Hot Meals to Go: Nebraska charity provides hot meals for disaster victims

Brenna Ramsden, Freelance Contributor

The bomb cyclone that swept through Nebraska in March displaced many families, tore up infrastructure, and managed to bring many communities together. Out of all the destruction, one business found the ability to bloom; Hot Meals USA. 

Hot Meals USA is a 501(c)(3) charity that provided 8,300 meals for affected families, emergency management personnel, and law enforcement and emergency medical professionals during the wake of the storms in Nebraska. The organization is based out of Kearney, Neb. but has the ability to provide meals to victims all over the country.  

The inspiration started long before the bomb cyclone hit Nebraska. The idea and need for an organization like this started in 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. Hot Meals USA founder, Dick Chochran was living just 11 miles from the devastation of the EF5 tornado when it tore through 22 miles of Joplin and surrounding communities. Chochran was able to gather some food and buddies who loaded up eight barbecue grills, 500 pounds of hamburger and nearly 500 hotdogs. When they arrived in Joplin seven hours after the tornado hit, an emergency center worker said food wasn’t needed at that time of day.  

Chochran responded, “What about the police and firemen who have been working through this all night?” 

Having forgotten about feeding those people, the woman had Chochran and his crew escorted to the command center, and within 40 minutes burgers were on the grill.  

“We spent three days feeding those firemen and policemen,” said Chochran, “They were the real heroes there, not us.” 

It was this event that led Chochran to build an organization equipped to help victims, management personnel, and emergency staff in the wake of destruction. Before getting too involved, Cochran met with the Red Cross to discuss the idea, he wasn’t sure if this was even needed in the community. Red Cross was enthusiastic, and other major players Chochran brought in said “this is exactly what we need right now.” Now, Hot Meals USA has the ability to feed 2,500 meals a day from their portable trailer, and have two more units in the works.  

“We just want to help people when they are down. We are trying to do what we already do every day,” said Chochran.  

Dickey’s BBQ Franchise owner and 30-year veteran of Schwan’s, Cochran has connections in the food industry. Hot Meals USA was the product of a desire to help people in need and seeing a need for it during large disasters. 

“People my age, 9 times out of 10 you can show up to volunteer and they will tell you to go home,” said Chochran.  

By today’s standards, you get an A+ if you are on the ground in 72 hours after a natural disaster. Chochran thought “we can do better than that.” With Chochran’s trailers, he estimates his crew can be on the ground and cooking meals within 24 hours. This is made possible by the strategic placement of his trailers.  

Right now, Chochran is running one small unit, a 24 foot trailer that can cook about 2,500 meals a day if needed. A second trailer, a medium unit is a 48-foot trailer that can cook 4-5,000 meals a day when needed. Chochran hopes to one day have large units as well, a 53 foot double decker that would have the capacity to serve 25,000 meals a day. There are plans to have a medium unit placed between Kansas City and Joplin, Missouri for quick response times. Large units will be disbursed in areas near the interstates, giving them quick access to major cities in the wake of natural disasters.  

When the units are not deployed to help communities in need, they can be used for community events, state fairs and other special events. One recent event was in Donovan, Neb. where Red Cross, United Way, FEMA and other organizations were hosting a gathering for victims of flooding. People could come to fill out the necessary paperwork or check-in on their statuses in getting relief from damage. Hot Meals USA was there to feed the victims who were attending. 

After the bomb cyclone in Nebraska, Hot Meals USA was called on to feed victims in Dannebrog, Neb. Chochran had one cooking unit at the time and they hadn’t put it to use yet, but in one evening they were able to feel 350 people. 

“These are good meals too,” said Chochran, “We fed turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans.” 

A few weeks later in Hamburg, Iowa, Hot Meals USA served 500 meals. In July they were able to provide food for the Red Cross to deliver in Kearney, Neb. totaling more than 1,100 meals. In the six months following the March bomb cyclone Hot Meals USA served 8,300 meals in 26 different locations.  

“We’re just a bunch of cooks and certified chefs who want to go out and cook food for people who have lost everything,” said Chochran.  

Hot Meals USA is still running on one trailer, with another nearly finished. Thanks to Cookies BBQ, a 48-foot trailer was donated and will be rolled out shortly. Chochran has big hopes for Hot Meals USA. Eventually he would like to have seven units in total, two medium and two large units, out in the world working. At that point, Hot Meals USA would be able to provide 13,000 meals a day. 

If you would like to volunteer with Hot Meals USA you can email and follow their website or Facebook Page for the latest updates.  

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