Restaurants Find Hope in Delivering Donated Meals to Hospitals

Last week, a large order from a Twitter follower in Maryland gave the Harlem restaurant FieldTrip a crucial shot of revenue and, perhaps, a glimpse of a way to stay in business during the coronavirus pandemic.

FieldTrip’s chef and owner, JJ Johnson, had taken to Twitter on Wednesday to say he had just packed and sent 40 rice bowls, his restaurant’s specialty, to the staff at Harlem Hospital Center. One of New York City’s official coronavirus testing sites, the hospital has been flooded, like so many others in the area, by new and suspected cases.

In his tweet, Mr. Johnson had promised, “Each day will pick a hospital close by @fieldtripharlem to help out.” A few minutes later, the fan in Maryland bought 170 more bowls; Mr. Johnson sent half to Harlem the next day and half to Mount Sinai Hospital on Friday. The order kept FieldTrip busy enough that Mr. Johnson called two of his employees back to join the three others he had brought in earlier in the week as takeout and delivery business began to pick up.

Before New York restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms on March 15, FieldTrip had employed 10 people. “We’re at five now,” Mr. Johnson said, “which is 50 percent of the way there.”

Five employees. Eighty-five bowls of rice a day. These are small numbers in a country where, as of Monday, hundreds if not thousands of hospitals were treating nearly 142,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to a count by The New York Times.

What has happened at Fieldtrip, though, is playing out at restaurants and hospitals around the country. Delivery orders for health care workers have begun coming in, ranging in ambition from bags of sandwiches paid for by small pledges on GoFundMe pages to multicourse meals subsidized by the philanthropic arms of major companies.

Chefs say they are grateful for these new delivery routes. So are hospital administrators, who say their employees have been too busy to run out for coffee or even to place delivery orders.

Neither group foresaw this surge in food donations two weeks ago, when it was still possible to believe that closing restaurant dining rooms might be enough to keep new coronavirus patients from overwhelming hospitals.

That was before doctors began learning how to keep two patients alive on a single ventilator, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised health care workers who had run out of N95 masks that they might tie bandannas and scarves around their heads “as a last resort,” before nurses were cutting arm holes in plastic trash bags and wearing them instead of standard protective gear.


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Hearing about all of this inside the homes where they have been ordered to stay, people have come together to send food to health care workers.

There are small, neighborhood campaigns, like the members of a Windsor Terrace block association whom Martha Partridge has encouraged to sign up to bring meals to Brooklyn Methodist Hospital at the start of the late shift, when many restaurants favored by Methodist employees are now closed because of the pandemic.

A week-old group called Queens Feeds Hospitals is making $1,000 purchases from restaurants and sending the food to hospitals around the borough. On Monday, boxed lunches from Ornella Trattoria, in Astoria, fed workers at Mount Sinai Queens. Pies from an Astoria pizzeria called Sac’s Place were planned for lunch on Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital Center, a hot zone of coronavirus patients.

Other projects span whole cities. An artist in New Orleans named Devin De Wulf is sending local hospitals an estimated $10,000 worth of food each day from more than 30 local restaurants, part of a campaign that he calls #feedthefrontline.

At least one initiative is global. In New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Oakland and Ventura County, Calif., the chef José Andrés has converted dormant restaurants, including several of his own, into commissaries for World Central Kitchen, his nonprofit disaster-relief group. As of this weekend, the commissaries had sent meals to workers at 10 medical centers, with more on the way, Mr. Andrés said.

A particularly well-funded version of the same idea has been running in Atlanta since Friday. The Atlanta Hawks basketball team and State Farm are paying two Westside restaurants, Miller Union and Forza Storico, to cook and pack complete dinners that can feed two people. The packages, 200 from each restaurant five days a week, are then parceled out to workers at the six hospitals in the Emory Healthcare network that are treating coronavirus patients.

The idea, according to Dr. Bryce Gartland, the president of Emory Healthcare’s hospital group and its co-chief of clinical operations, is that employees can bring the food home with them at the end of their shifts, when supermarkets may be closed.

Under normal conditions, Forza Storico is a Roman-style beer bar. Its menus for Emory workers retain an Italian cast. “Today we had pickled baby onions with mixed field greens and artichokes as a first course,” Michael Patrick, the chef and owner, said Friday. “Second course was an antipasto platter with housemade charcuterie. The third course today is a lasagna, classic lasagna, housemade, with veal-beef-pork Bolognese.”

Any worker who hadn’t shown up for work expecting to be sent home with lasagna for two “can stick that thing in the freezer,” Mr. Patrick said. “We’re not doing any hoity-toity food. We’re getting down to brass tacks here, stuff that people know that’s familiar and comforting.”

Nonetheless, these brass-tacks dinners and those made by the chef Steven Satterfield’s crew at Miller Union start with ingredients raised by some of the region’s most highly regarded farmers. The purchases will restore some fraction of the income the restaurants lost when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms closed Atlanta’s dining rooms on March 19.

When Miller Union drew up its proposal, Mr. Satterfield said he stipulated that “we were going to put all our money into several farmers that were hurting just as much as we were.”

Few of the ingredients that Ben Goldberg, the founder of the New York Food Truck Association, has been rounding up since last week are seasonal or local. Instead he is soliciting donations from nutrition-minded food companies for individually packaged snacks such as Core organic oat bars and bags of Pipcorn popcorn.

Twice a day starting Wednesday, if all goes according to plan, these and other snacks, along with gallons of hot and cold La Colombe coffee, will be given away to employees of NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan from a food truck parked across the street. Social distancing will be maintained by brightly colored tape on the pavement.

“Food trucks are taking very large hits,” Mr. Goldberg said.

Normally, the trucks in his association park on densely packed Manhattan blocks, selling Lebanese cuisine (a truck called Toum), Ethiopian and Eritrean food (Makina Cafe), certified Glatt kosher burgers (JJ’s Holy Cow) and other things to office workers. Since those blocks emptied out, most food trucks have stayed in the garage. The rental and labor fees the association is paying them to go to NYU Langone, financed in part by donations to Frontline Food Trucks, will be the first money some of the trucks’ owners have earned in at least two weeks.

Although they won’t be serving their usual menus, the trucks will be helping health care administrators solve a logistical problem.

“A lot of these hospitals get a ton of requests, but they’re not set up to be donation locations,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We can take some of those donations and put them on the truck.”

The association worked out the details with Stacey Chait, a senior director at NYU Langone, who said she has been getting about 100 emails a day with offers of food. “It’s really, really wonderful to be going through this crisis but have such an outpouring of support and understanding,” she said.

Because it is cheap, familiar, portable and everywhere, pizza is probably the food most commonly sent during a crisis. It is not, however, ideally suited to this crisis, in which people have been urged to stay at least six feet away from one another.

“Putting a bunch of pizza in a common break room and asking a bunch of people to come in there is not supportive of what we’re asking of them as far as social distancing,” said Dr. Gartland, the Emory Healthcare executive.

The logistics of pizza distancing have become a familiar topic to Scott Wiener, a pizza historian and the founder of a company with the self-explanatory name Scott’s Pizza Tours. Since about a week ago, Mr. Wiener has helped arrange the delivery of more than 2,600 pizzas to 73 clinics, hospitals, shelters and other care centers affected by the outbreak.

Donations, which by Sunday night had reached nearly $150,000, arrive through the website of his antihunger nonprofit group, Slice Out Hunger. A dozen or so volunteers there arrange for somebody at each care center to accept delivery of three to 50 plain cheese pies. Employees of Slice, an unrelated pizza-delivery app, then place the order with a local pizzeria, which must agree to follow specific anticoronavirus safety precautions.

One of the project’s aims is to support local businesses, and so independent pizzerias are preferred. “But today I ordered from a Pizza Hut because it was the only option,” Mr. Wiener said Sunday.

He conceded that it is challenging to deliver hot food to facilities that are all but sealed off to the world.

“But it’s pretty sad that it’s easier for a hospital to get 50 pizzas than it is for them to get masks,” he said. “Sometimes the people we speak with on the phone open their hearts about what they’re dealing with. They’re so appreciative that people care enough to send them pizza.”

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