For many of us working in restaurants, it’s about community — the whole community. We are woven into a city’s social fabric as places for people to celebrate, negotiate, argue or fall in love. That is what hospitality does best — bring people together.
Even though the coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to keep our physical distance to stay healthy, people still need to eat, nourishing body and soul.
And chefs still need to cook. But the coronavirus prevents us from doing that when many people are not getting enough to eat. The disruption from the pandemic has sent shock waves through the economy, from farmers to our wait staff to people who go hungry every day.
Our solution is the “Family Meals for four.” By using independent restaurants as micro-commissaries, we can create meals for the hungry, get cooks back in the kitchen, and support local farmers and purveyors we rely on.
The 50 people we laid off in March are just a small fraction of the more than 9 million restaurant jobs lost in the last two weeks. Small farmers in California who supply restaurants are especially vulnerable. Our leading produce company has seen sales drop 65%.
One of our meat purveyors put it this way: “We are on the brink of disaster. Is there any money for food? We’re just trying to keep our employees paid at a minimum.”
For chefs, dinner is never just something served on a plate. Done well, it is an expression of love and thanks by everyone in our world from the farmer to those at the dinner table.
In one of our Sacramento restaurants, Mulvaney’s B&L, three or four people now make 100 “Family Meals” a day — working with appropriate social distancing in our kitchen. Each dinner kit feeds four people. Last week the B&L provided 2,000 meals to people in real need.
Our hope is to double our output quickly and expand the program to as many restaurants as possible. However, the effort depends on a patchwork of donations from farmers, distributors and customers, plus cooks and servers donating time.
The three major benefits of the “Family Meal” program need re-emphasis. First and foremost, we address the immediate need of hunger, with kits safely distributed through nonprofits. Second, our restaurant staff gets back to doing what they do best, with an increased sense of mission. No feeling is better than feeding someone as an expression of comfort and care. Third, local farmers and ranchers get a market for food they have not been selling.
This model can be replicated quickly and easily to feed vulnerable populations across the state — families on the edge, the elderly, the homeless. In Sacramento five restaurants, including ours, we will prepare and deliver more than 20,000 meals this week. Another 20 restaurants in Sacramento are poised to help, given support. This initiative could rapidly ramp up to 100,000 meals per week in just the state Capital.
This can readily expand throughout the state. Speaking only of children in just one city, the Sacramento Unified School District classifies 40,000 children as eligible for free and reduced lunches. Add the elderly, immigrants, struggling families without jobs — the number rises sharply, and exponentially if we look statewide.
Financially, though, this is too big a fish for philanthropy to fry. It will take fiscal support from the government. The CARES package passed by Congress will allow restaurant staff to go to work feeding the vulnerable. But we need money to pay the farmers and ranchers, which would in turn sustain farm workers, distributors and purveyors. They in turn would have cash to support their own families.
There are many sectors that need, and deserve, government financial help in the weeks and months to come. But in the words of the internationally known chef Jose Andres, “Only those of us who work in restaurants can help revive the economy while feeding and building our communities at the same time.”
We ask the state of California to help reopen restaurants in this way. We can feed the most vulnerable with millions of meals each week. All of us can share in the Family Meal.
Patrick Mulvaney is owner and chef at Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento. Brad Cecchi is the chef at Canon in Sacramento. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.