BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The weekend the Florida Department of Education announced students wouldn’t be going back to school when Spring Break ended, Eric Atwater knew what he had to do.
“This is what I’ve been doing all my life – feeding the community and kids,” said the chef and owner of the legendary south St. Pete restaurant and Café, located at 895 22nd Ave. S. “But when school [shut down] because of the Coronavirus, the first thing that came to my mind was that kids wouldn’t have lunch. So, I decided to feed the kids for lunch.”
Atwater went to Rajax Food Market and bought chicken, hotdogs, and hamburgers; announced he’d be starting meals the following Monday on Facebook and “went to work.”
He said community partners have been enthusiastic and unwavering in their support. Carl Bristol, a longtime community activist, owner of Gallerie 909, and current collaboration manager for the Youth Farm at Enoch Davis Center, is Atwater’s right hand in the effort.
“Man, listen – Carla Bristol is a fireball,” he laughed. “She came, saw that I was feeding the kids, and the middle or end of that week she came right in with care packages, stuff for the seniors, and came up with the Feed The Community on Saturday Free Breakfast [idea]. I was all in.”
Since then, many organizations and businesses have been dropping off supplies and donations. “It’s been phenomenal,” Atwater smiled. “There are so many I can’t name them all.”
As far as the COVID-19 crisis, Atwater is philosophical about the need to be ready for any emergency.
“I prepare myself for anything. Hurricane season I was ready, tornadoes coming, I get ready – just everyday life — I pray, and I get ready for anything.”
Atwater credits his father with his work ethic and preparedness mindset. “It’s always ‘on go’ with me, and I like to deal with people that’s “on go.”
“I think he’s doing a wonderful thing for the community,” said a young lady we’ll call Ms. Evans for the purposes of this article. She feels Atwater should be getting support from the state for his efforts.
“He’s doing this out of his own pocket and his own resources. Trying to feed the children, it’s not easy. Especially if you don’t get food stamps.”
Cars slowed down requesting food or parked in the back, parents staying in as children ran up to collect free hamburgers and hotdogs.
As she expressed the hardship of feeding her two daughters during the day when they would normally be at school and getting cafeteria lunch, Evans spoke on behalf of many other families as well.
“It made my day to get on Facebook and see that he was serving the children. My kids were hungry, and I was able to bring them out here and get them something to eat.”
Carla Bristol shared, “Our next big effort is this Saturday when we’ll do the free community breakfast. We also do free lunch every day for kids and the adults who bring them.”
Bristol noted that since Atwater cooks daily, they can also pick up excess food from the Feeding Tampa Bay Breakspot distributions of breakfast and lunch at Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, 2333 34th St. S.
Additionally, Bristol said they’ve held two collard greens giveaways and assembled hundreds of care packages with non-perishable items. This Saturday, April 18, she’ll again be assisting Atwater at the free community breakfast. “It’s a constant and continuous effort to the community.”
Jasmine Brinson was on site with her family; she’s known Atwater for years, and always known him to have a genuine heart for the community.
“He’s always doing something out here for the kids and the people. He’s always communicating with everybody — looking out and trying to make the community better. Especially looking out for the kids, and trying to steer them in the right direction. We appreciate him.”
To find out more about how you can assist or donate, contact Carla Bristol at 727-565-3930.
To reach J.A. Jones, email firstname.lastname@example.org