By Luke Vandermeer
When Wimpy was hungry, he’d hit up his old pal Popeye: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”
While we wouldn’t take kindly to being called Wimpy, firefighters have big appetites and an occasional (maybe more than occasional) lack of funds, so we do share something in common with the scrounging cartoon character.
Our lives are busy – more so than most. While it would be great to head to a shift at the firehouse, anticipating that we’ll have ample time to make a salad from scratch and cook a nice steak, the reality is that a call will likely come in halfway through the preparations. The steaks will stay uncooked and the salad will wilt as we head off to save lives. The hard-earned money we put into making a healthy meal will go to waste and we’ll start to believe that a takeout hamburger and fries from a fast-food joint is the better solution.
The real problem is that our shifts don’t change, and neither do the demands on our time. Our “occasional” take-out habits stretch to five or even six days a week, and before we know it, we start to look as if we’ve just strolled out of the movie “Super Size Me”. And we all know what happened to that guy when he ate exclusively McDonald’s food for a month!
Let’s face the facts. When the public hears that a firefighter has died in the line of duty, they assume the cause of death was a fire. The unfortunate reality is that the leading cause of death for firefighters in the U.S. is heart disease. In fact, in 2018, there were 82 U.S. line-of-duty firefighter deaths – a staggering 33 of them caused by heart attacks.
It’s not hard to understand. Given the unpredictable nature of our jobs, quick and easy meals are a tempting option. But quick and easy doesn’t always mean healthy, and the numbers show that our eating habits are having a dangerous effect on our health.
Putting names and faces to tragic statistics highlights the severity of the problem. Lieutenant Kevin McRae was only 44 when he responded to a highrise building fire in Washington, D.C. He did his job well, but collapsed as he left the building and tragically died of a heart attack. Just the day before, he had taken his 18-year-old son Da’Von for a prom tuxedo fitting.
Deputy Fire Chief James Tate Sr. was an accomplished and much-admired firefighter. He retired in 1989, but sadly died just nine years later, after suffering three heart attacks and waging a battle with cancer.
FAST FORWARD TO 2017 AND THE CREATION OF A PROGRAM CALLED “FOOD ON THE STOVE”, CREATED BY JAMES TATE’S SON, JONATHAN TATE.
Launched with the idea of giving to the people who continuously give to others, “Food on the Stove” has had a tremendous impact on the firefighting community of Washington, D.C. Even though the program has been around for only a few years and the implementation is still being tweaked, the goal is simple: to get healthier, cost-effective meals to firefighters so they can stay fit and protect the public. The name is a double entendre, of course. We’re all aware that the biggest cause of house fires is food left to burn on the stove!
Jonathan Tate started “Food on the Stove” with just five steaks, a few sweet potatoes and some broccolini for his fellow firefighters. He planned to have a chef, a nutritionist and a cameraman there for the launch but even though those plans fell through, Jonathan was left with his healthy food and an incredible idea.
The food was cooked and much appreciated, of course, but what was really created that night was much bigger. Jonathan gained the support of his firehouse and his family and he credits much of his success to them. Healthy food can be given to our givers as long as we have the right support.
Many people believe that firefighters’ meals are funded by the government. Sadly, not true! The ingredients to make every meal are paid for by the firefighters and those costs can mount quickly. To help his healthy initiative gain momentum, Tate worked to secure discounts at local grocers, making it possible to buy healthy foods at reasonable prices.
Within the first year of launching “Food On the Stove”, Tate’s team visited local firehouses to cook a healthy meal for each firefighter. Thanksgiving 2018 saw turkeys delivered to every firehouse in Washington, D.C. – 34 in all. Those who received the free, healthy meal were then asked to pay the favor forward to other firehouses. Word spread, as did interest in healthier meal choices. Tate partnered with “Farm to Firehouse”, a local meal delivery service, making it possible for “Food on the Stove” to have local grocers and farmers source, package and deliver healthy meal kits straight to firefighters for less than $10 per person.
A typical meal includes peruvian chicken, sweet potatoes and vegetables. And here’s the best part: thanks to generous donations that cover operating expenses, these meals are delivered at no cost to the firefighters.
Despite the global pandemic, “Food on the Stove” has continued to grow. By joining forces with local chef Erik Bruner-Yang and his initiative “The Power of 10”, Tate has been able to both access healthy meals for his fellow Washington firefighters and help keep local restaurants afloat. Bruner-Yang’s initiative raises funds on a weekly basis that enable restaurants to keep staff on the payroll. Through the help of generous donors, “Food on the Stove” purchases these meals and provides them to firefighters.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR JONATHAN TATE? HIS DREAM IS TO PURCHASE THE VERY FIREHOUSE IN WHICH HIS FATHER SERVED AND TURN IT INTO A FOOD RESOURCE CENTER, WITH A MARKET AND RESTAURANT FOR THE PUBLIC AS WELL.
The common theme here is giving. There’s an old saying: “If all you do is take, you’ll never have enough. If all you do is give, you’ll never run out.” Every day, firefighters give their time, energy and even their lives. “Food on the Stove” and its associated companies have found a powerful and healthy new way to give back to them. It sure doesn’t look as if they’ll be shutting down the kitchen anytime soon.
No need for firefighters to ask to pay Tuesday for a hamburger today. Thanks to “Food on the Stove”, Jonathan Tate will bring them a healthy meal today – for free!