When Idealab Managing Directors Alex Maleki and Tom McGovern recently heard that Friends In Deed was going to close its food pantry for up to two weeks, putting the local families who depend on its kitchen staples at risk of hunger, they put their heads together.
As if the coronavirus pandemic and its wake of economic ruin wasn’t already bad enough for those left unemployed — many from the restaurant or services sector — but now a local food pantry providing basic dietary needs had to close after an employee exhibited signs of falling ill with COVID-19.
In a serendipitous moment, the Idealab partners lamented about the fate of their favorite Old Town Pasadena eateries, also standing idle due to the “Safer at Home” order that bans public gatherings. What if they helped out one of their longtime favorites, the Kitchen Italian Café and Pizzeria, by ordering a bunch of pizzas and delivering them to the hungry clientele families at Friends In Deed? Wait, what if everybody who could, did the same?
The answer has become a new donation option, called “Fill the Gap” for Friends In Deed, for those looking to help both the less fortunate and their favorite restaurants in Pasadena survive the pandemic-induced recession. The tech incubator company set up a tax-deductible donation drive to raise $30,000 to feed 50 families for two weeks, or up to 4,000 meals, provided through local restaurants.
“This not only helps families who may instead go hungry, but puts dollars directly back into local restaurants in our community who are so deeply affected by this pandemic,” said Maleki. “We wanted to find a way to help, and so many people are sitting at home thinking the same thing. This helps folks that desperately need it while also helping to underpin local businesses and keep jobs in the area.”
The Idealab team kicked off the effort with $7,500, and then posted a letter and donation tab on Facebook, where in one week, it garnered nearly $13,000, and by press time on Tuesday, had grown to $20,000.
Friends In Deed Executive Director Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater said the idea came at the perfect moment. It’s been a tough road for the little nonprofit, which operates one of the largest food pantries in town out of a small physical space. Levine Grater was already witnessing more meager food deliveries from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the main food provider to communities in need throughout the county, and that, combined with new norms of social distancing which obliged the pantry to close down its normal “shopping” center, has created a difficult working environment. Friends In Deed now has to ask its clients to line up outside, place an order, and then walk around the back of the building to pick it up.
In the last week, Friends In Deed also began to witness newcomers to the food pantry — people they had never seen before.
“There’s a huge surge in first-time people who need a food pantry; we’ve definitely seen a lot of first timers who’ve never come to our doors before,” he said.
Ultimately, Friends In Deed did not have to close operations for the entire two weeks: the employee that fell ill was tested and confirmed negative for COVID-19, a small stroke of luck for the people who depend on the nonprofit. Although it had to close its homeless outreach operations and the Women’s Room, a daytime shelter that provides food, rest and refuge for homeless or at-risk women, it’s a shred of comfort to know its pantry can continue offering food staples to hungry families, Levine Grater said.
After eyeing the unemployment numbers and speaking with other food pantries, he’s expecting a 70% increase in households that need food in the coming week, up to 500 from the previous total, he added.
“For the first time ever, we are preparing to be very challenged in getting food; the L.A. Food Bank is running really low and we are expecting to have to buy food from distributors to supplement our stocks,” Levine Grater said.
He sees a donation program like “Fill the Gap” as a silver lining for locals wanting and able to make a difference, even once the food pantry is back up and running.
“The idea that you can offer 10 to 12 families in need a hot meal that’s delivered to them is a really beautiful thing. During this time of extreme stress and uncertainty, it’s a real treat for them, it’s one more thing they don’t have to worry about or prepare,” he said.
Maleki said the Idealab team hopes the donation drive can pay it forward for many weeks to come, helping also to sustain some of those local restaurants.
“Everybody is severely impacted by this, retail is essentially dead, restaurants are doing the best they can but most people are cooking at home and not doing takeout. It’s just not enough to sustain these businesses,” he said. “It’s going to be a long road ahead of us —we really need to support as many local jobs as we can, and we’re going to have to do it as a community to get through this together.”
To learn more about the “Fill the Gap” donation for Friends In Deed, visit the website: secure.givelively.org/donate/friends-in-deed/food-pantry-gap-program-covid-19.