Giving Back: How You And The Food Community Can Help Struggling Families

Editor's note: Today, as HuffPost and AOL unite to launch the Huffington Post Media Group, we're celebrating by making a statement about the importance of giving back and helping others.

Led by HuffPost Impact -- The Huffington Post's section devoted to service, causes, and volunteering -- every HuffPost section is featuring a group or individual who is taking action and inspiring others during these challenging times. Like the rest of the world, our hearts and minds are also focused on Japan, and we've created a resource page for everyone wishing to support the emergency relief efforts.

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AOL/Huffington Post Media Group has also issued a 30-day Service Challenge to every one of its employees worldwide, encouraging them to give their time to non-profits in their local communities and organizing volunteer events in 16 cities.

We hope you'll join us in utilizing the power of online journalism to help people get involved, work together, and bring about real change.

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Like many chefs, it is one of my priorities to give back, whether it's as a UN Ambassador for the UNICEF TAP Project or by mentoring and employing students through the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). There are so many ways to make a real impact in supporting those in need related to food, from large organizations like the World Food Program, Share Our Strength or Feeding America to more local efforts, such as soup kitchens.

For centuries soup kitchens have been a way for local communities to offer a way of support, both nutritional and emotional to their less lucky neighbors. They are still a great and important way to contribute and offer help and I encourage people to get involved in helping to feed their neighbors in need. But these days I am also exploring ways of giving back that are both more personal and professionally based, looking at ways of giving back that are more about giving a hand up than a hand out. About creating economic opportunities and chances for future growth, rather that simply helping in the moment.

There has long been a debate in the aid community and in Africa about how to most effectively help situations of poverty in developing nations and underprivileged communities. Is it best to give direct and immediate aid in the form of food and supplies or could it be better to take that same amount of money and use it to invest in helping to build small business and give the support needed to create a more stable future? What could the future look like if communities had the support and financing to develop their infrastructure and agriculture without the limitations of poverty? If instead of simply offering countries food, you empowered them to create economies that would allow them to sustain themselves and thrive.

I moved to Harlem six years ago. I've lived all over the world but Harlem is very special to me and when I decided to open a restaurant near my home, I didn't want it to be business as usual. I wanted to make sure that I was giving as much back to the community as it has given to me. I wanted to build economic opportunities for everyone in this neighborhood with my business, from my restaurant to the guy at the newstand or the man on the corner. If I had opened this restaurant in Soho or Chelsea no one would have thought twice, but to bring this business and these jobs to Harlem is a big deal to the community. We have hired 60 neighborhood residents to work at the Red Rooster, many of whom had never worked in the hospitality industry before. We have local musicians performing and much of the art on our wall is by amazing artists who call Harlem home as well. The economic opportunities are not just within the walls of our restaurant; they extend to the florist I've hired and the guy who we buy some of our bread from. The numbers of people coming to visit us has also caused a spike in business for others in the community, from our neighboring restaurants to the guy who sells perfume across from us on Lenox Avenue. We are creating opportunities not only for work, but also creating a space where everyone is welcome and can gather, which is a Harlem tradition that I hope we can revive and build upon. I am excited to have so many locals as regulars in the restaurant who come by for lunch, dinner, or sometimes just a coffee. And I'm also glad to bring wider attention and interest to an often overlooked part of the city.

Finding creative and effective ways to simultaneously give back and economically empower people is something that is increasingly Important. Not everyone can open a business and directly create jobs in the way that we have at Red Rooster Harlem. But everyone does make dozens of economic decisions every day from where you buy your morning coffee, birthday cards, school supplies or go out to dinner. I encourage you to think about where you are spending your money and consider spending some of it in local businesses. Studies show that for every $100 spent in locally owned or independent stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other spending. Imagine the economic impact it could have in our neighborhoods if we dedicated just a portion of our monthly expenditures to buying local. These are conversations we have every day both in the restaurant and on my website and these are ideas, issues and discussions that I look forward to having on