Bay Area novelist Ayelet Waldman began with a simple desire: to help the helpers.
On March 19, she set out to deliver some meals to local hospitals from nearby restaurants who were struggling to find business after a state-wide shelter-in-place order was announced in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two weeks later, the project has turned into a full-blown campaign called East Bay Feed ER with 40 volunteers and over $200,000 raised. The group is currently providing two meals a day to five East Bay hospitals.
Waldman said she’s thinking about what television personality Fred Rogers’ mother said to him about looking for the people who are assisting others during times of distress.
“That’s what makes me feel better,” Waldman said. “To be able to help the helpers. That is what sustains me through this.”
Shortly after the shelter-in-place order, Waldman received an email from her friend Tanya Holland, owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. Holland was asking customers to do take-out to support the restaurant. Waldman immediately ordered. At the same time, a friend and ER doctor called Waldman to tell her someone had dropped off a meal for him.
“It was the first time that he’d eaten not out of a [vending] machine in ages,” Waldman said. She realized she could do something — so she called back Brown Sugar Kitchen and asked for 25 meals and then delivered them to Highland Hospital in Oakland.
“The nurse I first spoke to got all teary, and I got all teary and I dropped off the food,” Waldman said about her first delivery. She thought she could afford to do this once a week, so she went on Twitter — tagging her husband, author Michael Chabon — to see which restaurants would want to help.
“I got inundated with hundreds and hundreds of restaurants,” Waldman said. She then started to scale up. On March 25, the team had a delivery every day of the week, with Jenny Schwartz from Hopscotch restaurant in Oakland organizing the restaurants. Jeremy Crandell, who has served on nonprofit boards for arts organizations for the past 15 years, volunteered as the operations lead to coordinate drivers and logistics.
Schwartz said the efforts are two-fold. “It allows us to support our local restaurants which would otherwise be really strapped. And because we pay full price and we give a nice tip, they can pay their servers.”
At the same time, she said, it “provides some nurturing food in return to front line medical staff.”
Though it may seem minor, a weekly order can make a difference for an independent restaurant, according to Schwartz.
“[An] order of 40-50 meals brings in enough revenue to help keep two staff on payroll and can be the difference between keeping the lights on or shuttering entirely,” Schwartz said. “[Our] efforts are just as much for the restaurants as they are for the first responders.”
Waldman did not initially plan in-depth safety protocols for her first delivery, but the team has now established protocols, to both coordinate timing and maximize cleanliness.
“We’ve liaised with the hospitals so we know when it’s best and when they most appreciate the meals,” Waldman said. “The restaurants that have signed on to provide the meals are following best practices on cleanliness.”
Waldman’s organization has partnered with world-renowned chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen (WCK), a D.C.-based nonprofit that helps provide meals during natural disasters. CEO Nate Mook said in a statement that they are “thrilled to work with the dedicated community that launched East Bay Feed ER as a way to respond to this unprecedented crisis by nourishing first responders and sustaining their local restaurants.”
Waldman described her group as “scrappy” and “grassroots.” She said, “We’re going to be doing our own thing, raising our own money, serving our own food, until the end of this pandemic crisis.”
As of Saturday, East Bay Feed ER had already served over 1,600 meals.
Schwartz, from Hopscotch restaurant, said, “The sense of community is unlike anything I have ever experienced and it keeps me going every day.”
This story was first published by KQED on April 5.