 60 affiliate cafes. It grew from an initiative by singer-songwriter Jon Bon Jovi. While Harbor Dish is the only OWEE affiliate in Florida, Chris would like to see other organizations join.
The OWEE model provides buffet, sit-down-style meals to food-insecure individuals who dine together with other community residents. Harbor Dish’s Taste of Community meals are served each Friday in downtown Safety Harbor and at the city’s Third Friday Music Series each month. It also delivers meals to nonprofits in upper Pinellas County and sets up at events throughout Pinellas County by invitation.
“Through food, we start a conversation,” said Chris, who divides her volunteer time at Harbor Dish with her career as a real estate agent. “Our concept is: a meal, cup of coffee, or soup is a great way to start a conversation,” she said. “We are about relationships — not just about fulfilling the needs of the hungry but fulfilling the needs of community.”
A mealtime table talk can lead to supporting general life needs, believes Chris. Conversations give rise to jobs, training, education, and a sense of well-being. “With us, everybody dines with dignity,” she said. “We don’t charge … we encourage people to sit together and communicate, and that helps people advance along life’s way.”
“Some say, ‘We love what you do, so here is $10 to pay it forward,’” she said. “Others put money in a bucket and pay what they can.”
While the concept of community cafes has been around for 15 years, Chris jumped in 10 years ago. “It’s interesting, now, how people are talking about inclusion and diversity, and that’s what we are all about.”
Because volunteers have vast knowledge to give, Harbor Dish expanded its services to include life skills training for kids in foster care, demonstrating it’s not all about food. “It’s about relationships and education. Our volunteers bring their own set of values to the table, so they get as much out of their connections as the people we serve.”
Besides setting up mobile cafes at various community events, Harbor Dish serves community partners, including churches, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch, and Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA).
“Our biggest struggle is transportation,” said Chris, whose volunteers delivered meals in their personal vehicles during Tropical Storm Elsa. Since the pandemic, Harbor Dish has quadrupled the amount of food it receives and donates, and the organization operates seven days a week. Volunteers annually load and transport 200,000 pounds of food in their cars and trucks. Underscoring the need, Chris said a commercial van is on their wishlist.
“For me, it is a labor of love,” she said. “I wish people would wrap their heads around keeping people together and not apart.”