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For Good: Local chef challenges Tampa Bay area residents to help the hungry

Hunger is a subject that Cliff Barsi knows well.

He’s the director of food services at Metropolitan Ministries, and affectionately called “Chef Cliff.” Under his direction, the nonprofit has opened two “Inside the Box” cafes in downtown Tampa and the Westshore area that benefit the ministry, and graduated 32 students from its culinary program.

Another 10 students are now earning their chops under his tutelage in Metropolitan Ministries’ state-of-the-art kitchen, made possible by Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain co-founder Bob Basham and a grant from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

He typically prefers to be behind the scenes, helping people break the cycle of poverty by learning how to cook, serve or run a food business. But now he’s stepping up publicly and asking the community to join him in the Empty Plate Challenge.

“Sometimes you have to put yourself is someone else’s shoes to truly understand what they’re going through,” Barsi says.

Here’s how it works: Give up one meal and donate the money you would have spent on that breakfast, dinner or lunch to Metropolitan Ministries. And to take it one step further, make a video of your participation to encourage your friends to do the same, and post it on a social media site. 

He compares the effort to the successful “Ice Bucket Challenge” led by the ALS Association last summer, which raised over $100 million for research toward finding a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal disorder.

His goal is a more modest $25,000. 

“In the five years I’ve been with this organization, I’ve been amazed just how supportive this community is of all our efforts,” Barsi says. “This challenge doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it really drives the point home.”

Metropolitan Ministries compiled a list of average costs for multiple meals. Six meals, for example, would come to $10.56, 12 meals would cost $21.12 and 20 meals would run  $35.20.

He and his wife chose to fast for an entire day, going to bed hungry that night. Even though he deals with hunger issues on a daily basis, he says that experience made it all the more real to them.

Currently, Metropolitan Ministries feeds 2,300 hungry people every day in the Tampa Bay area. In Barsi’s video, he piled up 2,300 empty plates to illustrate how many meals are made possible due to the generosity of local donors.

With the holidays around the corner, Metropolitan Ministries will be asking for more public support to fill the toy shelves and maintain an amply food supply for the increased demand for assistance. Barsi thinks there’s no better time for the Empty Plate Challenge. 

“A campaign like this has two goals – to raise awareness and to raise funds,” he says. “It’s hard to understand just what hunger feels like until you’ve experienced it yourself. Unfortunately, we have a lot of neighbors in need in our community, and this is one way to have compassion and make a difference in changing that.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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