By Lila Valencia, from the December 2020 Front Porch Flyer
March 2020 brought record low unemployment and a nationwide economic boom. Locally, stages were being set for SXSW, Aldrich Street was bustling with patrons awaiting their restaurant reservation times, and AISD students were enjoying their Spring Break. All that changed on March 19th when Governor Abbott signed an executive order to close schools and bars and restrict restaurants to take-out and delivery orders.This order was followed by a stay-at-home order from the City of Austin and Travis County on March 22nd. Almost overnight, unemployment in Austin rose from 3.7% to 12.4%. Adam Orman and Fiore Tedesco, co-owners of L’Oca d’Oro, wanted to avoid this outcome for their staff.
Already advocates of fair wages for restaurant employees, Orman and Tedesco began researching ways to help their staff weather this economic storm. Armed with models of private-public partnerships from around the country, such as World Central Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, they reached out to the City of Austin in March to impress upon local officials the need for short-term revenue solutions for restaurants and the imminent rise in food insecurity due to the pandemic.
In April, Orman and Tedesco learned of an opportunity from the Austin Independent School District (AISD) that would pay restaurants to prepare meals for the caregivers of AISD students receiving free and reduced lunches. Through their food service program, AISD had been providing school meals to students from the start of the pandemic, but they did not have resources to provide meals for caregivers, too. This is when the Caregiver Meal Program, a partnership between the City of Austin, the Austin Ed Fund, and AISD’s Crisis Support Fund, was established. Caregiver meals are now served alongside student meals at curbside distribution sites throughout the district. Meals are distributed on Thursdays at over 50 AISD schools during three distinct time blocks.
Caregiver meals are prepared by local Austin restaurants, including Mueller’s own L’Oca d’Oro and Colleen’s Kitchen. As part of the program, restaurants prepare 14 meals (seven breakfasts and seven lunches) per week and are reimbursed about $5 per meal. The meals must be wholesome and well-balanced, include foods that are ready to eat as well as foods that can be frozen to be consumed at a later date, and appropriately packaged, conditions that pose logistical challenges to the typical restaurant model.
Colleen’s Kitchen owner Ashley Fric embraced the challenge. She learned of the program through Good Work Austin, a collaborative founded in 2019 by several small business owners, including Orman and Tedesco, focused on sharing ideas and resources to support each other and their employees through this pandemic and beyond. Fric admits it was a leap of faith, and they have to be prepared to constantly pivot, but it has provided their restaurant the short-term relief they needed. “It’s not super lucrative, but it allows us to keep our staff employed, trained, and helps to address the larger food insecurity issue that a lot of families are facing.”
Fric added “These families are at home just like us, feeling stressed and overwhelmed with their responsibilities. We feel so passionate about the program. It’s local residents employed in local businesses and feeding Austinites. It means a lot to everyone who works here.”
Orman noted, “We want more restaurants involved in solving food insecurity.” He stated participating in the program has made him even more aware of the issue and allowed them to take on some of the load that volunteers and food banks typically carry. Prior to the pandemic, the Capital Area Food Bank was providing meals to over 184,000 clients per month. In August, they provided meals for 340,000 clients.
Orman describes food worlds colliding, “There’s the food world that feeds people who pay for their food and the other food world that feeds people who cannot afford to pay for food.” He adds, “It’s ridiculous we had not come together sooner because we are better together.”
To date, nearly 2.4 million meals, including over 582,000 caregiver meals, have been provided to AISD families. L’Oca d’Oro has prepared over 100,000 of these meals, and Colleen’s has prepared another 40,000. Through an extension of funding for the program, caregiver meals will continue to be available through the end of the year. For additional information on the Caregiver Meal program, distribution sites and times, and more, visit austinisd.org/openforlearning/meals. To learn more about Good Work Austin, including their guidelines for restaurants reopening “Dine with Confidence,” visit goodworkaustin.org.
Disclosure notice: Colleen’s Kitchen and L’Oca d’Oro have made in-kind contributions and sponsored events of the Mueller Neighborhood Association.