5 Ways You Can Help Your Food Community Right Now

While more traditional means of helping out aren't on the table right now, you can still support restaurants, food workers, grocery stores and farmers in meaningful ways.

Photo courtesy of Marco Verch via Flickr Creative Commons.

The coronavirus has changed the way Americans live seemingly overnight. In New Jersey, where we are currently experiencing the second highest number of cases in the country, how we eat, cook and shop for food has, too, been flipped at warp speed.

Restaurants and bars can only offer pick-up or delivery; many are barely staying afloat. Other eateries have shuttered altogether, hoping to reopen in the future but unsure of when or how, leaving employees, suppliers, farmers and more without income. Grocery stores are trying to manage crowds and inventory responsibly. Food pantries and social services are feeling the strain.

But communities are also coming together, checking on those most vulnerable and staying in touch virtually with family, friends, colleagues and their favorite businesses. For food lovers looking for ways to contribute to the food and restaurant community specifically, from feeding the hungry to supporting your go-to restaurant or cafe, here are some actions you can take right now.

1. Call your elected officials 

15.6 million people. According to the National Restaurant Association, that’s how many Americans are employed by the restaurant industry. In New Jersey, the organization says, there are more than 19,000 eating and drinking establishments, with restaurant and food service positions accounting for nearly 350,000 jobs last year, or 8 percent of all jobs in the state.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on March 24, a group of high-profile New York chefs and restaurant owners called upon officials in Washington to enact key measures for restaurants such as funding for salaries and rent and a program to assist paying suppliers and vendors. While patrons can support restaurant owners from afar during the pandemic, the authors, including Marcus Samuelsson, who owns Marcus B&P in Newark, say “our economic model requires people in seats.” Without government help, they wrote, 75 percent of independent restaurants will stay closed forever.

The historic $2 trillion stimulus bill that passed the Senate on March 25 does extend unemployment benefits and provide relief for small businesses; it now goes to the House of Representatives. A bill passed by the New Jersey Assembly aims to assist workers impacted by the virus.

How you can help: Still, if you want to make sure restaurant and local food businesses specifically get funding and relief, you can call your mayor, governor and state representatives and advocate for a restaurant-specific bailout. Use this helpful script if you’re unsure of who to call and what to say.

2. Donate to restaurant worker relief funds

Restaurant margins are notoriously slim even in good times, and most restaurants simply don’t have enough money to both pay overhead costs and cover salaries of their staffs during this crisis—as a result, thousands of restaurant workers have found their hours slashed or have been laid off altogether.

How you can help: Many businesses have started crowdfunding campaigns to pay their staff, and national and city-wide funds have taken up the cause, too.

Think about where you stop for your morning coffee, afternoon pick-me-up, weekend brunch, and special occasion meal—the food businesses that make your life better and enrich your community. Check via social media or by calling to see if they’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign or if you can donate directly. If you know your bartenders, baristas and servers personally, you can send them a virtual “tip” via Venmo—in some communities and cities, Google Docs with restaurant and bar workers’ names and their payment app information have been circling around, too.

To help the crisis on a larger scale, many organizations such as The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, One Fair Wage, UNITE HERE, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, The United States Bartenders Guild and more have begun funds to aid struggling workers.The Dining Bonds Initiative offers diners the chance to buy “bonds” they can redeem later for a greater value; The James Beard Foundation is collecting donations so they can distribute micro-grants to food and beverage businesses. Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, is taking donations to continue distributing meals and gearing up a program to mobilize out-of-work restaurant employees to cook for the public during this crisis.

You can also sign this petition created by a coalition of chefs, directed at local lawmakers.

3. Buy from restaurants: takeout, merchandise, gift cards and even inventory

Many restaurants in New Jersey are still open.

How you can help: Restaurants are offering takeout, delivery and meal kits to make at home (think pizza supplies or pasta dinners with all the toppings), so if you feel comfortable ordering in, just remember to take precautions, such as throwing away the outer bags food comes in, paying ahead of time online or via phone and opting for contactless delivery. Remember to tip generously—these workers are potentially putting themselves at risk by being out and about. Many delivery services, such as Grubhub and UberEats, are waiving delivery costs and offering no-contact delivery as an option (though some restaurants prefer you order from them directly).

You can also support your favorite spots by buying gift cards to use in the future, and purchasing any merchandise such as mugs, sweatshirts, or tote bags. Don’t forget products like house-made sauces, granolas, jams or coffee beans, which also keep for longer than leftovers. Many restaurants sell these online. If not, and you’re already going the takeout route, ask to add some to your order. The same goes for other inventory—ask if it would be helpful to buy wine, produce, or anything else restaurants may not be able to cook or use due to decreased business.

4. Donate what you can to the vulnerable 

Many New Jerseyans don’t have the option of stocking up on food or ordering out, and many organizations that feed the hungry need help now more than ever.

How you can help: Consider donating to your local food bank or organizations that supply food to the elderly, who are some of the most at-risk, and school-age children, millions of whom rely on school for their only consistent meals.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey has partnered with Kings Food Markets so shoppers can add a few dollars at checkout to support their efforts. Shelters need food donations, too—see if your local one needs food items you can ship to them via Amazon (The Hoboken Shelter, for example, has an Amazon wishlist) or drop off (while respecting social distancing).

5. Shop smarter: Don’t hoard and shop local

While we don’t know how long New Jersey’s stay-at-home order will last, there’s a difference between preparedness and hoarding. Overbuying creates panic and disadvantages others who don’t have the means to go from store to store looking for what they need.

In a March 19 press briefing, Governor Murphy urged residents not to hoard food or other supplies and to “resist the urge to overcrowd grocery stores.” While the anxiety is understandable, he said “we are closely monitoring, in fact aggressively monitoring the supply chain. We are confident in the ability of food and other grocery items to get to store shelves in a timely manner.”

How you can help: Shop wherever and however is safest for you and your family, but don’t overlook independent businesses, which have less of a financial cushion than big-box stores and may have what you need. Many smaller markets, from specialty food shops to liquor stores, have started offering curbside pickup, delivery or are allowing you to reserve what you want via phone ahead of time to reduce time spent in-store.

Another option are wholesale food suppliers. Faced with warehouses of food and far fewer restaurants to supply, some are starting to pivot to home delivery, such as Baldor Specialty Foods in the Bronx (who will deliver to customers within a 50-mile radius). Harvest Drop, which typically supplies chefs with super local produce from small farms across New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, is now delivering to homes in New Jersey, New York City and Eastern Pennsylvania with no delivery minimum or fee. And while the Senate’s stimulus package does include local food economies, small farmers who sell to restaurants, schools and other impacted institutions will likely still feel a strain as they try to adapt to a new reality: Support them as they attempt direct-to-consumer sales at restaurants, farm stands or farmers markets that remain open. Local CSAs, some which report seeing an increased interest, are a good option, too, for avoiding crowded stores and supporting local farmers.

Know of other ways to help? Leave a comment and let us know.

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