If you’ve been in Choice Meats in Winter Garden lately, then you’ve seen the small, white Christmas tree sitting atop the counter in the back.
From a distance, it’s your typical artificial tree, but if you look closer — at the paper ornaments hanging from its limbs — you’ll see that it’s a small tree with a big heart.
That’s because this is a giving tree, and through the sale of its ornaments, it’s helping feed locals in need during the holiday season.
“We wanted to make sure that people who were really truly looking to put food on the table could buy anything, and that $50 or that $30 includes all of our luncheon meat — so it’s everything we sell,” owner Veronica Kowlessar said. “So far, since the beginning of November to now, we have helped almost 200 families put food on their table.”
The giving trees works in two different ways. First, someone in need of food can fill out their information on an ornament, which can be bought by a customer. Second, a customer can put money into a donation jar.
By purchasing an ornament, a family in need will be given money in the form of store credit, which they can use to buy anything in the store — whether it be meat or produce. Meanwhile, all the money placed into the donation jar is matched by Choice Meats, and every cent goes toward the person in need.
The idea came to Kowlessar when she and her boyfriend were on vacation in October in the Rocky Mountains, but it’s not the first time the store has been involved with charity.
“We’re both from very humble beginnings, and oftentimes, our customers would come in, and we were either gifting groceries individually … or we find them on Facebook, and we were just private messaging people and having them come in and get their groceries,” Kowlessar said. “So this wasn’t an idea that was uncommon for us — it just wasn’t done in a public way.”
“We wanted to make sure that people who were really truly looking to put food on the table could buy anything, and that $50 or that $30 includes all of our luncheon meat — so it’s everything we sell. So far, since the beginning of November to now, we have helped almost 200 families put food on their table.”
— Veronica Kowlessar
Although many places usually place food into a box and hand it out to those in need, Kowlessar’s rationale was a little bit different. She wanted them to come in and pick their food so they could get what they actually wanted and not waste any food. People have different diets — influenced by myriad factors — so she wanted them to get what they needed.
During the holidays, there’s always an increased need for food, but this year — thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — that fact has been escalated, and it’s why between the selling of ornaments and donation matching, Choice Meats has raised more than $6,700. The average amount of money raised per family is $34, which in Kowlessar’s shop can go a long way to put food on the table.
Along with helping to feed people, being able to see the immediate impact on her customers is one of the best gifts that has come out of this endeavor, Kowlessar said.
“There have been so many times that I’ve had tears in my eyes,” Kowlessar said. “It’s been emotional to see kids bring their piggy-bank money and put it in there, and it’s emotional to see kids receive this gift and they’re like, ‘Mom, can we get a ham? I’m so excited’ — you see both ends of it.”
Although the shop will be taking donations until Saturday, Dec. 19 — which gives those in need the chance to swing by to get their groceries before Christmas — Kowlessar hopes to make this an annual drive and organize other acts of charity throughout the year.
Kowlessar said Choice Meats is a small, local business with a big heart for helping those in the community.
“I was born in Guyana, South America, and so I came to the United States when I was 11, so I’ve seen poverty first-hand — it’s not something that someone has to show me,” Kowlessar said. “When we look at what 2020 has taught us — when we look at what this pandemic has taught us — it’s really that one small act of kindness can change someone’s life.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think feeding a family will be groundbreaking,” she said. “However, them being hungry, it will cause trauma in their life. So when we thought about this, we thought about helping in our own capacity. I want to do as much good and affect change as I possibly can within my realm.”