Saturday’s 17th annual International Food Festival was overwhelmed by the crowd in World’s Fair Park as dozens of booths serving cuisine from a wide swath of countries ran out of food halfway through the six hour festival.
Festival director Ghada Ayesh said the hundreds of volunteers who dedicated their time to cooking food and staffing the annual festival had prepared to feed between 10,000 and 15,000 on Saturday, but they were blown away by the nearly 25,000 people she estimated were at this year’s festival.
“Once we hit that 20,000 and 25,000, that kind of threw us over,” Ayesh said. “It’s like, it’s a good problem to have, but at the same time I don’t want to disappoint all the people who came out, and I want everybody to be able to sample something.”
Saturday’s festival, which benefited Annoor Academy in West Knoxville, marked its third year at World’s Fair Park, and reaffirmed the event’s popularity after rain slowed the turnout at last year’s festival. Ayesh said that the volunteers were preparing for a larger crowd this year because of the better weather, but that the unexpected number of festival goers had them calling in reinforcements from places like Red Onion Pizza, Holy Land Market and Yassin’s Falafel House by 2 p.m.
“We’ve got some of our caterers that have gone back to their kitchens to bring more food, as well,” Ayesh said. “We’re just reaching out to a lot of our friends in the community to bring us more supplies.”
The annual festival takes a full year’s worth of planning to organize, Ayesh said, and it relies heavily on the time and generosity of its hundreds of volunteers.
“It’s a full-time job … literally the week after we finish, we start planning for next year,” she said. “It takes lots of very generous volunteers, and lots of people working very long hours for a long time.”
For many of the volunteers, the time and effort they put into the annual festival is a way of sharing their cultures and cuisines with the community at large. For the visitors, it’s a way to sample foods from countries like Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and dozens more — all while connecting with the people behind the food.
“People love to be able to get something that they couldn’t normally get from home,” Ayesh said. “Food will always bring people together. “