Four-month-old program delivers more than meals, makes the most of every dollar.
The four-month-old Restaurant and Hunger Relief program has been a textbook example of what we can do when we LIVE UNITED.
Through Feb. 21, 42 Anchorage restaurants had provided 69,000 meals to children, families, and seniors to 32 sites served by 23 nonprofit service providers. Restaurants semi-shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic have earned an income stream to keep their businesses afloat. About 320 restaurant employees from cooks to servers to dishwashers have regained or retained jobs or clocked more hours to keep their families afloat. And hundreds of kids, families, and seniors hungry or on the bubble of food insecurity have enjoyed nutritious, restaurant-quality meals that kept hunger at bay and hope afloat.
All this was made possible through a partnership of the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska Hospitality Retailers, Alaska Community Foundation, United Way, dozens of restaurants and nonprofits last fall. How did we do it?
We began by asking ourselves where the greatest need was, how can we best invest each dollar, and could we leverage these investments to solve more than one issue?
As we looked across Anchorage we saw and heard from our food banks that they had food and were making deliveries but were unable to meet the full demand of our community. Many restaurants’ doors were shut across the city and those that were open were operating a reduced capacity and not able to provide hours to their staff. Nonprofits across the city continued to be challenged every day with the impacts of COVID and still trying to provide services – including food — to children, families, and individuals out of work and opportunities.
We took a look around the country to learn what others were doing. We heard how Southeast fish processors were working with United Way of Southeast to put a program together to feed people in Juneau. We got wind of programs in San Francisco and Newark that helped their restaurants and fed their hungry. We began to see the possibilities in Anchorage, and how hunger could be eased while restaurants and their employees and upstream suppliers could begin to restart, maintain and build their business during lockdown restrictions.
We also looked back and took a page from past partnerships. Ten-plus years ago we needed a way to shelter homeless families when existing shelters hit capacity. We didn’t build a new shelter. We saw the potential in the assets we had in our community. We led a partnership of the city, shelters, churches and donors to rekindle the traditional church role of sanctuary, where instead of huddling in a car or worse, families could feel warm and welcome – and take the first steps back to permanent housing. Imagination, collaboration, goodwill, and the power of volunteers worked well enough so that we could say that no child in our city had to sleep out in the cold on any winter’s night.
The same spirit inspired Restaurant and Hunger Relief. Alaska Hospitality Retailers had the network of restaurants, which needed the business, and whose employees needed the work. United Way had the relationships and understood the needs of the city’s nonprofit providers, who needed the help. The Municipality and Alaska Community Foundation had the means. Together, this yielded the triple win that has been running strong since the first week in November. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s a lifesaver, really, for the company,” said Mike Middleton, general manager for Humpy’s Great Alaska Ale House. “I think it’s a fantastic way to satisfy a real need that exists out there.”
“It’s not just a handout either,” said Jason Ellis, owner of Mo’s Deli. “We have to earn it.”
The restaurants have earned it, judging by the response from the people on the receiving end.
“The meals today were absolutely amazing at both Eagle River and Woodland Park (Boys and Girls Clubs),” wrote Lisa Mahan a few weeks ago. “Laugh for the day. Kids at Woodland Park received meals from Sullivan’s today. The meal of course was amazing, but I overheard kid after kid being so excited about the “silver” plastic utensils they brought. They thought they were so fancy. It’s the little things…”
“It’s just been a blessing for us and the staff,” said Angie Rush, development director at Alaska Child & Family, where kids dealing with behavioral issues are in residential programs. “The staff could not believe the quality of the food. Portions are very large … It’s like being in a restaurant. Our kids have said that they love it.”
The pandemic has kept the kids from off-campus visits with family. “Away from loved ones and living with us it’s really neat to see them have something special.”
Anchorage restaurants have shown that special has range and covers all three squares a day. Pride in kitchen craft and well-timed deliveries – with drivers often staying to help with distribution — have served meals hot and high-quality, easing the burden on nonprofit staffs at a time of strained budgets and new demands.
“It’s created some relationships,” said Michele Brown, who has coordinated United Way’s role in the partnership. “The role restaurants play in our community really is about coming together and sharing food and that sense of camaraderie. What we’re paying them is not anywhere near restaurant prices. We have seen incredible willingness on the part of restaurants to go the extra mile.”
That extra mile has increased community connections, shown the multiplier effect of when we pull together through crisis and get to know one another better. That’s not just an agency over there, those are our friends that we’ve helped through hard times. That’s not just a restaurant on the corner, those are our friends who laid down great meals in hard times. See that server? Remember when she delivered those great pasta dishes and made sure they were still steaming when they reached the table?
Rose Ebue, service coordinator for Chugach View Senior Housing, has delivered meals to seniors and seen them delighted at the sight of French toast and bacon because making breakfast can be a struggle. It’s more than a meal. It’s a welcome gift, the gift of being remembered.
“I just don’t want this to end,” she said.
Neither do we. But come the middle of March, we’ll be out of the federal funds that have powered Restaurant and Hunger Relief through three wonderful rounds. That’s why we’re turning to you, our community and partners, for help. Our goal is to keep providing food to the 32 sites across Anchorage and support our amazing restaurant community until they can operate at full capacity again. We’ve had a splendid start with $42,000 raised by First National Bank Alaska’s Spirit of Alaska online concert in December 2020
“Spirit of Alaska” fits Restaurant and Hunger Relief to a T – as does Living United. You can help us pick up the check for another 10,000 meals at LiveUnitedANC.org/WinWinWin.