The past 15 months have been a scary time for many people. Trying to stay mentally and physically healthy and pay the bills when businesses are shut down or suffering through reduced capacity, offices are closed, and kids are stuck at home with distance learning has stressed everyone.
In Sacramento, the situation has been no different. But last spring, a group of forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs came together to keep their staffs working, keep farmers farming, and feed those in need. Deneb Williams of Allora, Tokiko Sawada and Craig Takehara of Binchoyaki, Oliver Ridgeway of Camden Spit & Larder, Clay Nutting and Brad Cecchi of Canon, and Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L are the nucleus of Family Meal Sacramento.
“When it [the pandemic] first started, it was like, what do you do?” Mulvaney says. “When your business is closed, and as a chef, you promise people meaningful employment and a career, but all of a sudden, you can’t promise that anymore, what do you do? And people are hungry, and what does that look like? Early on, we said, well, there are unemployed cooks and empty restaurants, and we’re surrounded by farms here who have product. So let’s put those things together.”
Family Meal Sacramento is a program that provides chef-prepared, four-serving meals for seniors and others in need throughout the Sacramento community, including families of school children in five Sacramento districts with a high percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals during the school day. When families come to the schools to pick up their breakfasts and lunches, they also get a dinner from Family Meal. According to Mulvaney, the program has served more than a million meals to hungry people all over Sacramento, including 250,000 to school families.
At first, it wasn’t easy, but as Mulvaney points out, chefs are problem-solvers. They set up a crowdfunding effort to get going, which Mulvaney says he was skeptical about because he didn’t think they would raise any significant money. But, “I was wrong,” he admits, “because the people of Sacramento have donated enough to pay for over 100,000 meals. And those donations were in five and 10 and 20 dollar notes.” As the program got off the ground, corporate donors stepped up, as did non-profits and government. The funding has allowed Family Meal restaurants to pay their staff members, as well as to keep buying from medium-size farms who lost their restaurant markets when the shut-down happened. (Small producers made up for any lost volume by the increased demand for CSA boxes.)
In addition to cash, food donations started pouring in, as well. Panorama Organic has donated chuck flaps and other cuts, other producers have donated everything from asparagus to eggs and fish, and “our friend Michael Bosworth [Rue & Forsman Ranch] called one day and said, ‘Hey, I just dropped off a ton of rice for you.’ I said, ‘Great! Was it three or four hundred pounds?’ He said, ‘No, I dropped off a ton. And when it’s done, I’ll give you another ton.’” The donated food stretches the ability of the program to reach even more hungry people. “This outpouring of community has just been tremendous,” Mulvaney adds.
As Family Meal has grown, other restaurants have joined the effort, and even though in-restaurant dining is opening up again, the program will continue. The county provided funding through the end of this school year, but just extended it for another year, so school families will continue to receive their meals.
Mulvaney says delivering the meals to families is both heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time. “People are super-grateful and they’re happy, and that’s the heart-warming part. We were there [at a school] one day and the mayor handed a meal to a woman and said, ‘Look, you have dinner from Mulvaney’s. This is going to be great for you guys tonight.’ Then the woman said, ‘No, we’re eating this breakfast and lunch bag that we got. That’s our food for today. And this meal will serve us for the weekend until we can come back on Monday.’ So it’s tough, and the need for sure is real.”
The group hopes that as the pandemic winds down, the program will spur discussions about school food nutrition and paying appropriately for food, as well as access to good food for everyone. “When people have seen this process of the American food system coming together to help those in need, the hope is that we can continue moving forward and really change the conversation,” Mulvaney says.
“We’ve always said that by cooking, we bring the community together. But now here’s a place where you can recognize it,” he adds. “My soapbox is that society fails when people feel other, or not invited and left out. And this program does what we what we say in my restaurant. ‘Welcome’ is the first word you hear when you come in and the feeling that you leave with at the end of the meal. And so yes, we are giving people food to give them calories. but almost as important, we’re acknowledging their pain and and we’re saying we see you and you are part of us.”
Learn more about Family Meal Sacramento at the website.