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Food on the Stove

On this episode of The USFA Podcast, DC Firefighter and EMT Jonathon Tate discusses the importance of healthy food in the firehouse and how it compelled him to start Food on the Stove.

Posted: June 20, 2024

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Learn about Food on the Stove and how it is revolutionizing healthy eating in DC and MD firehouses.

Photos of firefighters enjoying lunch together

Listen online 27:20

Photos of firefighters enjoying lunch together


Estimated 20 min reading time.

Teresa Neal

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I'm your host, Teresa Neal. Firefighters risk their lives responding to emergencies, but they also jeopardize their long-term health through exposure to toxic chemicals and to other occupational hazards. As a result, firefighters are at increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health conditions.

Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly half of firefighter fatalities, but it can be prevented and treated. Today we are joined by Jonathan Tate, D.C. firefighter and EMT and founder of Food on the Stove. Jonathan began his service as a D.C. firefighter EMT in 2012. He is currently assigned to Truck 5, Platoon 1.

Tate founded Food on the Stove in July 2017 to provide tools and resources to help firefighters live a healthier lifestyle through enhanced nutrition and exercise. He was born and raised in Washington, D.C., is the husband of Precious and father to his daughter Genesis and son Judah. He is a second-generation firefighter.

His father, the late James Tate Sr., became a D.C. firefighter in 1956 and was assigned to Truck Company 6. His father retired at the rank of deputy fire chief and 9 years later passed away from cancer, having multiple heart attacks. The death of his father would later birth a vision and usher him into his calling, Food on the Stove. Thank you for joining us.

Jonathan Tate

Thank you so much for having me, Teresa. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.

Teresa Neal

And so, before we start, I just wanted to share an excerpt from your impact report because when I read it, it really made me see your heart for not only the fire service, but also, for the mission of Food on the Stove.

So, here's the excerpt that I wanted to read. "Firefighters leave their families to protect their communities. They never know if they will return home. They find comfort knowing that the colleagues at their side, whether Black, white, Democrat, Republican, Christian or Muslim, are willing to risk their lives for one another.

“No firehouse is perfect, but the culture of brotherhood, sisterhood and sacrifice is built with every meal. Although food has always been a powerful unifier, it has also become one of the biggest hindrances to the health and wellness for firefighters across the country. Forced to cook fast and cheap meals during their shifts, our first responders are left vulnerable to health issues that threaten their lives in greater numbers than fire."

I think that's pretty powerful.

Jonathan Tate

Thank you. I appreciate that. I believe that was part of my letter to the fire service and my impact report. It was what was on my heart at the time when we were developing that impact report. And I do believe that food is a great unifier. It's one of the times that we all put our differences to the side, sit at the dinner table, and we talk about different things and our commonalities. And I really appreciate that about the fire service, but I also notice and focus on what we are eating and how that is a hindrance to us. So, that's what we're setting out to do, to change the culture of health and wellness in the fire service. And be a resource to our brothers and sisters in the fire service.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, that's awesome. So, can you tell us about Food on the Stove? I read in your impact report about the fatality, also in D.C., of a firefighter. And I know that and the passing of your father kind of got you to say, okay, we really got to do something here.

Jonathan Tate

Indeed, indeed. So, I started Food on the Stove in 2017, and it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides tools and resources to help firefighters live a healthier lifestyle through enhanced nutrition and exercise. And the reason that's so important is because in 2018, 44% of all firefighters who die from the line of duty, they die from a heart attack.

There's some studies show that the life expectancy of firefighters are 10 to 15 years less than every other employee in America. And not only that, we're the only occupation that cooks all 3 meals while at work. So, while there's a lot of good meals prepared in the firehouse, they're not necessarily good for us all the time.

So, what Food on the Stove seeks to do is help firefighters be more proactive about their health by 1, educating them. And then 2, simply putting healthier meals on the table. And the reason, as you mentioned, I'm so passionate about it is because I'm a second generation firefighter. My father worked for D.C. Fire and EMS from 1956 to 1989. He retired at the rank of deputy fire chief. Unfortunately, 9 years after he retired he passed away after having multiple heart attacks and losing his fight with cancer. So, when I became a firefighter 11 years ago, and I saw how we were eating in the fire service or in the firehouse, I said, this is probably why my father has so many health complications.

And I wanted to do something to change that. So, I set out and started Food on the Stove, which, as you may know, that it's a double entendre. It's the number 1 way that structure fires start due to food being left on the stove unattended. So, when I was assigned to Truck 6, the same company my father was assigned to, and I would ride beside a Truck 6, and we will be responding to false alarms, I will hear the officer over the radio kind of nonchalantly say, “Truck 6, slow your response,” or the chief would say, “Truck 6, slow your response. It's just food on the stove.” And I said, you know what, I'm going to take that phrase and help firefighters pay more attention to the food that's on their stove that I believe is ultimately killing us.

So, I set out that day to start Food on the Stove, and I asked my wife, I told my wife, I said, you know, I think God has given me a vision to help firefighters and their health and wellness. And she said, well, what are you going to do? And at that moment, I didn't know exactly what I had to do, but I know I wanted to give them food and help them eat healthier.

So, I went to the farmer’s market. I asked her if I could take my overtime money — that I would work overtime, and I would take that money and buy food for firefighters. And so she agreed. And I went to the farmer's market. I bought 6 grass fed steaks, 6 stalks of broccoli, 6 sweet potatoes, and I took it to a firehouse not far from where I grew up from in northeast D.C. And I wasn’t assigned to that firehouse, so it was a little confusing to the members of that house why I was bringing them food. The culture isn’t to just take firehouses food. So, they didn’t know if I was trying to poison them.

Teresa Neal

You guys don’t even share from shifts is what I learned. You have your locked refrigerators because nobody shares.

Jonathan Tate

Exactly. Here’s this young guy coming into the firehouse bringing us food. He’s not assigned me. He’s not on the shift. What is he doing? So, like I said, they didn’t know if I was trying to poison them or if I was really trying to help them, but I dropped the food off and I said that I want you all to eat healthier.

I mean, at the moment, I chose that firehouse because 1, it wasn’t far from where I grew up from, so I was familiar with the firehouse, but 2, it was one of the smaller firehouses in D.C., so, it’s what I could afford at the time. And I’m happy to say that the seeds that I planted that day, which were the 6 meals, have now blossomed into over 60,000 meals for the fire service.

Teresa Neal

That’s amazing.

Jonathan Tate

We’ve been sponsored by Giant, UnitedHealthcare, Verizon, Host Hotels and Amazon for our Farm to Firehouse program, which is similar to — you ever heard of Blue Apron or HelloFresh?

Teresa Neal

Yes, of course.

Jonathan Tate

Do you all have that Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Sunbasket? It’s a meal delivery service where they give you all the recipe and all the ingredients to make that recipe portioned out for you.

And they deliver it to your homes in whatever jurisdiction, D.C., wherever they are, but there’s 1 house that they forgot about. That’s the firehouse. So, that’s where we came into play.

We started Farm to Firehouse and for every $10 we raise, it goes to the protein, produce and packaging of the meal. And to expand that, I want to take it across the country. To expand that, I developed an app that now allows firehouses to order those meals, and we deliver it directly to the firehouse.

So, it's something that Amazon took a look at. They sponsored the development of the app. They also paid for the testing phase of it, which we tested in Alexandria, Virginia.

So, in that app, we have 3 components. You can order your meal delivery boxes. We also have an initiative called EMS. It stands for Eat More Salad to increase the leafy green intake of firefighters and EMS personnel while they're at work. And then we also have a grocery delivery app where you can order your groceries. One of the biggest misconceptions in the fire service is that our meals are funded by tax dollars.

But in all actuality, we chip in every day and we buy our own food, but oftentimes that leads us to buy the cheapest thing possible to make it affordable for everybody to eat. Because, like I said, we're cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that can get pretty expensive if you're cooking for 6 people or 15 people. So, what we want to do is help supplement the cost of those meals in the firehouse and do donations and support.

We believe that we can make what is a very costly item in a grocery store, we can bring it down — that cost down — so it's more affordable for firefighters. Because one of the things that you'll hear people say, not just firefighters, is that eating healthier costs more and that's a true statement, right?

It does cost more to eat healthier. But my response to that is always — is that either you pay for the food or you pay for the medication. You don't escape life not paying one. And for firefighters, our first responders, their job depends so much on their heart operating properly, they don't have the luxury to eat whatever they want.

So we, as the public, we like to say — and Food on the Stove — and we serve those who serve us. The government as well as the general public needs to make sure that we have the best of everything. Our firefighters have everything that they need to perform their job. They would never let us go in there without SCBA bottles or our gear or the proper gear or the proper apparatus.

So, I also look at it as we don't need to be going in there without the proper nutrition and the proper food, because our job is very physical.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, and just by the nature of the job, you've already got an increased risk. Rather, you have a personal increase as well, but you have an increased risk for cardiovascular issues because of the environment that you work in as well as cancer.

And so, that nutrition, that's just another way of, kind of, helping you along the way. I mean, if you already have these other risks and then you're eating, I don't know, Bojangles or whatever, every day, while it's good, it doesn't do you any good.

Jonathan Tate

Right? So we like to say, we want them to control the controllable, right?

You can't control sleep deprivation. You can't control hazardous environments. You can't control the stress of the job, but you can control diet and exercise, right? Those are the things that you can control within the fire service. So, we want to make sure that they're able to do so. I think that not only that nutrition and food is one of the elements, I think it's the most important element, right? I like to call firefighters natural, ordinary athletes. If we look at athletes all around the country, they fuel their bodies. Probably one thing that athletes will tell you is that they fuel their body properly, but they also prepare, right? Those athletes know when game day is, right?

As a firefighter, we don't know when game day is. Game day can be 12:00 in the evening or 12:00 in the morning. So, we need to make sure that we're prepared.

Teresa Neal

And it can be several times in a day.

Jonathan Tate

Several times in a day, right? And 1 of the things that I ask the firefighters all the time, I said, if we will all agree that food is fuel, right?

Your body is supposed to take the food, the nutrition, or the vitamins and nutrients from the food and eliminate the waste. But we use it as fuel to power us to go throughout our day and do whatever we need to do. I mean, all of them typically agree. And I said, well, if that's the case, if food is fuel, and I gave you the keys to my Lamborghini and I said, hey, you can drive my Lamborghini for the day, just make sure you fuel it up. And all of them say, I will put the best fuel in it. I'll put 93 octane in it. And I said, okay, if you'll do that, my next question to you is, why don't we treat our bodies the same way?

Because if food is fuel, we need to make sure that our bodies are able to run properly. The reason you fuel that Lamborghini up is because you don't want it to break down. You want it to run at an optimal level, and you know what it is designed to do. We need to look at our bodies the same way and fuel it properly because we push our bodies to the limit as firefighters.

Teresa Neal

And you're teaching them not only healthy, but good food as well. Because I know that sometimes — yeah, that's healthy, but I don't really like —I'm not going to eat kale salad, and I'm a bit of a foodie. I would rather have the really good food.

My husband always says for him food is fuel and for me it's fun. And so there's that difference. So, you have to be able to also give them something that's tasty. The fuel lasts longer because it's not just the highly processed foods that are easier to get.

Jonathan Tate

Right. Definitely. It has to be, like you said, fuel and fun. You have to enjoy what you're eating. I think that's a big part of eating healthy, finding something sustainable for you. We don't expect you to eat grass all day or eat lettuce all day. You're not a rabbit or anything like that. So, we want you to find something for you. And nutrition looks different for everybody.

Nutrition is not the same. It's not a one size fits all thing, right? So, we want to make sure that people are enjoying the food that they're eating. So, we never come into the firehouse empty handed. We are a very giving organization. A lot of what we do is about bringing food into the firehouse. So, we never tell firefighters what they can and can't eat.

We do try to add the healthier things to their plate in hopes that they're getting the right vitamins, the right nutrition that they're supposed to have. We never tell them that, hey, don't eat this, don't eat that. Because all things are okay in moderation, but you can't eat like that as a firefighter every day.

Because, like I said, your job depends so much on your heart operating properly. And you also have to be honest with yourself. If you're struggling with high blood pressure, you're struggling with your A1C levels, it might not benefit you to eat highly processed diet or a lot of sugar or drinking soda. So, you don't work this job for 25, 30 years to give your pension back.

That's one of the benefits of being a firefighter, at least a paid firefighter, is that we're one of the few occupations that still get a pension. But in all actuality, I didn't understand how the pension system worked until my dad passed away and, actually, until I became a little bit older.

When you pass away, your pension gets cut in half for your spouse. So, our lifestyle drastically changed when my dad passed. Now, I often say, if he would have known how that would have affected his family, he would have just invested just as much in his health as he did in his pension plan or 457 plan. Because in order to maximize your pension, you have to be alive.

Right? And if you don't have a spouse, it goes right back into the pot. So, I don't want somebody to work 30 years and pass away a year after so I can get paid off. We all work that time. I think we all should be able to take care of our families. I want to see firefighters live a long life.

Teresa Neal

I think we need to push this on to health and safety.

Jonathan Tate

What Food on the Stove has done is very different. Right? It's not the typical nonprofit. Oftentimes, I think we've ignored health and wellness in the fire service so much, it's easier to just give a seminar or a symposium. But we're putting our money where our mouth is, right? We're actually coming into the firehouse and we're giving. So, that can be a little different for a lot of people, because now it's like, what does this cost? So, how do we even manage or where do we fit into this space? I'm not saying that they haven't gotten involved because they don't want to get involved. Maybe they don't see how to fit into this space because what we're doing is very different. I oftentimes say that the fire service doesn't have a health and wellness problem. We have a culture problem.

Food is one of the things we look forward to every day, right? It's one of our breaks throughout the day. We see very traumatic incidents. You can go anywhere from running a CPR on someone's grandmother to running a shooting on a 12-year-old child, right? And all of those things affect you mentally. So, the one thing that firefighters have to look forward to is what's for dinner? What's for breakfast? What are we going to eat for lunch? Because sometimes food, oftentimes — and not just firefighters — food can be a comfort to a lot of people.

Teresa Neal

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jonathan Tate

So, you see all these things, you've been running all day and it's like my break is I want that muffin or whatever is accessible.

And most times what is accessible is super-processed, highly processed items. Chips, cookies. And you just need a break for a moment to get, you know, some type of fuel in. So, even for Food on the Stove, we need to figure out how do we make healthy items more accessible in the firehouse that firefighters don't necessarily have to pay for.

Food on the Stove was started — why I'm so passionate about it — Food on the Stove was started by a 15-year-old boy that missed his father. I didn’t realize I missed my father until I became a firefighter at 30 years old. I was at the training academy. I was having a very difficult time that day. I think I might have failed an exam — a quiz, not an exam, a quiz, and I just didn’t know what direction it was going in. There was a lot of pressure on me. My father was a fire chief. People knew that. I was like, what does it mean if I fail out of the fire academy? Do I soil my father’s good name? What does that look like? And that was the first day that I went home, and I cried and I said, I miss my dad.

15 years, that was the first day that I said that. Through the time that my father was sick, I prepared myself every day for his death because I had seen him sick for so long. I saw the strongest man that I know become the weakest man that I know. So, I processed that, and I prepared myself for his death. So, almost to the point when he died, I didn’t mourn.

I was always waiting for that. But when I got to the academy and I had that struggling day, that was the first time that I realized that the person that I knew that could help me wasn’t there anymore. Because at that moment, didn’t need my dad’s pension. I didn’t need his money. I needed his help. I needed him to tell me that it’s going to be okay. You can get through this. Just keep pressing forward. And I said those words out loud. And I think it freed me a bit. But also, what I say is that I don’t want another 15-year-old boy or girl to go through the things that I went through. So, my job is, I’m not just fighting for firefighters. I’m fighting for their 15-year-old sons or daughter.

They don’t even know that 15 years from now they’re going to need their mother or their father there with them. So, it’s a mission for me, it’s not just nonprofit. It’s not just a business. It’s not a way to make another income because I don’t take the income from Food on the Stove as of yet.

It’s a way to really change the culture and I think people are more willing to listen when they know that you care. Now I genuinely care about each and every firefighter that we come in contact with. Anybody who is in the fire service, I genuinely have a care and concern to make sure that they get the best of everything, especially food.

Teresa Neal

I love your heart, Jonathan. I just love your heart. So, I have 2 more questions for you. What is next? I saw in your impact report, you do have some ideas for the future — what is next for Food on the Stove?

Jonathan Tate

So, I’ll preface my vision, my overall vision, with saying this. During the pandemic — one of the things I’m most proud of is, during the pandemic, we put in COVID response plan.

If you remember during the pandemic, it was very difficult for people, not just firefighters, to get 2 things. It was toilet paper and proteins. The grocery store was empty with toilet paper. People were hoarding everything that they can get because they were scared. They didn’t know what was going to happen.

So, toilet paper and proteins were being taken off the shelf. So, what grocery stores did was put limitations on the amount of food you can buy because people were hoarding that food. So, you can only go to the grocery store — 2 packs of chicken, you can buy 2 packs of steak, pork chops and 2 packs of toilet paper. Well, what about the firefighters who are working on the front lines with a firehouse of 15 people?

And you can’t feed a firehouse of 15 grown people with 2 packs of chicken. So, what you found was that the best show of brotherhood, sisterhood that I have ever seen. I saw some people bringing food from their own homes to make sure that everybody around them ate. If nothing else, that’s a great sign of willing to share and being selfless that you will take from your own personal family to feed your work family.

Right? But I thought that was definitely not a good look on the country that we live in that our firefighters have to figure it out. They’re left to figure it out. Like, they do everything else. Every day, firefighters figure it out.

Teresa Neal

I was going to say, you wouldn’t see it with the military.

You wouldn’t have, you know, the dining halls not being able to feed the soldiers who are living on base. There’s a difference, but at the same time, I always believe our first responders are kind of like our on-the-ground military, to some extent, you know? You do a lot of the things that people do and see things that other people would never see.

And I feel, my personal opinion, that it should be handled that same way.

Jonathan Tate

Yeah, so, and shout out to the military. Shout out to all those who serve. We love you. We appreciate you. But, yeah, you’re absolutely right. The firefighters here are the boots on the ground. We are the first to respond to those calls and I wanted to see better from that.

So, what we did, Food on the Stove did, we partnered with 28 different restaurants and we fed firefighters every day for a year and a half. We had everybody from Ruth’s Chris to Chick-fil-A to your small mom and pops join forces with us. We had Ruth’s Chris donate 400 steaks. So, at that point, firefighters fell in love with Food on the Stove. We had everything from filet mignon to tomahawk steaks. Which we were happy to give and they prepared them for them. And we delivered them to all the firehouses in D.C. So, every firefighter working that day got a steak dinner. We also partnered with Chick-fil-A. They did 400 chicken sandwiches. And at that moment, the importance or the priority wasn’t our health and wellness message.

It was about meeting the immediate need. And I think that's what firefighters said, oh, it’s not about pushing this message on us, they genuinely care about what we have going on. We can meet your immediate need and then we can get back to the health and wellness message. There’s no point for me to force and say, okay, this is an opportunity we could just give you salads every day. That wasn’t our M.O. We wanted to meet your immediate need and we wanted you to see our heart. But I say that to say that are we prepared for the next pandemic? Or the next disaster? What have we learned from that case? Are we going to leave our firefighters left to figure it out again?

Because after that point, we were having discussions about giving firefighters MREs, and I’m like, we’re the United States of America, we’re not at that point where we have to give firefighters MREs. So, we’ll figure it out. Before we do that, let’s figure something else out. So, restaurants were closed, and we partner with them, purchase food for them.

And out of that was birthed our Farm to Firehouse program. Out of that though, my big vision to help Food on the Stove to be self-sustainable is taking unused or underutilized firehouses and turning them into retail spaces, community markets. So, that every dollar that’s spent in that space helps fund our program.

So, when the community comes in, buys their coffee — they like their food —they buy salads, smoothies, different things like that. We can take the money generated from that and then we can now disperse it to get firefighters a stipend per diem every month to shop onto our app and we deliver it to their firehouse.

Because my thing is, if we were working in a private sector, and your job sent you away for 24 hours, away from your family, you would get a per diem. You would get some type of stipend to make sure that we give you money to eat. Well, we’re 24 hours away from my family. And while they give us stoves, they give us microwaves, they give us the utensils that we need, not necessarily plates and forks and knives, but they give us anything to cook on, we don’t have food, right? So, that’s where we’re penny pinching on. You can have the best grill, but if you’re throwing bologna on there, it’s not necessarily the healthiest thing. So, how do we make sure that we’re getting them the best quality food possible? Because your body can burn calories, it can’t burn chemicals. So, we need to try to figure out for them not to have to make those hard choices. So, when that market generates a million dollars, say, in D.C., or your Prince George's County, or your Virginia, and we’re able to take that market and we say, hey, this community, we were able to raise or generate $1 million.

We will now disperse that amongst every firehouse in that jurisdiction. They can order our Eat More Salad initiative, they can order our Farm to Firehouse or they can just solely order their groceries. We want to insert healthier recipes in the firehouse. We want to get the best quality food into the firehouse without them having to pay for it.

Or at least that we can cut the cost in half of what eating healthier looks like for them. So, that’s my big plan is that I envision a day, I dream of a day when Food on the Stove will have firehouses all across this country that will be repurposed to serve them. Those firehouses used to serve the public. But as they shut down, we want to repurpose them to serve the firefighter now. And we want the community to really rally around that and say, hey, well, you know, every dollar or $2 from my coffee goes to putting a healthier meal on a firehouse. And I think we can actually change the culture of the fire service by doing so. And it helps Food on the Stove be self-sustainable. We won’t solely depend on donations or grants. We’ve never received a grant before. This is really built on the backs of people who have been generous with us and companies who have been generous with us. So, I’m super grateful for that, but also, I don’t depend on them to solely give. For the life of this organization, we want to figure out ways to be sustainable.

Teresa Neal

That’s awesome.

Jonathan Tate

So, I say that you asked about the union. We ask — this is a call to action. IAFF, we want you to come alongside of us and help us with this mission. USFA, United States Fire Administration, we want you to help us with this. You see the work that we're doing. You see the heart of it.

You see the impact that it's having on firefighters. We ask that you come alongside of us and work to help us create a safer and healthier fire service and help us simply serve those who serve us every day.

Teresa Neal

That's great. Okay. So my last question is how can fire departments outside of D.C., Virginia, Maryland start this type of program or get connected with you?

Jonathan Tate

Well, they can reach us. We're on social media, Food on the Stove D.C. We're on Facebook, Food on the Stove. We're on Twitter, Food on the Stove underscore. Our website is You can reach out to me,, and we can have a conversation of what that looks like.

If I'm honest, up until this point, I've been doing Food on the Stove by myself, but it's getting increasingly hard because I still work for the fire department. Food on the Stove doesn't pay me. So, I have a family, a wife and 2 kids, so, working my job and when I get off, do Food on the Stove when I have time. But that's why we need the help of the union.

That's why we need to put ideas together, put our heads together and figure out how do we expand this? We built the platform that allows firehouses to upload their staffing into our firehouse. We just had to figure out the logistics and everything else to get this healthier food to the fire service.

And I think we have the plan, but we need the funding and the support of those who can help us. So, on our website, we'll be uploading recipes that we upload onto our app. You'll be able to see those. You'll be able to see some of the stuff that we're doing, but in order for us to expand, we need support.

Teresa Neal

Okay. Well, thank you, Jonathan, so much for joining us on USFA Podcast. It has been — it's been great. I love this mission and I hope that this really gets the word out.

Jonathan Tate

Thank you for having me. I appreciate allowing me on your platform to share my heart, to share my passion, but also to advocate for my brothers and sisters who are working on the front line each and every day.

You cannot put a price on someone risking their lives. So, let us figure out how we can help them.

Teresa Neal

Yep, I agree. Thank you so much.

Jonathan Tate

And thank you. Thank you, Teresa.

Teresa Neal

Thank you to Jonathan Tate for joining us today and thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast. If you'd like to learn more about Food on the Stove, go to If you have a topic or a speaker you would like us to interview, please email the show at

Until next month, stay safe.

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