11 burned beef briskets.
That’s what awaited Marshall Shafkowitz one recent morning when he arrived at the Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food of NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC).
“If this were a restaurant situation, I’d be really upset,” said Shafkowitz, a lifelong chef and Executive Director of Brightwater, NWACC’s culinary school.
But this isn’t a restaurant situation, and Shafkowitz knows there’s simply no time to be upset. That’s because there’s far more important work to do – like feeding Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas health care workers during the coronavirus.
So, when the briskets were ruined due to an oven malfunction, Shafkowitz and team quickly changed course and prepared cold deli sandwiches to be delivered that day.
Moments like this are offering lessons to a self-admitted culinary perfectionist.
“I’m taking this time to reshape who I am,” said Shafkowitz. “I’m controlling the controllables and looking at things from a 100,000-foot view. I’ve realized it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be good.”
For Mercy Hospital team members in Rogers, it’s more than good. It’s appreciated nourishment during brief periods of much-needed respite between treating COVID-19 patients.
Providing support to hospital personnel is personal for Shafkowitz. Both he and his wife have family employed in the medical field. And their youngest daughter has an auto-immune disease that required them to spend time in the hospital during her earliest days.
I’m committed to be here for those taking care of the loved ones right now.
Marshall Shafkowitz, Executive Director of Brightwater
“I have the utmost respect for nurses, doctors, team members who clean the rooms,” said Shafkowitz. “I’m committed to be here for those taking care of the loved ones right now.”
That admiration made it easy for Shafkowitz to say yes to feeding the Mercy Hospital team when Ropeswing Hospitality Group CEO Kurt Berman proposed the idea.
Ropeswing operates several nearby restaurants and event venues. While the pandemic has temporarily shuttered Ropeswing’s public spaces, Berman wanted to find a way to feed others while keeping members of his team – including some Brightwater graduates – employed. A solution emerged.
“As a hospitality company, our job is to serve our community,” said Berman. “It makes perfect sense to extend this service mindset to help our medical community during this time of great need.”
Others agreed, quickly joining the effort. Local and national food companies and many others have donated food. Pilots, instructors and additional Summit Aviation Bentonville team members, whose own work has slowed due to the pandemic, are lending support by driving meals to people who need them – and offering contactless delivery. And the NWA Medical Meals Fund has been created allowing community members to donate to support health care workers and local farms. It’s raised $3,000 so far.
It takes a village to feed a health care team. Shafkowitz knows it.
“They are the most amazing group of people I’ve ever worked with,” said Shafkowitz, reflecting on his Brightwater team members. “They’re innovative, creative, resilient, positive. I would go into war with this team. I am in a war with this team.”
The next frontier – expanding meal deliveries to Washington Regional Medical Center. Ropeswing and partners discovered the need extends beyond health care workers; it also affects their families. Many medical team members either can’t get to a grocery store after working long hours or find picked-over shelves once they do. Jambalaya trays and more delicious dishes will be sent home to make sure those supporting the caregivers are also cared for with meals.
The amount of meals prepared each day is expected to increase two- to three-fold.
Shafkowitz is focused on expressing gratitude to those making it happen.
“The first and last thing I say each day is ‘Thank you.’ Some of our faculty members are still teaching online classes to our culinary students while also doing this.”
Shafkowitz himself is also keeping busier than usual. When he’s not ensuring team members have their temperatures taken before each shift, preparing meals or sanitizing the kitchen afterward, he’s involved with the NWACC Crisis Response Team. And he, too, is sharing periodic online updates with students on what is becoming a culinary class unlike any ever taught.
“I’m a typical chef. I can’t sit still.”
But in the rare moments when Shafkowitz does stop, he admits the impact of it all affects him.
“I break down in the car after we finish a meal preparation and before heading home,” he said. “There are people struggling in ways we don’t know. I can’t fathom it.”
Shafkowitz also views this unique moment as an opportunity to think about the future.
“We’re going to come out on the other side of this. Who do we want to be when this is over?”
For Shafkowitz, he knows his role will involve feeding people. The oven has been fixed, and there are more briskets to be cooked. They may not be perfect, but they’re sure to be good. And that’s all that matters.
Since its 1989 founding, NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) has implemented innovative approaches to learning and service. Initially a “college without walls” dedicated to serving the surrounding areas, the school had an enrollment of 1,200 students in its first class in 1990. Today, it is Arkansas’ largest community college with more than 8,000 enrolled college credit students.
Regions has been an NWACC community partner since its earliest days. That community partnership includes the leadership of Jerry Vest, who currently serves on the NWACC Board of Trustees. The bank has also sponsored the “Plant a Seed Soiree” for several years to help fund student scholarships.
“NWACC has remained true to the Northwest Arkansas community since its beginnings,” said Vest, Market Executive for Regions in Rogers. “This has been especially evident with the wonderful work Brightwater, the college’s culinary school, is doing to feed healthcare professionals during the current crisis. It’s also reflected by the incredible generosity of the NWACC nursing school in donating 12,000 surgical masks and 9,100 pairs of gloves to local hospitals to help address a shortage of those greatly needed supplies. These are very special reactions during a very unique time. And that’s what defines the spirit of NWACC.”