WAXAHACHIE — For almost four decades, Olive Garden has combined authentic Italian recipes with modest prices to maintain a family-style restaurant that many Americans have grown to love. But aside from fresh-baked breadsticks, unlimited salads and noteworthy commercials, the restaurant-maven also triumphs in the art of giving back.
Doing its part to combat an epidemic that FeedingAmerica.org claims will affect 1-in-8 Americans, the Waxahachie Olive Garden has contributed 33,000 pounds in food donations alone to Waxahachie CARE to help locals down on their luck find a fresh meal.
Primarily recognized for its affordable eats and ubiquitous presence across the country, Olive Garden has become an active participant in the Darden Harvest program — a food donation program with an active mission of linking surplus food to those in need. Despite its regular business and ever-present customer base, the popular dinner destination has remained faithfully active in its pursuit of making sure no meal goes to waste.
Darden Restaurants, Inc., the multi-brand restaurant operator that owns restaurants such as Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Eddie V’s, is actively involved in the fight against hunger through its work with various charities across the globe. In its partnership with Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief program, the company has been responsible for devoting a collective $1.7 million, 37.8 million pounds of food and providing 18.7 million meals to families and individuals since teaming up with the organization in 2003.
“It just makes sense,” said general manager Butch Villanueva. “Prior to us putting this program together, you see a surplus of food in the trash and you just shake your head. We have surplus food, we take care of it, we handle it, we package it, and we get it ready for pick-up. We’ve mastered the art of making sure unused food stays as fresh and wholesome as possible. There’s obviously extra training in preparing the donated food, but it’s part of our DNA, it’s second nature.”
Brought to life in 1982, Olive Garden now has more than 840 locations across the globe. Not only has the billion-dollar brand excelled in satisfying hungry customers but it’s committed to giving back as well.
“An example of surplus is a server takes down an order of lasagna and then a customer receives it and says ‘oh no, I need a plate of spaghetti.' So this perfectly good plate of lasagna is now called surplus," explained Villanueva. “We want to make sure that all of our food is good for the guests, but we also want to make sure that whatever surplus we have, we package it properly so other people can use it.”
Once sealed, labeled and refrigerated, this extra food is now ready for pick-up by Waxahachie CARE, a local community food pantry in the social service agency.
“We feed about 550 people a month on food and help probably close to 1,000 people with their utilities a year,” said Waxahachie CARE Executive Director Linda Naizer. “We take all the food that they get and we put it in our freezer for those in need to come and get.”
Qualified residents can walk through the Ferris Avenue location and shop from an assortment of meals such as those provided by Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Chipotle, and then walk out with a basket of food — free of charge.
Composed of the elderly, homeless, single or people living with disabilities, most of those who visit Waxahachie CARE have been affected by an “emergency situation” of some kind, explaining that it’s not a “pretty picture” for many whom Naizer sees.
“It’s a tremendous gift to be able to help all of the people we help in this community,” said Naizer, who has been with Waxahachie CARE for 11 years. “All of the utility money we’ve gotten in, the people who come in and donate, the schools who help us, the food that comes in, the volunteers, we just feel so blessed."
For Villanueva and Naizer alike, being able to help the community in such an impactful way is more valuable than any amount of money.
“It makes me feel good in my heart that I’m giving to my local community knowing that there’s a lot of individuals that could use it,” said Villanueva.
“All the food that comes in is just amazing,” Naizer added. “We really appreciate Olive garden- it helps our food bill so much.”
Anyone can aid in the giving back effort by eating at their local Olive Garden or signing up with Waxahachie CARE to volunteer. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to visit Waxahachie Care and fill out an application.