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Meeting the Moment

How nonprofits stepped up in a time of crisis.
By
  • Nevin Martell

June 2, 2021

Category
Story

When the coronavirus began sweeping across the United States in early 2020, it disrupted every facet of American life. Beyond its tragic human toll, the crisis shut down many aspects of our food supply chains. Prior to the outbreak, more than 37 million Americans were struggling with hunger and access to healthy food. The pandemic made it more difficult to feed those already in need, while millions more suddenly found themselves food insecure as their hours were cut drastically or their jobs vanished altogether.

As the economy slowed, record lines could be seen outside food pantries and soup kitchens. Restaurants were closed by government order or turned into minimalist takeout operations. Suddenly, the fear wasn’t just about being infected by the virus; the fear was also about going hungry.

Thankfully, enterprising and empathetic Americans didn’t sit idly by as this dimension of the disaster unfolded. A great many food-focused nonprofits sprang into being or pivoted hard to meet the demands of the moment.

“There’s so much human ingenuity and creativity going on in the food and agriculture sector, it’s astounding,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a nonprofit focused on food-system reform. “I knew all these people were smart; but put them in a crisis, and they are geniuses.”

Here are three admirable nonprofits that stepped up and adapted in order to help with the vital work of keeping Americans fed during a difficult time.

The LEE Initiative

“In Kentucky, you get used to living in a bubble,” said James Beard Award–winning chef Edward Lee, who owns the celebrated Louisville restaurants 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Whiskey Dry, and also serves as the culinary director of Succotash, which has locations in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Watching the news of the pandemic sweeping the country, Lee figured the Southern states wouldn’t feel the impact until two weeks after lockdown went into effect in prominent national hotspots. So, he found himself scrambling in mid-March, when Gov. Andy Beshear declared that Kentucky restaurants would stop in-restaurant dining at the same time as New York City’s.

As Lee shuttered his restaurants and laid off hundreds of workers, he went into “pure robotic, emotionless, trying-to-save-the-sinking-ship mode.” Knowing most restaurant employees lacked the cushion of savings to tide them over until unemployment checks started arriving, he wondered how he could help them face this time of sudden and acute need.

That’s when his mind turned to his nonprofit, the LEE Initiative. Its original mission focused on issues of diversity and gender equality, organizing leadership training programs for female chefs and restaurant mentorships for young adults. However, during the government shutdown in early 2019, the organization also fed Louisville International Airport’s TSA workers, who had remained on the job without taking home paychecks. Based on the blueprint of that operation, Lee formed the LEE Initiative’s Restaurant Workers Relief Program.

volunteer working to provide food

Within 24 hours of shutting its doors to customers, Lee reopened 610 Magnolia as a relief kitchen. He and his team handed out prepared meals to laid-off restaurant workers and their families, along with bags of groceries and vital household goods. It was a heartbreaking success. A couple hundred people showed up, the socially distanced line extending so far that the end couldn’t be seen from the front door of the restaurant.

“There was no way some of these families were going to make it through without this,” Lee said. “A lot of it was about sending hope to people. Sometimes all someone needs is a little hope.”

To fund the relief program, Lee initially turned to the Kentucky bourbon manufacturer Maker’s Mark, which already sponsored some of the initiative’s other efforts. Impressed by what they saw at 610 Magnolia, officials at Maker’s Mark asked Lee if he could replicate his efforts nationwide. If he could, they would pull all their marketing budgets for the coming months and donate the funds to the LEE Initiative. Not quite sure how he was going to pull it off, Lee agreed.

For the next two weeks, Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founder and director of the LEE Initiative, barely slept as they remotely coordinated the opening of 14 relief kitchens in restaurants across the country (the number would ultimately grow to 21). The operations sprang up from coast to coast, from Sqirl in Los Angeles and Salare in Seattle to Cochon in New Orleans, Blue Dragon in Boston and Lee’s own Succotash.

It was grueling, emotional work. “We all cried every night,” Lee said. “It was hard to watch.” Nonetheless, as of this writing, the organization has given out 200,000 meals and tens of thousands of pounds of groceries.

And the LEE Initiative didn’t stop pivoting. The organization has another new mission: saving farmers from going out of business. Many farming operations make the vast majority of their profits in the spring and summer months, so the 2020 pandemic couldn’t have hit at a worse time. As many farmers faced the unthinkable choice of donating their food or throwing it out, the LEE Initiative spent more than $1 million to purchase their surplus goods, ensuring that farms could stay financially viable and that millions of pounds of food didn’t go to waste.

For Lee, this work is vital to maintaining the very integrity of America’s food system. “If we lose farms, we lose restaurants, we lose everything,” he said.

A line of cars waiting to receive to-go meals

Thanks to The LEE Initiative, hundreds of to-go meals are picked up by laid- off restaurant workers each night from shuttered restaurants that were turned into relief centers.

The Power of 10

Sometimes the simplest epiphanies lead to the boldest undertakings.

When the pandemic’s lockdown orders forced restaurants to close, many turned into stripped-down takeout endeavors, pulling in a mere fraction of their regular earnings. Renowned chef-restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang, owner of four successful D.C. restaurants — Maketto, Spoken English, Brothers & Sisters and ABC Pony — wanted to figure out how to help restaurants survive the unprecedented upheaval and do some additional good in the process. After some thought, he devised a business model called the Power of 10. The idea was straightforward: $10,000 a week allows a single restaurant to employ 10 workers to cook 1,000 meals for those in need.

Near the end of March 2020, Bruner-Yang piloted the concept. In a stroke of luck, a member of Capital One’s public relations team came into ABC Pony to get a cup of coffee for takeout, saw the team assembling meals and asked how the bank could help.

Every neighborhood restaurant knows its community better than anybody else

Erik Bruner-Yang, renowned chef-restaurateur

With Capital One’s assistance, as well as funding from individuals, grants and other corporate partnerships, the Power of 10 quickly scaled up to a national effort. At the height of the pandemic, almost 50 restaurants nationwide — including JJ Johnson’s Fieldtrip in New York City, Peja Krstic’s Mot Hai Ba in Dallas and Brittanny Anderson’s Brenner Pass in Richmond, Va., — were each producing 1,000 meals every week for those in need.

Each restaurant was in charge of its own staffing and determining where meals were distributed. “One of our taglines is ‘Every neighborhood restaurant knows its community better than anybody else,’” said Bruner-Yang, whose meals fed people at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the LGBTQ youth shelter Casa Ruby, the National Children’s Center and several eldercare homes in D.C.’s Chinatown.

The transition from being a lauded young restaurateur still in expansion mode to heading up a nonprofit helping keep his businesses and others afloat wasn’t easy, but there were unexpected benefits. “It’s allowed me to reconnect with customers and staff,” Bruner-Yang said. “Even though this has been super painful and tough, that’s the part I’ve enjoyed.”

As his restaurants reopen and he returns his focus to running his businesses, Bruner-Yang intends to keep the Power of 10 going. “The people who need this food needed support before this pandemic,” he said. “And they’re going to need it afterward.”

FarmLink

The pandemic cut the 2020 spring semester short for millions of American college students. Suddenly, many found themselves back at home with plenty of time on their hands. Rather than simply pursue entertaining diversions, a group of students from Brown University and a friend from Stanford, all of whom live in Los Angeles, decided to find a more purposeful pursuit.

They spent a month discussing potential philanthropic ventures, but nothing clicked. Then they recognized a glaring contradiction of the crisis. On one side, farmers were being forced to dump millions of pounds of produce and dairy because demand from the foodservice industry had dried up overnight; on the other side, people were waiting for hours in record-breaking lines at food banks stretched to capacity.

There was more than enough food in the supply chain, the students realized, but the traditional distribution system was in tatters. What if they could match farmers with surplus products with food banks in need? It would be a win-win.

To test their concept, the group began by using personal funds to purchase 10,000 excess eggs from Trafficanda Ranch in Van Nuys, Calif., and donating them to Westside Food Bank in Los Angeles, where several of the students had volunteered in high school. The next day, they paid an Idaho farmer to transport 50,000 pounds of surplus onions to the same food bank. “It felt like an awesome way to give back to the community we’ve been a part of our whole life,” said Max Goldman, one of the founding members of what soon became FarmLink.

Goldman and friends wanted to continue their efforts on a grander scale, but they needed more help. Over the next week and a half, by reaching out via phone and through social media, they organized a team of over 100 student volunteers, mostly friends, and friends of friends. FarmLink partnered with Food Finders, a nonprofit in Los Alamitos, Calif., that connects donated perishable food to hundreds of nonprofit pantries and shelters throughout Southern California. Another key partnership was formed with Uber Freight, which sponsored some of FarmLink’s efforts and offered access to its technology platform to ensure simple, efficient shipping for the food procured.

As of this writing, FarmLink had facilitated the delivery of over 30 million pounds of food.

“Every day is crazier than the day before,” said Goldman. “It feels like ‘Tiger King.’ When we started this, I thought we could maybe do 20 deliveries by the end of the summer.” And now they’ve delivered 30 million pounds.