02 Aug 2021
George Ortiz spread out two dozen bulky rolls on a table and carefully stacked each one with a variety of deli meat. He wrapped each sandwich individually and placed each one into a brown paper bag. When he was done, he gathered the 24 lunches he had just spent his last $48 on and headed out into the community to deliver them to the needy throughout Rhode Island.
The Elisha Project was born.
Ten years later, the local food rescue program distributes 400,000 pounds of food weekly to 50,000 families throughout Rhode Island’s BIPOC communities.
“We address food insecurities and strive to deliver fresh, healthy, culturally sensitive food and products that make a positive impact on those needs throughout Rhode Island,” said Ortiz. “Providing culturally sensitive food is important to our organization. That means we have to hustle … that means driving to Philadelphia to pick up oxtail for the Nigerians and going to Boston to pick up bok choy for the Asian community. For many of the thousands of families we serve – our personal, culturally relevant approach to service is a reminder that they count.”
The Elisha Project rescues food from dozens of local and national businesses and colleges and works with more than 40 area social service agencies to distribute it. The operating budget, which began with Ortiz’ $48 in 2011, is now $2.8 million. A Broad Street office, that early on was often kept at 40 degrees in order to preserve food, has since been replaced by a warehouse in Pawtucket.
“There is always a surplus of food. There is just not always distribution,” said Ortiz.
Helping fill the void
The program began with a weekly Elisha Project Share Market where those in need could pick up healthy food and products at various local non-profits. The program has now expanded to seven days a week. For the hundreds of local families who can’t make it to a share market, food is delivered daily to their homes.
One Saturday morning in late spring, just before the Elisha Project marked its 10-year anniversary, 2,000 cars lined up on Elmwood Avenue in Providence to receive food and supplies. In one hour, 30,000 pounds of food was distributed to those in need.
“Food insecurity is not going away. Many people assume since covid is on the decline, the need for food is on the decline. Covid did not cause food insecurity. All it did was expose it. We have to continue to be conscious of our neighbors in need,” said POC BOARD MEMBER XXXXX.
“The Elisha Project falls out of the scope of much of the funding sources in RI. We are neither conformists nor well connected. We are, however, deeply committed to the people we serve. POC funding is the launching pad for dreams which seldom take flight. We fly together.”
A pastor, disabled veteran, and father of seven, Ortiz is fueled by past personal challenges and obstacles. Ortiz was once homeless. His youngest brother died at age 7 due to neglect. His mother died in prison. These memories remain etched in his mind and fuel his desire to help others. To Ortiz, giving is far more important than receiving. That’s what he stresses to his volunteers.
“This work is about doing what you can with what you have. Just because people have nothing doesn’t mean they no longer have dignity. How can we feed people’s spirit? That’s what we are after. I tell our volunteers to give from the heart and you will receive something back even more powerful. I want you to do it from your heart. That’s where the magic lies.”