Restaurants are feeding healthcare workers now

Inside grassroots efforts to provide for restaurant employees while also nourishing caregivers.

Some of the thousands of chefs and restaurant owners who have been forced to shut down or pivot to takeout and delivery in recent weeks are also using their empty kitchens to feed a group of working people who need nourishment more than ever: the healthcare workers quickly being overwhelmed while treating patients with Covid-19. 

Matt Cahn, owner of Middle Child in Philadelphia, was already feeding healthcare workers regularly before he shut down his sandwich shop over concerns about the rapidly growing pandemic. Middle Child sits next to two major hospitals, the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Penn Hospital Medicine; their proximity initially prompted him to shut his doors well before other restaurants in the area. He wanted to protect his patrons, his own employees, and set an example for other businesses. 

Despite shuttering, Cahn realized he could help his customer base of doctors and nurses, who still needed to eat, and take donations to help pay some of his employees. He took a week off to plan, and repainted the walls with microbicidal paint, deep cleaned the space, and sanitized all of his equipment as a precaution.

To kick off the effort, Cahn posted to Instagram to ask for Venmo donations. He reached out to his friend Matt Domenick, who insures doctors and nurses, to see if he would sponsor the first lunch. Domenick immediately said yes; he had been wondering how he could support his clients, who were risking their lives by going to work. “[Healthcare workers] are going into a building where the virus can be anywhere,” he said. “They’re the frontlines. They deserve to have something that will brighten their day and Middle Child is that for a lot of people.”

Since the first lunch, Cahn has been working with departments and doctors individually via email. Middle Child’s team prepares food wearing masks and gloves, and hospital staff pick up sandwiches outside the restaurant. Cahn is working independently for now. “The hospitals are barely involved at all,” he said. “We’re kind of rogue on this.” He is mildly concerned about the legality of accepting money via Venmo, but is more focused on responding to the crisis and will continue making meals while donations come in. At time of publication, he’s scheduled three weeks out, preparing two or three sandwich orders every day for staff across departments at five local hospitals and Planned Parenthood.

The team at Seattle’s The London Plane, spent a weekend after closing to brainstorm their next move before deciding to feed staff at area hospitals. Yasuaki Saito, a co-owner, said they were inspired by an insightful nurse friend. “She said that during times of crisis nurses can get lost or forgotten and are expected to give, and give, and give,” he said. “That can be demoralizing.” After making contact with Marie Cockerham, a staff support services lead at the University of Washington Medical Center network, the London Plane team agreed to make 1600 meals a day, using GoFundMe to raise money. Like Matt Cahn, they wanted to help pay their employees while caring for caregivers.

“Healthcare workers are going into a building where the virus can be anywhere.”

Saito and Katherine Anderson, another co-owner, were able to coordinate with the Cockerham to ensure their crew of cooks and drivers were healthy and following safety guidelines. Cockerham advised them to increase hand-washing, wash their hands after changing gloves, and wipe down high-touch areas. The crew maintained social distancing while preparing food and limited the number of people delivering meals, who underwent the same screening as hospital workers.“We had to screen all of our staff, and make sure they hadn’t been out of the country, had no sign of fever, or a scratchy throat,” said Saito. Cockerham appreciated their cooperation. “We were able to get an efficient process in place and provide this much needed morale boost for all our staff and providers working in such challenging and stressful environments,” she said.

London Plane agreed to an eight-day push that ended on March 25. They delivered more than 13,000 meals to hospitals around Seattle, feeding nurses, providers, physicians, environmental service workers, and housekeepers. The inclusive effort mattered to Cockerham. “Every single person is important,” she said. The London Plane team is now regrouping to discuss the future of the restaurant. “This is not what we do. This is just a response to the crisis,” said Saito. (UW Medicine continues to accept donations for other supplies).

People are gearing up similar, grassroots efforts in waves, from Atlanta to San Francisco. One group in Los Angeles, Help Feed the Frontline LA, wants to create a template for others to follow nationwide. Media executive Erin Arend and a team of four other women formed the group, and partnered with José Andres’s World Central Kitchen and local chef Brooke Williamson to raise money to feed healthcare staff in Los Angeles during the Covid-19 crisis. Help Feed the Frontline LA recently launched a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $3 million to feed healthcare workers over the next 30 to 60 days, depending on funding.

World Central Kitchen is a global leader in disaster response (the nonprofit recently fed passengers on a cruise ship that was quarantined), and Arend said that working with the organization has given her group a few advantages, paying restaurant vendors while Arend’s group ramps up donations, and providing a non-profit tax shelter. Beyond financial help, the World Central Kitchen team is offering logistical experience. Arend said that both groups want to work together to provide a model so other restaurants and communities can scale across the U.S. She sees this as a long term project that will be beneficial for whole communities, especially small businesses like local restaurants that have lost income. 

Arend’s group is currently working with five Los Angeles hospitals, communicating with administrators at each, and plans to start meal delivery this week. As for the safety precautions they’re taking and want to scale, Arend said individual packaging is key. “We can’t do a catering platter right now,” she said. Meals are handed off at a designated dropoff point outside of hospitals, and drivers wear gloves and masks to transfer food to a dolly. As they expand, Arend’s group wants to avoid cannibalizing in-house dining options, too. “If there is a food service on campus, we’re asking how we can be compatible with them and fill in the gaps with our hours of delivery,” she said.

All of the chefs, restaurant owners, and community organizers expressed their desire to help their communities by supporting both healthcare workers on the frontlines and sustaining the independent restaurants they care about. They see the partnership as a positive symbiosis in a time of crisis. “I see this as a fair opportunity for people to donate to Middle Child so we can pay our employees and also help someone else,” said Matt Cahn of his fundraiser. “I think that there’s no way that doing good can bite you in the ass.” 

And similar pushes to feed healthcare workers will likely grow as the pandemic does. With many restaurants shut down and hospital staff embracing an all-hands-on deck approach, people aren’t able to order food like they once did, let alone spend time preparing meals at home. “It was a sense of relief [to get lunch] because it was one less thing that we had to worry about,” said Samantha E. Kozaczki, a senior clinical charge nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, who received a meal from Middle Child. Erin Arend said that after speaking to hospital staff members about organizing meals, several cried while on the phone with her.

however, which could affect how well similar models can scale. Hugh Acheson, owner of several restaurants in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, put out a call to pharmaceutical companies and hospitals over Twitter in hopes of partnering with them. He said that his local hospital, St. Mary’s in Athens, Georgia, was prohibiting any food prepared off-premises from entering the building. “That is understandable, they are trying to lock down the contamination,” said Acheson.

At the time of publication there has been no direct evidence that food itself is a vector for the virus, and many restaurants are still providing takeout. But Acheson noted that it’s hard to control every possible point of contamination. He’s trying multiple approaches to keep his restaurants afloat while supporting his people. “Chefs can do a lot these days, but probably the best thing is to reach out to their immediate communities to see what they can provide,” he said.

Hospitals may have their own rules for accepting outside food, however, which could affect how well similar models can scale. Hugh Acheson, owner of several restaurants in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, put out a call to pharmaceutical companies and hospitals over Twitter in hopes of partnering with them. He said that his local hospital, St. Mary’s in Athens, Georgia, was prohibiting any food prepared off-premises from entering the building. “That is understandable, they are trying to lock down the contamination,” said Acheson.

At the time of publication there has been no direct evidence that food itself is a vector for the virus, and many restaurants are still providing takeout. But Acheson noted that it’s hard to control every possible point of contamination. He’s trying multiple approaches to keep his restaurants afloat while supporting his people. “Chefs can do a lot these days, but probably the best thing is to reach out to their immediate communities to see what they can provide,” he said.

Anna Perling Anna Perling is a writer on the Wirecutter kitchen team and is based in New York. Her work has been published in the New York Times and Saveur magazine. She is a mentor with Girls Write Now and a member of the Online News Association.