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On March 19, Taylor Lanzet got a text from a number she didn’t know. “I hear you are delivering food. Can we talk?”

The text was from a friend of her sister, who also happens to be a nurse in the coronavirus unit at New York’s NYU Langone Hospital. Lanzet, director of supply and sustainability for the East Coast fast-casual chain Dig, didn’t hesitate: “Yes! We are here to help. How many bowls can we send you? And any dietary restrictions? THANK YOU FOR DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING.”

Dig sent over 20 meals that night and 30 the next day. And it wasn’t long before the company launched a new text-for-help service, dubbed Dig Feeds. Hospital workers, as well as others in need, at senior centers, shelters, food pantries and more in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, can now text DIGFEEDS to 80519 with requests for fresh meals and have them delivered within 48 hours. Since mid-March, the company has donated more than 75,000 meals.

Relief program helps feed restaurant workers who have spent their careers feeding others

Restaurants and food companies, big and small, are stepping up to feed hospital workers, who may not be able to procure or have time to prepare their own food. The effort is driven by twin instincts: to help those putting their lives at risk and to keep their workers employed and businesses — their own and the ones that supply them — afloat. Initiatives have sprung up from Atlanta to Seattle, and nearly everywhere in between. It’s an ad hoc version of what José Andrés, the Washington, D.C., chef and founder of the disaster-relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen, has called on the federal government to set up: a corps of “food first responders” to serve America’s most vulnerable populations.

Take Farmer’s Fridge, a Chicago start-up with some 400 fresh-food vending machines that sell items such as yogurt parfaits, colorful jarred salads and Thai noodle bowls. Hospitals had always been a focus for the company as part of its mission to put healthy food in places where it isn’t always easy to come by, says CEO Luke Saunders. Now, with offices closed and airports largely deserted, the remaining 115 machines still in operation are almost exclusively in hospitals or makeshift medical centers, such as the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago and the Javits Center in New York. In every location, the food is discounted 25 percent.

Farmer’s Fridge has not laid off any workers, though the company is producing only about half the food in its Chicago commissary that it was before the coronavirus hit. So to keep workers busy, Farmer’s Fridge began stocking mini fridges in hospital break rooms with meals that are free to staff members. Its first client, NewYork-Presbyterian, has installed 32 mini fridges, which obviate the need for doctors and other workers to move between floors to get food and risk contaminating themselves or others. “We just went to Sam’s Club and bought all the fridges,” Saunders said. This week alone, Farmer’s Fridge served 30,000 meals to health-care workers. That number will rise when the company rolls out a similar program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago in the next few weeks and, Saunders hopes, other hospitals as well.

Whether he can, and how quickly, depends on funding. NewYork-Presbyterian and Northwestern are paying Farmer’s Fridge, at a discounted rate, to feed their staff. But the company is fielding calls from smaller or less well-funded hospitals, too. So Farmer’s Fridge is talking to private donors and corporate sponsors to raise money to widen the program to hospitals in need.

Raising money, it turns out, is as big a part of feeding hospital workers as the food prep. That’s where Andrés’s World Central Kitchen is playing an outsize role. As an established nonprofit, it can accept donations, then feed the money back to local organizations and restaurants that are cooking for medical workers.

The partnership is how Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, plans to raise money to expand its Impact Outpost program, which is providing salad deliveries to 75 hospitals, up from five before the virus arrived in the United States. It’s also the conduit for Help Feed the Frontline LA, a group that so far has raised more than $500,000 to pay restaurants to feed medical workers. World Central Kitchen is teaming up with groups in Washington, D.C., Boston and four locations in California.

Brooke Williamson, a chef who won season 14 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” joined Help Feed the Frontline LA. Before the crisis, she operated four restaurants and employed nearly 150 people. Now she has fewer than 10 on the payroll, and only Playa Provisions, a beachside restaurant/retail and ice cream shop, is still open.

What to know about the risks of restaurant takeout and delivery — and how to minimize them

Like many other restaurateurs, Williamson is offering takeout and delivery to keep some money coming in and to keep paying a few employees. And though she is not requiring anyone to work, “adding a bit of greater good to the scenario — and feeding people who really need it — makes it that little more palatable for employees who do come,” she said. Williamson is preparing 350 lunches a day for hospital employees this week. On the April 1 menu were chicken and kale salads. All told, the 10 restaurants supporting Help Feed the Frontline LA are serving 2,000 meals a day at nine local hospitals.

Though the scale of support is unprecedented, many chefs and food companies’ commitment to give back has always been there. Dig, for example, has long donated food to soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the cities where it operates — on average more than 14,000 pounds each month. But in the midst of a global pandemic, Dig’s Lanzet said, her companies and others were keen to home in on what they could do to help most. Dig could just continue to donate produce as it has always done, “but we know how to cook and prepare food and get it to people,” Lanzet said. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

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Grocery shopping during the coronavirus: Wash your hands, keep your distance and limit trips

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