Japanese American journalists in three states — California, Hawaii, and Washington — participated in a first-ever collaboration to publish stories of human ingenuity, dignity, and survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the fourth in a five-part series of articles produced in partnership with The Rafu Shimpo, North American Post, and Hawaii Herald and made possible by a grant from the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.
By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
OAKLAND — It’s a warm Friday morning in Oakland Chinatown. Hundreds of seniors wait outside the Asian Resource Center on 8th Street, forming a line that wraps around the block. They stand six feet apart, on bright green dots marking the sidewalk. At the center’s entrance, volunteers load stacks of takeout onto a folding table. After the wait, each senior leaves with a freshly made free lunch, cooked by a local restaurant.
One senior in line, Lei, found out about the program while grocery shopping nearby. This was her third time in line since the program started a month ago. Her favorite meals have been the char siu, beef stew, and chicken thighs.
Another participant, Zhao, was also back for a third time. She lives far away and rode the bus in order to get in line at 7 a.m. Distribution begins at 11 a.m., and the food usually runs out by 12:30 p.m.
The month-long free lunch program is a partnership between Good Good Eatz, a local group that advocates for restaurants and small businesses, and World Central Kitchen, the international organization that provides food relief in the wake of disasters. The goal of the program: directly pay restaurants to cook meals for folks who need them.
Beginning in late June and running through July, volunteers distribute around 1,000 lunches per day, four days a week. The food comes from a variety of local spots, and it goes quick. By the end of the month, the program will have pumped $200,000 into nearly 20 different restaurants in Chinatown, feeding approximately 20,000 people.
“It’s a win-win for us because we get to feed the folks in our community. And on top of that, the restaurants are getting paid to feed them,” said Tommy Wong, one of the Good Good Eatz founders. The volunteer organization was formed in March to help Oakland’s small food businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trinh Banh, another Good Good Eatz founder, said that when shelter-in-place began, she grew concerned for the hospitality and restaurant business. “In Chinatown in particular, we were just devastated. There was this urgency to jump in and see what we could do.”
Good Good Eatz has helped small businesses with social media and marketing and hosted several community clean-ups. They also started a fundraising program called Fund-a-Lunch — similar to the Chinatown lunch distribution — which pays local restaurants to feed unhoused communities and frontline workers.
“We kind of cut out the middleman. We connect you directly to pay the restaurant,” said Ban. “It’s been amazing. We’ve been able to feed 1,500 people a week, sometimes more. The food goes back into the community.”
Outside the Asian Resource Center, a volunteer named Winnie was directing seniors in Cantonese and English to pick up their food. “I grew up in Oakland Chinatown with my grandparents,” explained Winnie, who learned about the free lunch program on Good Good Eatz’ Instagram.
Another volunteer, Eugenia Park, has been helping out weekly. Park finds the program’s model effective. “Especially having locals feed locals — instead of having random people come in and try to appease (the participants’) palates. I think it makes so much sense.”
The partnership between Good Good Eatz and World Central Kitchen is just one example of an increasingly popular approach to restaurant survival and hunger during the pandemic. Organizations large and small have been feeding communities using local infrastructure already in place: restaurants.
World Central Kitchen, or WCK, formed in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and has since provided international food relief to communities affected by disasters. COVID-19 is a disaster that is leaving millions of people hungry. But, unlike an earthquake or tsunami, the pandemic did not destroy the whole supply chain.
“This was kind of the innovation of this disaster,” said Sam Chapple-Sokol, editorial director at WCK. “Usually we’re thinking, we go into a disaster zone, kitchens are broken down, we get in there, we cook, we feed people.” But during the pandemic, “restaurants still exist; they’re not destroyed.”
Enter Restaurants for the People, a nationwide program started by WCK in March. Just like the partnership with Good Good Eatz, Restaurants for the People pays restaurants to cook food for those who need it most.
The program, piloted in Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area, is now working with 2,300 restaurants around the country. Since its start, Restaurants for the People has purchased and delivered over 5 million meals to unhoused people, frontline workers, transitional housing communities, cabin communities, and COVID-19 test sites.
Restaurants for the People was born out of conversations between WCK and small restaurant owners, who were uncertain how long the pandemic would persist and what it could mean for their businesses and families.
According to WCK, restaurants are the nation’s second-largest employer, sustaining 15.6 million American jobs with annual sales of $889 billion. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of July 2, 2020, nearly 3.1 million jobs have been lost in the restaurant industry since February.
Chapple-Sokol said it is important to “keep the solution local and endemic and go to the source. The restaurants can feed their neighbors. What we do is facilitate the process.”
To find restaurants for the program, WCK speaks with local community organizations and restaurant owner friends. WCK also partnered with Eat Learn Play, an organization run by Warriors player Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha Curry, to deliver meals around Oakland.
WCK seeks to work with organizations already deeply connected in their own communities. “That’s who a lot of the restaurants we’re working with are. They’re the neighbors, they’re the community,” said Chapple-Sokol. “They know what kind of food their community wants to eat.”
Back in March, Oakland had three participating restaurants. Now, there are a whopping 105. One of those restaurants is Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen, located inside the historic California Hotel in West Oakland.
Owner and chef Leilani Baugh named the restaurant for the nearby street where she grew up. Her dishes often mix the Southern Black and Cantonese culinary roots passed on from each of her grandmothers. She dubs it “Casian” cuisine — a blend of “Cajun” and “Asian.” One of her favorite dishes to make is oxtail fried rice, complete with oxtail gravy and a sunny-side egg on top.
As participants in Restaurants for the People, Baugh and her staff rise at 4 a.m. every Monday and Tuesday to cook 1,000 meals. These meals are then delivered to folks around Oakland. The food can be delivered by WCK staff, a delivery company, or the chefs themselves. Since indoor dining isn’t an option, Chapple-Sokol said, “a lot of our chefs really like doing the deliveries on their own — meeting the folks who get to enjoy the food.”
“When COVID hit, it impacted us greatly,” said chef Baugh. In mid-March, she made final preparations to open her restaurant for the first time. Suddenly, there were no customers in sight.
Baugh had to reduce her payroll from eight full-time and six part-time staff to only two of each. 75 percent of her income usually came from corporate catering at her catering business, Roux & Vine, which opened in 2017.
“We had huge jobs, for 200 to 300 people every day, and when COVID hit, it stopped. There was no trickle-down, there was no slow stop. It just — stopped. Basically, I survived off of accounts payable that needed to happen for the first month, and after that it was like, oh my God, what do we do?”
Baugh applied for a Small Business Association (SBA) loan through the federal government’s pandemic assistance plan. Her application was denied, along with applications to several smaller local grants. Despite the drastic decline in business due to the pandemic, Baugh has been able to stay afloat.
She opened her doors with a modified schedule: Wednesday through Sunday, with a different menu each day. The food is “predominantly Cajun Creole (with) a little Asian twist on some of the dishes.” Baugh posts her menus on Instagram, and customers text in orders for pick up at the restaurant’s curb.
Baugh says that being open to selling a few plates here and there can be enough to keep a restaurant in business. Now is the time to be “flexible and creative” rather than shutting down completely.
She said that nourishing, good quality food should be available to everyone.
The pandemic has disrupted food supply and incomes, decreasing food access for communities across the globe. An annual report published by the United Nations shows that global hunger has been slowly rising since 2014. Prior to the pandemic, almost 690 million people, or 8.9 percent of the global population, were undernourished. The report estimates that an additional 83 to 132 million people may become undernourished in 2020.
Restaurants for the People takes root in the idea that everyone should have access to nourishing food. Just because someone can’t afford a restaurant meal doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to eat one, said Chapple-Sokol. “The way the food industry is set up, it really does cause a separation of the haves and have-nots,” Baugh added. “It’s disturbing because nobody should be hungry. Nobody!”
Funding for Restaurants for the People comes from donations as small as $2 to those in the millions. Last year, the organization’s operating budget was around $30 million. This year, WCK has already put $55 million directly into restaurants. However, the need for funding is constant.
Restaurants for the People has already simmered down in San Francisco and New York, where funding was used up. Soon, WCK may have to pack up from Oakland because the money has run out.
The State of California adopted WCK’s model with the creation of Great Plates Delivered, a program to deliver hot meals to home-bound seniors. WCK has pitched the program model to the federal government, in hopes of continuing to support communities as the pandemic persists.
An increase in restaurant closures “would just gut the culture and the economy and what we know and love about restaurants in our own communities,” Chapple-Sokol said. And the solution not only keeps restaurants open and communities fed but, by funding restaurants, WCK hopes to invest more deeply in communities’ resilience, long-term.
“We kind of see restaurants as a cultural node, as an economic node. “I don’t want to see a monoculture of Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays, and other companies that have the funds to stay open, once we’ve made it more through this thing,” said Chapple-Sokol. Instead, World Central Kitchen hopes that Restaurants for the People will create a new restaurant landscape that’s “vibrant and diverse — maybe even more vibrant and more diverse and more equitable — than what we’ve seen in the past.”
Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider is a contributing writer for The Rafu Shimpo and a managing editor for Kweli Literary Journal. She covers community news as well as emerging issues in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area for The Rafu.
Photos by ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER