The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of Americans unemployed and with growling stomachs. They don’t just need a little relief here and there. They need a way to eat nutritious meals every day.
You know who else is starving these days, thanks to coronavirus closures? Restaurants. My fellow restaurateurs around the country are on the ropes. Many have already been knocked out. The number of diners in restaurants dropped nearly 65 percent over the past 12 months. On average, restaurants laid off 91 percent of their hourly workforce and nearly 70 percent of salaried employees. Overall, 2 out of 3 restaurant employees lost their jobs.
That’s a helluva lot of pain for any industry to bear in one year. Restaurant owners such as me and the remaining survivors are looking at each other in shock.
But we’re also angry enough, skilled enough and motivated enough to volunteer for the war on hunger President Biden announced last month. He wants more federal money flowing to hunger-assistance programs.
The president’s attention to the hunger crisis is welcome and well-intended, but — and I say this with all due respect — what he’s proposing will take too long and will address only part of the problem. Yes, Americans need to eat. But those who lost their jobs also need to get back to work. And restaurants that haven’t failed completely and could still reopen need an opportunity to again serve their community.
You could solve all three of those urgent problems by funneling federal food aid directly to restaurants. In other words, pay restaurants to provide free meals to people in need.
I’m already doing it. I set up the nonprofit We Care Inc. and launched an initiative through it called Feed the Fridge. We raise money from donors, then pay restaurants $6 per meal to stock quality lunches and dinners in refrigerators we installed in and around D.C. People get fed. And restaurants get revenue that helps them stay in business and pay their employees. It’s a win-win-win solution to the scourge of food insecurity.
Eighteen D.C.-area restaurants are participating in Feed the Fridge: Medium Rare, Olazzo, Alatri Bros, Chaia Tacos, Cava Mezze, HoneyFlower Foods, Duke’s Grocery, Pie Shop DC, Maggiano’s, Call Your Mother Deli, Heavenly Edibles, RASA, Moon Rabbit, Rasika, Bindaas, Sababa, Modena and San Lorenzo. Since March, separately and together, we’ve distributed 20,000 free meals to residents, many of whom are school-age kids and elderly people.
I encourage the Biden administration to think of Feed the Fridge as proof of concept, a prototype the government can copy — but using federal funds rather than my GoFundMe page. Look, government has its place. It’s great at writing checks. But it’s not always the best tool in America’s toolbox to quickly solve problems when the solution calls for ramping up production and distribution systems.
To solve this pandemic-fueled hunger crisis, the government should tap the specific industry that already has a proven track record of scaling up to feed people as expeditiously and efficiently as possible: restaurants. Just like how Starbucks, Walmart and Amazon are teaming up with local governments to get vaccines to as many people as possible, the government should be turning to restaurants to deliver healthy meals to those who need them.
The government could also issue payment cards in the same way it has provided stimulus funds. Restaurants have the food and the staff to prepare meals and the means to enable distribution through tech platforms such as Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash. The pandemic forced us to get really good at packaging and delivering great meals. It’s how many of us stayed in business.
As restaurants go, so goes the U.S. economy. The restaurant industry is the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer. Its sales exceed agriculture, airlines, railroads, ground transportation and spectator sports combined, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Restaurants are also economic engines driving their local economy. They’re a vital part of the fabric of American communities. That fabric has been shredded by the shutdowns imposed to protect lives. It’s time to mend that fabric and get people working.
Mr. President, I know you can hear those growling stomachs. I know you are eager to move this nation forward. Now, I encourage you to bring hungry Americans into the welcoming doors of America’s restaurants.