By the numbers

The approximate number of meals provided by Feed the Need in two years to four local nonprofit agencies:Tricounty Family Ministries, North Charleston 12,000 mealsCrisis Ministries, Charleston 4,200 mealsEast Cooper Meals on Wheels, Mount Pleasant 7,200 mealsNeighborhood House, Charleston 4,400 meals

Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Chef Sermet Aslan along with Pilar Taylor, cooking at Sermetís Courtyard on Daniel Island, make a meal with butternut squash. The meal was to be served at the Neighborhood Houseís noon meal as part of the Charleston Chefs Feed The Need program.

Two years ago, Mickey Bakst stood before a hospitality industry and media gathering at the Riviera Theater to announce the launch of a grass-roots effort to help the area's hungry. It was the depth of the recession. Citing the "power of we," his words were meant to challenge and inspire.

Charleston Chefs Feed the Need was born that day, an initiative that has drawn in close to 60 restaurants, caterers, hoteliers and culinary schools. At their own expense, they take turns making meals once a week at one of four local nonprofit agencies that run soup kitchens.

Today, the National Restaurant Association is announcing Feed the Need as the recipient of a 2011 Restaurant Neighbor Award and a $5,000 prize. Bakst will be honored at a gala in Washington, D.C., tonight, where a video chronicling the effort will be unveiled.

The association will be trying to get the word out to 400,000 members across the country in hopes of spurring similar initiatives.

The judges for the award were "very impressed with the creative approach, the grass-roots aspects and obviously the dedication and community involvement," said Annika Stensson, the association's director of media relations. "It's just extraordinary."

Furthermore, "It's real easy to establish it in any community as long as you have the dedicated people to make it happen," Stensson said.

Based on the agencies' averages, Feed the Need has provided nearly 28,000 meals to those kitchens since 2009.

The financial impact is more difficult to hang a number on.

For example, East Cooper Meals on Wheels has delivered 7,200 such meals in the two years. A meal normally costs $2.46, which translates into a savings of nearly $18,000 for the agency.

But that's not the whole story, said President Pat Walker.

"When Sean Brock cooks, it's farm-to-table. Everything is fresh," like the time the McCrady's staff picked, shucked and creamed corn for a meal.

"That's where I have a hard time placing a value on it," Walker said. "It goes beyond dollar cost savings."

Tricounty Family Ministries relies on donated food, so its normal lunch cost runs $1.25 per person, mostly for plates and silverware. But the agency has determined a market value of the 12,000 meals served there through Feed the Need: an astounding $90,000.

"The fact that the seasoned chefs come out to serve, it makes our hearts soar. It's a wonderful thing to have people sharing in the same thing that more fortunate people are able to enjoy," Sue Hanshaw CEO of Tricounty Family Ministries said.

Moreover, Feed the Need is spawning others to step forward, she said. Since January, area Walmart employees have brought lunch once a month to the kitchen. "They're talking about coming twice a month or more," she said.

Feed the Need was Bakst's brainchild. The general manager of Charleston Grill, he was distressed by news of soup kitchen cutbacks during grim economic times, the winter of 2009. He is a firm believer that the homegrown effort can become a national model.

"That's the beauty of it, this is so simple," said Bakst. After enlisting the providers and setting up a schedule, Feed the Need requires little more than reminder emails and follow-up thank-yous.

"It doesn't need a board, a committee, an organized structure, or money," he said. "It really is something that can be done everywhere." Bakst estimates that each meal costs the restaurant or other provider between $500 and $800.

Chefs like Sermet Aslan of Sermet's Courtyard make it seem almost effortless.

On a stormy March day in pouring rain, Aslan spilled into the kitchen of Neighborhood House carrying a large stockpot of fragrant soup filled to the brim with chicken, mushrooms and carrots. He almost slipped, recovered and placed the pot on the stove. Then, with a big smile and bear hugs, he greeted the staff.

Volunteer Don Cronin of North Charleston led the prayer before Aslan's service at Neighborhood House. "Let us nourish their bodies and souls with dignity and comfort," he began.

Gerald Bratton, a part-time painter eating lunch that day, said Feed the Need is one of the most wonderful things that has happened in Charleston.

"It's nice when you can get a professionally cooked meal. It's one of the things that makes you feel like a person again. It lifts spirits, it's God's mercy.

"Most people here really, really appreciate it."

Nikki Grimball, director of Neighborhood House, agreed.

"Everybody is struggling right now, not just the homeless. For the restaurants to come in and serve a quality meal, give excellent service and with a smile, it really matters."

At the awards ceremony, Bakst plans to throw down the gauntlet again. "I'm going to do everything in my power to sell this thing."