A month ago, the coronavirus shutdown halted dine-in service at restaurants. Many pressed on with takeout. For the Vandal, a gourmet spot in Lawrenceville, that strategy didn’t work out, says co-owner Joey Hilty. After a few days, the Vandal laid off all seven employees and shuttered entirely.
A couple weeks later came a call from Off Their Plate. The volunteer initiative was launched in Boston, in March, to boost restaurants hit by the pandemic by paying them to prepare meals for stressed health-care workers.
The arrangement let Hilty hire back two staffers part-time to start cooking a few hundred meals a week – beef and broccoli, polenta with Italian sausage, and more – for doctors, nurses, and others impacted by the need to treat COVID-19 patients.
“It’s been a fantastic opportunity. Obviously the work we’re doing is very meaningful, and rewarding,” said Hilty. “It’s certainly keeping us busier than we imagined we’d be at this point in time.”
Off Their Plate was created by Natalie Guo, a medical student at Harvard. An early collaborator was Brittany Urick, a friend of Guo’s from grad school. Urick, a Boston-based management consultant, grew up in Moon Township – a big reason Pittsburgh became the fifth Off Their Plate City. (The other three were New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.) The Vandal and Square Café, in Regent Square, were the group’s first two restaurant partners here. The first meals were delivered April 2: Forty breakfasts from Square to Allegheny General Hospital. UPMC Mercy and St. Clair Hospital were other early recipients.
As of last week, said Urick, Off Their Plate had delivered nearly 1,000 meals to staff at multiple hospitals, health care centers, and off-site COVID-19 testing centers. According to its website, as of this past Tuesday, Off Their Plate had about $2.2 million nationally to fund meal preparation and delivery.
The fundraising has ranged from social-media appeals to gifts from foundations and corporations. “Just the amount of support and generosity we’ve seen from all these different channels has been really overwhelming,” Urick said by phone from Boston, where she continues to work her day job remotely while helping Off Their Plate organize and expand. (She said four more cities would join the network this week.)
Hospitals appreciate the help, too.
“It’s been a really nice thing for the staff to be able to have a healthy prepared meal for them, individually packaged, so oftentimes they can get it and be on the go, or they can get it and go sit and have a couple minutes to decompress and kind of regroup before they’re heading back in to their work,” said Allie Quick, chief philanthropy officer for Allegheny Health Network.
Off Their Plate is far from the only effort to feed health-care workers locally. Patients and individual donors are also sending food, Quick says – so much of it that Allegheny Health has a team of several people working full-time to make sure the donations are spread among its nine hospitals and other facilities. “This has been at a mass scale where we literally have food going to the hospitals pretty much on a daily basis,” she said. (For now, she added, the hospitals accept only food from restaurants, nothing homemade.)
Indeed, at least one other formal initiative has teamed with selected restaurants to deliver individual meals regularly. The Pittsburgh chapter of Frontline Foods delivered its first meals this past Sunday. The Warren, downtown, sent 100 meals to Allegheny General’s medical intensive-care unit, and East Liberty-based Spoon/BRGR shipped 65 to West Penn Hospital’s emergency department, said organizer Anne Kelly.
Frontline Foods, which operates in more than 30 cities, was organized out of San Francisco under the umbrella of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen. In Pittsburgh, it has six volunteers led by Kelly.
“What’s really top of mind for us … is really trying to help these local restaurants who are working in our community, who are absolutely the fabric and culture of our community,” said Kelly, a freelance events-producer who said she was idled when her most recent gig – the Tokyo Olympics – was postponed.
Kelly said it costs, on average, $7 to prepare and deliver a meal via Frontline Foods, though sometimes restaurants can do it cheaper because they have received donations of unprepared foods. (Like Off Their Plate, Frontline pledges that 100 percent of donations go directly toward meals.) The group’s goal in Pittsburgh is to raise $5,000 a week for as long as needed.
Both Off Their Plates and Frontline Foods work with their restaurants to make sure they adhere to strict hygienic guidelines, to avoid possibly contamination by the virus. Once at the health-care facilities, the food might go to either staff working directly with COVID-19 patients, to front-desk workers, cleaning crew – or really, anyone in the hospital, because the pandemic has stressed the whole system.
And the systems are big: Allegheny Health Network has 7,000 employees, with 1,600 of those at Allegheny General alone, said Quick. To feed every staffer on every shift on any given day – as some donors have pledged to do – would cost $35,000, she said.
She added that some donors have paid for staff meals at their hospitals’ cafeterias.
Initiatives like Off Their Plate and Frontline Foods are by no means intended as a substitute for relief packages for the battered restaurant industry: In Southwestern Pennsylvania alone, the pandemic shutdown has meant tens of thousands of layoffs. But Urick added that the delivered meals can also represent more than community gratitude for health care workers: At some hospitals around the country, she said, in-house food services have been curtailed, and workers have fewer off-site options, too, making delivered meals even more valuable.