KEARNEY — If two floods hadn’t drenched Nebraska this year, Dick Cochran still would be focused on finishing his Hot Meals USA trailer.
But that murky rising water pushed him into getting that not-quite-ready mobile food trailer on the road, and he hasn’t looked back.
“Before the floods, it was tough to tell people in Kearney that a disaster trailer like this was needed. People would look around and say, ‘Nothing ever happens here.’ In one day, that changed,” said Cochran, founder of Hot Meals USA.
Between March 30 and July 31, Hot Meals USA served 6,820 free meals to flood victims. That includes 2,100 meals in Dannebrog, Gibbon, Wood River, Kearney and Hamburg, Iowa, in March, and, since July 9, 4,720 meals at 15 separate events in Kearney.
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He credits much of this to his wife Cheryl. “She wouldn’t let me give up,” he said.
From Monday through Aug. 13, he’ll offer food at seven Buffalo County towns as part of the Neighbor to Neighbor Free Community Barbecue events offered by the Farm Credit Services of America and its partners.
Cochran, executive director of Hot Meals USA, never expected to use his trailer so soon, so frequently or so close to home.
“I believe if we would have sat back and said, ‘The trailer isn’t done, so we can’t help,’ the results would have been much different,” he said. “Kearney is the last place I wanted to be doing the majority of our work, but I have to wonder, who would have taken our place?”
The comfort of food
Not long ago, a volunteer who was serving from the Hot Meals USA trailer asked a couple if they wanted seconds. The woman didn’t say yes or no. Instead, she said, “We have four feet of water in our basement.” Quickly, the volunteer sat down to listen to their story.
“Everyone we feed has a story,” Cochran said. “When flood victims share that story, you stop what you’re doing, sit down and listen. That’s as important as a meal.”
Cochran speaks from experience. A former restaurateur in Joplin, Mo., Cochran helped feed first responders in the beleaguered days after a deadly tornado battered Joplin in 2011. He and Cheryl lived 11 miles outside Joplin, Mo. Their home was spared.
Several years ago, he and Cheryl moved to Elm Creek and opened Dickey’s Barbeque Pit, 222 W. 42nd St., Kearney (now Mom & Dad’s Bar-B-Que.) He was determined to create a disaster food service.
In October 2017, he founded the nonprofit Hot Meals USA and began raising money.
By February 2018 he signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross. It will call him for assistance in wildfires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.
By April 2018, Cochran purchased the 24-foot-long trailer for $120,000, partly with a sizable gift from Ron and Nita Payne. He finalized procedures and details with the Nebraska Association of Emergency Management. The Dawn Rotary Club, to which he belongs, received a $75,000 grant to outfit and equip the trailer. His target completion date was late this summer, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
When floods hit in mid-March, Cochran, newly retired, got a request to feed residents and workers in Dannebrog. “The simple thing would’ve been to say that the trailer’s not ready, that we’re not going to do it,” Cochran said. “But we had volunteers and enough equipment that we could do something.”
Cochran took the trailer. He couldn’t use it yet, but it bore the Hot Meals USA logo. He cooked some of the food before the trip. In Dannebrog, he and volunteers grilled hamburgers outside and used the kitchen in the church social hall. They set up two buffet lines with ham, turkey, green beans and mashed potatoes and fed 250 people.
Donations covered the $1,600 cost. Biggest donors were Prince of Peace Church, St. James Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, all of Kearney.
Suddenly, requests rolled in like the floodwaters. Hot Meals USA served in Wood River, Gibbon, Kearney and Hamburg.
Ready or not, the nonprofit was off and running.
After the July flood, it ran faster. Meals were served at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce and The Salvation Army. Cochran never has fed fewer than 150 people per site. He feeds anyone who shows up, no questions asked.
On July 13, he and Cheryl served 800 meals. First they prepared 500 meals of meat, potatoes and green beans for the Red Cross. That afternoon, they served 300 meals in the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce parking lot at 1007 Second Ave.
“It ramped up more each day — 300 jumped to 500, then 500 more. On July 12, I did 820 meals, and 800 the very next day. I had both cookers going as hard as I could. The next day was a lazy day. I only did 300,” he said.
A kitchen, not a diner
Since he’s never certain how many people will show up, he prepares for more than anticipated. “We’re a kitchen, not a diner. One person might take home food for the whole family, and that’s OK,” he said.
He’s never lacked for volunteers to serve the food. They’ve ranged from a high school girls’ softball team, employees of area businesses, members of churches and service clubs and eager individuals.
Serving in the KACC parking lot July 20, he had five large pans of hamburger patties and four to five pans of hot dogs left just 15 minutes before closing. He was going to take the leftover food to Crossroads (homeless ministry) because it can’t be reheated, “but in those last 15 minutes, the crowd just poured in. By the time it ended, all the hot dogs were gone, and we had just four hamburger patties left,” he said.
Next week, when he sets up at the Neighbor to Neighbor Free Community Barbecue events, crowds could range from 50 or 100 in smaller towns to perhaps 200 in Kearney, but he always takes more food than he’ll likely need. “Food is what brings everyone in, and our menu is diverse enough to feed everyone,” Cochran said.
He’s been told that more people show up when Hot Meal USA arrives.
“We don’t plan the party. We just bring the food,” he said.
Hungry for money
Cochran has equipment, food and volunteers, but dollars remain scarce. Last spring, he said Hot Meals USA was running “on a wing and a prayer.”
In March and April, donations covered the $1,600 cost of the first few outings. Donations keep coming in. Last month, he received a $3,000 check from the Orphan Grain Train to help purchase food. He even has received $6,000 from Rotary Clubs in India, thanks to an Indian-born member of Dawn Rotary.
The American Red Cross pays for the food it requests. At next week’s Neighbor to Neighbor meals in Pleasanton and Ravenna, butcher shops will provide the meat. Usually, however, Hot Meals USA pays for what it serves.
Cochran buys the food from Cash-Wa. A meal of ham or roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and ice cream costs about $2.50, but he must pay for the food on the spot. A bit nervous about money as the demand for meals soared this month, enough has come in to keep feeding flood victims. “Rather than buying more equipment, we’ll make do with what we have and buy food,” he said.
Cochran has trimmed expenses since late March, but he insists on quality. “We serve on nice foam plates, and we have nice sets of plastic ware,” he said. He also welcomes meal sponsors. In exchange for a $500 donation to sponsor a meal, Cochran will post signs thanking the donor.
Outfitting the trailer
Meanwhile, Cochran hopes to have the trailer ready to go by September. Drywall is going up. The ceiling is insulated. Air conditioning will be put in. Griddles have arrived. He is installing a triple sink, ovens, an ice cream server, electricity, plumbing and propane tanks. A large awning outside will withstand winds up to 50 mph. A Dawn Rotary grant for $75,000 is paying for much of the trailer work.
When the trailer is dedicated Aug. 12, Cochran expects it to be 90 percent finished. Meanwhile, he’s keeping his eyes open for deals on equipment.
For example, he recently spotted a tilt kettle that costs $20,999. “What takes me 2.5 hours to fry right now, I could do in 30 minutes on this kettle,” he said. Scouting around, he found a five-year-old, 40-gallon unit that costs $974.
“It works perfectly. The only thing I have to do is add wheels, and convert it from propane to natural gas, but that’s easy to do. I may put $300 more into it, but I’ll get a good reliable unit for $1,200, not $20,000. If a $1,200 piece of equipment works well, I don’t care if it’s new or not,” he said.
Good equipment will speed his response time. “I can put something together in a half hour. I can make 400 hamburgers or 1,000 hot dogs every half hour,” he said. If time is critical, he cooks at Mom & Dad’s Bar-B-Que. Its carousel has four racks, each with three shelves. Each shelf can hold up to 40 hamburgers.
Requests roll in
Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing. Because of demands in Kearney, Cochran had to decline an invitation from Percival, Iowa, which sits on the flooded Missouri River. Hot Meals USA will go to Grant in September. He’s had requests from drenched northeastern Nebraska. He’s been invited to the York County Fair simply to bring in donations. “We were the best-kept secret in town, but now the word has gotten out,” he said.
Nikki Erickson, executive director of the United Way of the Kearney Area, can’t say enough about Hot Meals USA. She and her husband Josh own Team Concepts, a business at 301 Central Ave. that suffered extensive flood damage July 9. After exhausting days mopping up, they were grateful for Hot Meals USA.
“We were able to sit down for the first time each day. The food was delicious. Even our children were delighted,” Erickson said. “Having a place to go for a meal was one less problem to solve. It went a long way to help restore our hope.”
Cochran said, “This is so much more than feeding people. Being there sharing the tough times with people lets them know they are not alone. We see heartache up close and personal. We feel what they feel. As long as there’s a need, we’ll feed.”