Food on the Stove founder Jonathan Tate
Food on the Stove founder and D.C. firefighter Jonathan Tate Credit: Erica Baker

Healthy, balanced meals were harder to come by for firefighters in the D.C. region until Food on the Stove came along. But starting next month, the nonprofit will beta test a new app that will pave the way for a healthier lifestyle among firehouses in Prince George’s County and beyond. Jonathan Tate founded the organization in July 2017 to help firefighters live healthier lives through nutrition and exercise.

In 2019, the National Fire Protection Association reported that 48 deaths occurred among line-of-duty career and volunteer firefighters nationwide. Almost half of all fatalities were sudden cardiac deaths; and a 2015 study conducted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation tracked 485 sudden cardiac deaths among line-of-duty firefighters from 2005 to 2014.

Even Tate has experienced loss within his own family. His father, James Tate Sr., a former D.C. deputy fire chief died from heart disease and cancer just nine years after retiring from a 32-year career in the fire service. Now, the 38-year-old firefighter for Truck Company 6 tries to honor his father’s legacy.

Launching the new app will allow firefighters to access healthy meals and ingredients through their smartphones in several ways. Food on The Stove’s plan is to take the app for a test drive at firehouses in Prince George’s County and then slowly introduce it throughout other local jurisdictions.

“Since we already had a partnership with [Prince George’s County] Fire Chief Tiffany Green, we wanted to beta test there, see how their members like it, allow us to tweak anything that may be wrong, and then offer it to other departments,” Tate says.

An educational video will accompany the beta testing, allowing firehouses in Prince George’s to easily onboard through visual step-by-step tutorials on how to set up profiles and order meal boxes, pending Green’s final approval. Once implemented, hundreds of firefighters will start using the app and providing feedback to Food on the Stove.

Tate believes the app “will help further our reach to members of the fire service” through three separately branded initiatives: Farm to Firehouse, From the Farm, and For Your Table.

The Farm to Firehouse service predates the app. In June 2020, Tate and his team started delivering boxes of ingredients along with a recipe to D.C. battalions on a rotating schedule every Friday night. Food on the Stove was lucky to count District Fishwife in Union Market as a partner. They also received a $20,000 donation from Giant.

Firehouses will be able to preorder their Farm to Firehouse boxes before the routine Friday delivery date through the app. Tate says they hope to offer a wider range of recipes once the app is fully operational.

Although challenges arise when developing new technology, Tate says the testing period is fairly straight-forward. As participating fire departments are added to the app’s interface, any member of the firehouse will be able to create his or her own profile.

All orders must be placed between Sunday and Tuesday for them to be fulfilled by Friday delivery dates. Once an order is placed, the nonprofit will package one of three chosen meal options. The size of the boxes vary based on the real-time staffing numbers of a 24-hour shift. The nonprofit always includes three extra meals to account for extra staff like overtime personnel. One sample meal features Peruvian-style chicken with roasted sweet potatoes and asparagus. Other recipes will include portions of salmon, steak, or pork. 

There are 45 firehouses scattered across Prince George’s County and Tate plans on feeding them on Fridays exclusively through the new app launching in mid-May. He knows he’s aiming high. “As we scale up, our goal is to be able to provide up to 99 boxes in a one single day, even more if we can continue to get firehouses and fire departments on board,” he says.

He’s hoping to expand to Arlington, Alexandria, and Baltimore counties as well as the District as a part of his mission of food stewardship through the fire service community.

Sydney Daigle, director of the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council, believes that Food on the Stove is “a model that gets it right” and supports Tate’s county-wide mission. “Heart disease is not only the leading cause of death for our firefighters, it accounts for a quarter of all the deaths in our Prince George’s County,” Daigle says. “We need to make it easier for our frontline workers to take care of their bodies and minds so they can take care of our community.” 

The From the Farm service is set to offer fresh and locally sourced proteins and produce that get boxed up and delivered to firehouses. Participating is akin to signing up for a CSA share from a nearby farm. 

“We’ll be able to take apples, kale, things that they will probably be cooking other meals with, like salad mix,” Tate continues. “They can put this in their house refrigerator and if one particular shift doesn’t use it, they can always have the snacks around. If a member may not want to eat something that the firehouses are cooking that day, they can have a salad on the side, add some greens, or have more vegetables.”

Food on the Stove is still tinkering with specifics of the new service like whether deliveries will occur weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. The goal is for firefighters to always have access to fruits and vegetables while they’re on duty. 

From the Table, the newest addition to the app, seeks to give overworked members of the fire service family the opportunity to “easily take a meal out of the refrigerator, heat it up, and still get a high nutritious healthy quality meal while at home.”

The nonprofit is partnering with Cookology Cooking School in Northern Virginia on recipe development, meal preparation, nutrition facts, and packaging. Unlike Farm to Firehouse, the From The Table meals come at a cost because they’re consumed at home instead of on the job. 

Photo of Food on the Stove app by Lavan Anderson

There’s more. Food on the Stove plans on paying it forward by aiding firefighters in regaining control of their weight and personal health, particularly for staff who are placed off-duty.

“We want to offer a service that allows them to call us and eat with our nutritionists,” Tate explains. “We meal prep, give them a plan of how to get back to full-duty, and [discuss] how to start a healthier lifestyle.”

The proposed nutritional education program lasts for 30 days. Food on the Stove will give away two or three meals per day to participants so long as they agree to voluntarily share information about their health. “We’ll monitor your weight, blood pressure, and everything,” Tate says. “You’ll continuously meet with our nutritionists every week via Zoom calls or in person.”

In the District, placing staff off-duty is a problem. In 2020, 20 FEMS members were taken off full duty due to high blood pressure, according to D.C. Fire and EMS. Fifteen others were taken off full duty because of elevated A1C levels, which can indicate whether a person is prediabetic or at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

For D.C. Fire EMS Chief John A. Donnelly Sr., that’s 35 too many. There are an estimated 2,100 fire service members across the District.

“Not everybody across the fire service that is dying from sudden cardiac arrest or heart disease are people that fall outside the parameters, and that’s the scary part,” Donnelly says. “They don’t fall into the parameters where we can’t have them at work.”

Although the total number of off-duty staff in 2020 accounted for less than 2 percent of the entire department, Donnelly believes that “everybody can benefit” from the active lifestyle that Food on the Stove promotes.

“This is such a stressful job, not only on your mind, but on your body and how those two work together,” Donnelly says. “We are all at risk, even if we pass the physicals and requirements.”

While the District has a partnership with a company that specializes in training tactical athletes, O2X, it lacks ways of sourcing and serving healthy food. This clears the way for Food on the Stove to have substantial impact. 

With its flagship program, Farm to Firehouse, being free to firefighters, Tate is actively seeking funding from the public. Every $10 people donate to Food on the Stove through its website covers a meal for a firefighter. 

Even though the nonprofit is incurring significant costs that are associated with changing the behavior of firefighters and getting fire service employees back to work while lowering their risks, preventing heart attacks are invaluable. “We want to put it right on the table for them,” Tate says. “We’re helping develop healthier members, that’s pretty priceless.”