The Caribbean chef coordinates a team to serve over 37,000 free meals during the pandemic.
Professional chef, author of the cookbook “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” and a 2008 Olympian boxer representing the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Julius Jackson, knows a little about resiliency. Growing up on the islands, Jackson has witnessed several devastations caused by extreme weather, economic downturn and now a pandemic. However, he has always stayed close to the community and found innovative ways to help those around him.
Alongside his catering, speaking and celebrity guest appearances, Jackson works as head chef and manager at My Brother’s Workshop Café and Bakery in downtown St. Thomas. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement to at-risk and high-risk young men and women between the ages of 18-24. His job involves teaching students how to work in the food industry, serve customers and manage front and back sections of the bakery as well as attain diplomas online.
On a typical day, Jackson works with his students to create delectable pastries, sandwiches, coffee and breakfast bites that locals grab on their way to work in downtown Charlotte Amelie. The rum cake, seafood kallaloo and dumb bread are known to be some of the best on the island. “We had regular customers who got to know our youth and we had a good business going,” says Jackson. But for the past few months, the bakery kitchen transformed into a feeding center, cooking and delivering free meals to those in need in partnership with World Central Kitchen.
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Stepping up in a Time of Need
Back in March, Jackson did not know what the effects of COVID-19 would be on the community. “Once COVID came to the island, the governor ordered a shutdown and we had to close our doors for a few weeks. It put a lot of economic strain on the people who were already living under the poverty level,” Jackson shares. He already knew of families who didn’t have enough food or money, and many elderly individuals who didn’t feel safe going into grocery stores. His team came up with a plan to discontinue normal bakery operations and instead cook and deliver free meals in partnership with sponsors and existing organizations. The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services also got involved and asked for MBW’s assistance in feeding people around the islands. “We reached a point where we were doing 700 meals a day,” Jackson says.
Though the transition for students cooking at a small bakery to now making high-volume banquet meals was tough, they were able to learn new skills under the guidance of good trainers. Also, it took several weeks for some of them to feel safe to come down to work. The families were scared to send their kids, and some take public transportation to get to downtown. Jackson’s team arranged pick-ups and limited capacity in the kitchen to make them feel safe so they could come in and help with the grassroots efforts.
With the help of 78 community partners, board and committee members, staff, trainees and over 115 volunteers, MBW was able to serve 37,923 meals to the vulnerable population on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix over a period of three and a half months.
Once the program ended and it was safe to reopen, the bakery returned to regular service with a new plan. They switched the menu to offer plates of food and specials that people could grab-and-go from a take-out window without having to come inside.
Answering the Call
The pandemic is not the first time that Jackson took a leadership role on the island. Similar to the COVID response, the leadership of MBW came up with a plan before hurricane Irma devastated USVI in 2017. Jackson recalls securing the bakery against flooding, getting curfew passes from FEMA and immediately springing into action cooking and delivering meals. Then a second hurricane, Maria, came and they had to close again. Jackson sent his wife and young son on a rescue cruise ship from St. Thomas to be with relatives in Canada while he stayed behind. “It was tough but necessary. There was no power, no flights, and lots of homes were destroyed. I couldn’t even say goodbye to them as I was standing in long lines to get gasoline so I could cook our next meal. I don’t think anyone saw me, but that moment was hard and I cried,” Jackson recalls emotionally. He and his team fed about 37,000 people during the four to five months after the hurricanes.
Jackson says that knowing like-minded people who have faith in doing great things together is what makes him resilient during difficult times. “If I was by myself, I wouldn’t have been as resilient. But there was a team of us that were confident that we could help serve others. We are passionate about the community and good at execution. We have kind of become the emergency response team here. That’s why I’m here,” he adds.
While there is a second lockdown ordered in USVI, his goal is to keep the youth active and their minds engaged and perhaps restart the free meals program.
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