Despite COVID-19 closures, restaurants and other nontraditional sources are feeding people in need

Punjab Grill Executive Chef Jassi Bindra hands a packaged meal to a man in Franklin Park on March 23. Photo courtesy of Jassi Bindra

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Restaurants across the country have shifted to takeout or delivery only, limited their operating hours, and cut workers’ pay — among other things —  to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But at the same time, many are stepping up for people who need their services the most.

In Washington, D.C., more than 20 restaurants and organizations — as well as D.C. Public Schools — are providing free meals to children, medical workers, elderly people, and the homeless community.

As of March 31, there were 3,404 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease across D.C. and the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, according to Johns Hopkins University. The District government has reported 495 positive cases and nine deaths caused by the virus. In the wake of the pandemic, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all restaurants and bars to close to customers starting the evening of March 16. Takeout and delivery are still permitted.

That has led a number of restaurants to offer meals and other hard-to-find resources to those in need, from Sticky Rice on H Street NE providing a roll of toilet paper with every sushi order to Medium Rare on Connecticut Avenue NW delivering free meals to people over 70. 

Kids normally ate free on Tuesdays at Sticky Rice, but assistant general manager Chris Bulbulia said they decided to make the promotion seven days a week amid the coronavirus outbreak. As of March 30, Bulbulia said the restaurant had given out roughly 60 free kids meals and 260 rolls of toilet paper.

At Punjab Grill, in Penn Quarter, kitchen staff have been taking fresh meals to Franklin Park every day during lunch time to serve up to 30 people who are experiencing homelessness. Since its opening a year ago, the restaurant has served meals in Franklin Park on a weekly basis, but shifted to daily service after Bowser’s March 16 order, Executive Chef Jassi Bindra said.

The meals are emblematic of the Sikh tradition of langars, which are community kitchens found in gurdwaras, or Sikh places of worship, Bindra said.  There, people of all ethnicities, faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds are welcome, he added.

“When we are not operating at full capacity of the kitchen, and when we have our resources, why not give back to the society with the resources we have,” Bindra said. “And if people are getting [fed], it’s a blessing for everyone.”

In light of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the District, Punjab Grill staff have been wearing masks and using hand sanitizer when they visit Franklin Park each day, in addition to asking people to stand at a distance from each other to prevent the spread of the infectious disease. On a few occasions when it was raining and the staff didn’t find anyone in the park, they checked nearby bus stops and the McPherson Square Metro station to distribute food to people taking shelter there.

The restaurant’s efforts to cook and distribute daily meals have thus far been funded by the owner, Karan Singh. However, in recent weeks, Punjab Grill has started a program under which 15% of all digital gift card sales will be donated to fund meals for the homeless community.

DCPS has also remained committed to providing meals to students amid the COVID-19 pandemic, using an “all-hands-on-deck effort” over the past few weeks to develop a meal locations program, said DCPS Chief Operating Officer Patrick Davis. The National School Lunch Program normally provides low-cost or no-cost meals each school day to the nearly 75% of DCPS students who qualify for it.

“There’s a lot of good work out there to show the value of getting good nutritious meals and the benefit that has on students,” Davis said. “So it’s something we take very seriously on an everyday basis. So obviously, when closures happen, we want to make sure we’re able to provide that service as well.”

The District started with 16 meal locations on March 16, but that has since expanded to 29 as of March 25. To determine those locations, DCPS looked at free and reduced meal rates at each school as well as data that shows food insecurity at the neighborhood level from the Capital Area Food Bank. At each of the 29 schools, students are able to get breakfast and lunch on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The locations are staffed by contracted employees from DCPS vendors D.C. Central Kitchen and SodexoMagic. Davis said people have reached out to volunteer but DCPS currently has enough staffers to ”operate this efficiently and get students in and out in a very clean and safe way.”

In the program’s first week, meals were served to more than 17,000 students, Davis said. He added that each of the 29 locations is equipped to scale up to 1,000 meals per day, but that limit has yet to be reached.

The meal locations are open to all students across the District; Davis said staffers aren’t asking to see student ID cards from anyone. Quickly developing such a wide-ranging program, with locations in all eight wards, was no simple task.

“One of the biggest [challenges] is creating a menu that makes sense for our kids,” Davis said. “In order to meet pretty strict and important nutritional requirements, it does take us a lot of planning to make sure we have the ability to meet [those] in a grab-and-go type model.”

While the program continues to run — currently until at least April 24, the last weekday before DCPS students are scheduled to return to classrooms — another challenge is ensuring that social distancing practices are being followed. 

Davis said that students are encouraged to grab a meal and leave as quickly as possible to avoid large gatherings. DCPS is also utilizing security workers to help ensure compliance.

“[The response] has been overwhelming,” he said. “Overall, it’s been very, very positive. We’re getting to more people each day, which is really important to us that our families know this is out there … in these sort of unprecedented times as a nation and a city.”

Calls to the Capital Area Food Bank’s “hunger lifeline” (202-644-9807) for information about where to get food tripled as the pandemic quickly shut down the region. Despite losing about two-thirds of its more than 450 distribution partners due to closures to prevent the spread of the virus, the food bank was still able to distribute the same amount of food into the community this March as it did last year.

President and CEO Radha Muthiah said about 20 of their partners are serving as “hubs” and have agreed to take more food than normal to distribute. To encourage social distancing, volunteering has been scaled back and clients are no longer able to select their food, which is being boxed before it goes out into the community.

As other nontraditional sources of aid are helping meet the increased need caused by the near economic standstill, Muthiah said the food bank is doing what it can to ensure the food supply chain isn’t interrupted.

“At this point, we are acting in alignment with the different government authorities, we’ve been given the essential critical organization status,” she said. “We are expected to be here and to serve the community through thick and thin.”

Street Sense Media has compiled a resource guide of restaurants and organizations that are providing free meals to the homeless community and others.

Collected by Avi Bajpai and Ben Cooper

Issues |Community|COVID-19|Hunger

Region |Washington DC

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