The restaurateur-turned-humanitarian has provided thousands of meals to schoolchildren and essential workers in the Bronx since the start of COVID-19.

By Roxanna Coldiron
October 21, 2020
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Chef Millie Peartree with sign for Full Heart Full Bellies
Credit: Courtesy of Chef Millie Peartree

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Chef Millie Peartree has always embraced a caretaker role. After college, she took on the guardianship of her four siblings after their mother sadly lost a battle with cancer. And it was her mother's homestyle Southern cooking that inspired her to become a chef.

This comfort in cooking became her recipe for success. After encouragement from her friends and family, Peartree entered a local cooking competition in which she took home the top prize for her mini red velvet cupcakes—and the sweetness didn't stop there. Her cupcakes became a much-requested dessert at celebrity parties for the likes of Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gayle King. She even partnered with Mary J. Blige and Steve Stout's non-profit organization, The Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FAWN) and was recognized with their "Rising Phoenix" award, a grant that recognizes the achievements of up-and-coming entrepreneurs. She founded her own full-service catering company and opened MP Fish Fry & Soul Food, one of the most popular soul food restaurants in New York City.

That's when, earlier this year, she saw a need in the community. The country was in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns in New York meant that people were being laid off and children were unable to go to school—and experiencing hunger as a result. "I was already feeding essential workers during the pandemic and a lot of programs were canceled or limited due to schools being closed," says Peartree. "So I wanted to make sure that children had a way to eat because a lot of children only get full meals and snacks when they are at school."

food packaged in boxes for Full Heart Full Bellies
workers filling bags for Full Heart Full Bellies
worker packaging food
Left: Credit: Courtesy of Chef Millie Peartree
Center: Credit: Courtesy of Chef Millie Peartree
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Chef Millie Peartree

Feeding the Community

Enter the Full Hearts Full Bellies initiative, which was born out of the desire to create togetherness in the community and to show that people genuinely care. "Food fuels the brain, and the development of the brain is crucial for children as they grow into adults," Peartree says. "Black and brown communities have disproportionately been affected by food scarcity and I didn't want the children to miss out on meals because of schools being closed."

After her Bronx restaurant permanently closed because of the gas problems in the building where it was located, Peartree pivoted her business model. In doing so, she was able to keep some of her own employees on board as well as provide a job and a mission for the employees of the companies that she has partnered with. Today, Full Hearts Full Bellies has a robust team of people from the hospitality industry, restaurants, and Amazon to provide the meals and deliver them to the children and families that need the sustenance.

The food that Peartree and her partners prepare is also inspired by the various cuisines you can find in New York City. For Peartree, food not only provides essential proteins and nutrients, it offers an experience that shapes the future. "[The chefs and restaurant associates and I] have a weekly culinary meeting to discuss the menu," says Peartree. "The concept is to create restaurant-inspired, smart food since a lot of people may not have the money to eat out right now, and we wanted to bring the restaurant experience to the children's homes." So one week, the menu may be Thai inspired and, another week, could be Polish or Greek or Latin American. The food is tasty, healthy, and introduces cultural influences.

"I want this program to have a global impact," Peartree says. "We live in one of the richest countries in the world and there's no reason anyone should go hungry. I want this to start as a community-based initiative and continue to build it from there."

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