A Medicine Hat man's idea to help both the food bank and local restaurants with one initiative has snowballed across the community and raised nearly $44,000.
Torrey Mattson, a Medicine Hat realtor, said the plan came to him after restaurants were ordered to stop dine-in service in December.
"I kind of walked like a zombie around my house, and my wife was wondering, 'What's going through your head right now?' and I just sat her down and said, 'I've got a crazy idea here,'" said Mattson.
Mattson's project is a simple yet innovative one.
He puts the call out to local businesses to pay for meals at local restaurants, which are then frozen and donated to the Medicine Hat Food Bank.
"It wasn't planned to be just a Christmas project, it was planned to be a food sustainability project as well," he said.
"We heard a lot of stories going around about business closures and people being laid off and things like that … [so] we wanted to do something to help some people out."
'It just took off'
Mattson went straight to Facebook to explain his idea — which he calls the 40 Hot Meal Project — and the goal to raise $5,000 for 500 meals
"That night, we already had our first couple of restaurants sign up, and the next morning we had sponsors calling to take part," he said.
"It just took off, and I think we had that $5,000 in the first two days."
Since the initial start, Mattson says nearly $44,000 have gone into 19 local restaurants — producing more than 4,100 hearty meals for those in need.
"It was a win-win with the restaurants. All they wanted to do was make meals and they no longer could with new restrictions," he said.
Matt Peterson, the owner of Moxie's in Medicine Hat, jumped on the chance of joining the project.
He says that extra revenue boost has really helped their business during this time.
"I was able to keep three or four extra people on and not lay them off, which is great," he said.
"To prepare 500 meals takes people, and it was good to be able to keep them around."
He adds that it also feels really good to help the community who have supported them during tough times.
"We want to be more involved with the food bank when we can … I've even said, I'm appreciative the fact that sponsors have paid us for the meals, but I'm also willing to donate some as well."
As for getting sponsors, Mattson says it wasn't difficult, as many were happy to help the restaurants and give food to those in need.
"Every day it seemed like we were setting new targets and setting the bar a little bit higher … Medicine Hat always been a really supportive community." he said.
He says the donations have come from all over, such as local mom and pop shops, oilfield service businesses and retail stores.
"A furniture store, they called us and said, 'Hey, we can't do our Christmas party with our staff like we normally would each year, so that $600 that we would typically spend on that party, we're going to give to you guys instead,'" said Mattson.
Food Bank thinks this is the future
Celina Symmonds, executive director of the Medicine Hat and District Foodbank, says the project has gone seamlessly.
"This time we get to be a part of giving back to the people who have always supported us. And so I think that that is also transformational for the food bank. All of a sudden, we're partners now," she said.
"I believe that this program in 10 years will become the way that food banks operate."
She says the reactions from those receiving the meals has been especially heartwarming — with some saying it has been years since they've eaten food from a restaurant.
"It really does touch people. The idea that our community has literally wrapped their arms around them in a way," she said.
"The fact that someone in your community cared enough to make you a home-cooked meal. That is absolutely life changing."
The director says food banks often wouldn't make it without community support, and that an idea like this one helps promote food sustainability.
"I think the long-term implications of this program will be seen for years, because what it does also is it gives the opportunity for that restaurateur to come to the food bank and see what we do. It gives us the opportunity to make a connection with somebody we may not have had a connection with."
Easy for communities to duplicate
Mattson says the project will continue as long as businesses continue to sponsor meals.
"I would love to see this grow into other cities and other small towns, wherever there's a need, and quite honestly, we set it up in a way where the framework is really quite simple to replicate," he said.
Which could be the case for Calgary. James McAra, president of the Calgary Food Bank, says he finds the idea very unique.
"If other people would like to be involved in this conversation that we're having now in Calgary, it would be great," he said.
"We don't often see these partnerships happening as often as we could see them. We're going to have better communities because of initiatives like this."