At the outset of the pandemic in March, residents in Michel Thouati’s Berkeley Hills neighborhood would meet up while out on walks, exchanging information and asking after others in the area.
“We started noticing some people weren’t there,” Thouati told me in a Zoom call. Assuming their fellow neighbors were sick or self-isolating, Thouati and the others wondered how they were feeding themselves, particularly the vulnerable older folks. Realizing food insecurity for certain populations was potentially a widespread problem, they thought about how they could help. Together, the group came up with HelpBerkeley, a service to get affordable food to people isolating at home, particularly seniors.
“We also wanted to find a way to help local restaurants to survive this difficult moment,” Thouati said.
Within just a few weeks, Thouati and what he calls “the collective,” the group that brainstormed the project, had a network of volunteers in place and established partnerships with many small restaurants in Berkeley. For $10 plus tax, residents of Berkeley, Albany or Kensington who are sick, quarantining or over 60 years of age get two meals prepared by local restaurants, delivered free by volunteers.
Nearly nine months later, Thouati estimates HelpBerkeley has delivered as many as 25,000 meals. There have been challenges to the all-volunteer organization, mainly involving technology. Most participating restaurants don’t have digital systems that allow easy communication and coordination with HelpBerkeley, which manages sign-ups for those needing food, as well as organizing dispatch and delivery.
“I’ve always worked at tech startups, living in the mode of having to do something next week that we can’t do this week. So I’m not afraid of the challenge,” Thouati said.
Thouati has lived on and off in the Bay Area since 1984, when he came to UC Berkeley for his Ph.D. in engineering and business. After living in the Midwest for 10 years, he and his family had recently moved back to Berkeley. He was preparing to launch some new companies, when he got sidetracked with HelpBerkeley. Most weeks he spends at least 30 hours on the project. Thouati estimates the grassroots organization has about 400 volunteers, with about 150 active in the program at any given time. The organization’s different operations groups meet on Zoom and work with various software platforms.
Even with all the volunteers, HelpBerkeley wouldn’t operate without participating restaurants. Thouati has approached many of the businesses himself to solicit their involvement.
“We’ve worked with a pool of about 20 local restaurants, with a dozen actively participating at any given time, more if demand is increasing,” Thouati said. “We tried to find the lowest possible price point to make the meals accessible, but still support the restaurants. The additional revenue we help to generate for them is marginal at best, but everything helps, especially with paying overhead, primarily rent.”
Thouati stresses that many restaurant owners are motivated to be involved by more than just their own financial interest.
“Restaurant owners want to help people. One said, ‘If someone can’t afford a meal, send them to me.’ Others give more food than the two-meal portion,” said Thouati. “Another said, ‘We’ll help until we can’t afford it.’”
Volunteers, restaurant owners lend a hand
Jot Mahal Palace of Indian Cuisine on Shattuck Avenue, participated in the program, often providing about six to 10 meals a day.
“We got involved mostly just to help people,” manager Prajbot Kaur, whose parents own the restaurant, told me. Kaur — a Berkeley High grad who is working towards a biology degree with the goal of becoming a pharmacist — would sometimes deliver meals herself. Occasionally a credit card number wouldn’t go through. “We’d just give them the meal.”
Kaur said Jot Mahal’s business is down about 70% due to the pandemic. Her family’s involvement with HelpBerkeley has been helpful for marketing.
“Between the delivery drivers and people introduced to our restaurant through the service, we’ve definitely gotten some new customers,” Kaur said.
Josie Kanu, a senior at the University of British Columbia, was interning at Bayer when she signed up as a volunteer in April. Back home in Canada, Kanu continues to volunteer about four hours a week. Assigned to customer service support, she works by telephone and other applications to help people struggling with computers and those without internet access.
“I remember one of the customers breaking down, telling me she had no family close by and was immunocompromised and couldn’t go out,” Kanu said. “And that the food offering was life-changing for her.”
Thouati tells similar stories. “One customer was so grateful, she told the restaurant owner she hadn’t had a hot meal since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
Aaron Foxworthy is a San Francisco city attorney and Berkeley resident. He’s been volunteering about six to eight hours per week for the past eight months after responding to a request for assistance in District 4 Councilmember Kate Harrison’s newsletter. Foxworthy coordinates driver operations and delivery workflow with restaurants, creates route maps for each driver and provides support and counsel on legal issues.
“With so much outside of our control, living through the pandemic can make us feel powerless. The difference HelpBerkeley makes for its customers and restaurants shows that there are things we can do, even at the individual level, to stop the spread [of COVID-19], and support our community in rough times, and that is empowering,” Foxworthy said.
In just under nine months, HelpBerkeley has grown rapidly, particularly now with the holidays and cases of COVID-19 surging.
“Thanksgiving was huge,” according to Thouati. “We delivered over 800 meals to hundreds of addresses. The effort involved over 40 drivers, eight helpline volunteers, three pickup managers, seven workflow dispatchers, six ops managers, five driver coordinators, and many other volunteers.” Thanksgiving was the first time since launching that some of the volunteers were able to meet in person.
Thouati’s two sons are both involved with the project. His older son, Cameron graduated from Stanford in June with a degree in computer science, and the younger, Kaelen, is a sophomore at Berkeley High.
“Since we launched, Kaelen spends all his free time co-managing customer support,” Thouati said of his son, who’s also recruited a lot of Berkeley High students to help.
“Some of our best volunteers are from Berkeley High,” Thouati said. “I was unsure about involving teenagers and only accepted them because my son was so insistent. But they’ve been outstanding.”
Customers, restaurant owners and volunteers all seem to share the same high opinion of Thouati.
“Michel is tireless in his service to HelpBerkeley,” Foxworthy said. “He comes from a place of grassroots and love of community. His positive energy is infectious, and it is a testament to him and the early team of how successful HelpBerkeley has become with both customers and volunteers.”
Donations provide free meals for the holidays
Despite the efforts to provide meals as inexpensively as possible, there are still people who can’t afford them. To serve anyone who needs meals, Thouati established HelpBerkeley as a nonprofit so they can accept donations.
“We ask people who can afford it to buy a meal for themselves and another to donate to someone else,” Thouati explained. For Thanksgiving, HelpBerkeley served all meals free of charge due to this set-up.
From the outset, Thouati wanted to develop a model, including software, that could be shared with other organizations facing similar challenges. He’s currently working with a group looking to establish HelpOakland.
As COVID-19 surges, so do HelpBerkeley’s efforts. The group is planning to deliver hundreds of holiday meals in Berkeley, Albany and Kensington on Dec. 23. The deadline for ordering for the special holiday meal is Dec. 17.
“We want to make these meals available to all qualifying individuals, regardless of means, particularly those with lower incomes. So we are offering them for free, asking that anyone who can afford it make a donation.”
The holiday meals will be prepared by Arnon Oren of Anaviv Catering & Events rather than participating restaurants. Congregations of several religious groups are sending volunteers to assist with what Thouati describes as a “really nice interfaith effort.” Standard $10 meal service from restaurants will continue as usual.
Thouati’s goal has always been maximizing the number of people served. “Based on calculations, we’re only reaching 20% of our potential audience. We have capability to deliver far more meals. I know the need is there. Besides food, HelpBerkeley is about friends and neighbors who care for their community. Even though we’re physically isolated, we can be together.”
To sign up for HelpBerkeley’s meal program, to become a partner restaurant, to volunteer or to make a donation, visit HelpBerkeley’s website. The deadline to sign-up for a free holiday meal is Dec. 17.