Miami restaurants help workers during pandemic

Cami Ramos knows profits are important to her small business. But they aren’t everything. While

Cami Ramos knows profits are important to her small business. But they aren’t everything.

While her Miami coffee shop, All Day, was getting by with a steady stream of pickup and delivery orders in the early days of the pandemic, Ramos knew others were struggling to make ends meet. So she decided to act, and refused to take a profit.

“We thought if we were to profit, it would be really weird at a time when so many people were at a loss,” Ramos said.

Instead, All Day used all of its proceeds to buy groceries for people in the service industry who were out of work or having a hard time financially. From March until June, the small coffee shop gave away hundreds of bags of food, each mainly containing fresh, organic and locally sourced products. An online fund was also set up, allowing anyone to contribute to the cause.

The endeavor took time and resources but Ramos says it was worth it to help fight food insecurity.

“Some individuals who came by hadn’t worked for weeks, and said they’d have trouble putting food on the table,” Ramos said. “It’s really intense when you see what people are going through.”

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on hunger in America. According to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, about 54 million Americans will experience food insecurity this year.

In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the food insecurity rate is projected to jump from 12 percent to 17 percent.

The food and beverage industry has been particularly hard hit, with roughly one in six restaurants closing either permanently or long-term due to the pandemic, according to a survey released in September by the National Restaurant Association. Those shutdowns left millions of employees out of work.

“What’s sad is when you’re food insecure you feed your children before you feed yourself. You’ll feed your family before you take medication and with the whole economic collapse it all comes down to food,” said Ellen Bowen, the Miami site director of the nonprofit group Food Rescue US.

Like Ramos, Bowen and her team acted early on in the pandemic to help fight hunger in South Florida.

Just as lockdown orders went into effect, Bowen had caught wind of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson distributing free meals at restaurant Red Rooster Harlem through a partnership with chef Jose Andre’s’ World Central Kitchen.

As luck had it, Red Rooster was gearing up to open a location in Overtown in mid-March, and had to postpone their opening due to the pandemic. Bowen decided to reach out to Samuelsson to see if he was willing to join forces and distribute food in Overtown.

It was an easy yes.

“To us being in Overtown is really a blessing,” Red Rooster Overtown partner Derek Fleming said, adding that giving meals to its neighbors was a way of letting them know they were in the fight against hunger together. “This community is resilient. We represent the resilience of the community. Overtown is here for itself, it has always been there for itself and it will continue to be there for itself.”

Within three days, a distribution was set up, and they’d fed hundreds of people. And 10 weeks later, thousands of meals had been given to anyone who wanted one.

Food Rescue US

Food Rescue US volunteers work to “rescue” food being wasted. This often means getting surplus food from cruise ships, restaurants, and grocery stores along with other sources. The food is then given to restaurants like Red Rooster to cook and distribute the food to anyone in need of a meal.

And no, these weren’t simple sandwiches being prepared.

“It was like, ‘Oh, you have extra broccoli and cauliflower, oh and we have onion here, let’s throw some chicken in there too,’” Fleming said. “We were out there three days a week from March as things started to take off all the way through June.”

The nonprofit also pays the restaurant’s staff for their time, which helped ensure they could also make an income during these uncertain times.

“Ellen and her organization were instrumental in the volunteer effort,” Fleming said. “This was at a time when people were like, ‘Can I even go outside.’ To put on a mask and gloves when you don’t know if it’s airborne, these volunteers still handed out food to thousands of people.”

The commitment of Food Rescue US to help feed South Floridians, while stopping food waste, isn’t over.

They’ve distributed more than 45,000 meals in the Miami area since the start of the pandemic, and recently got funding to continue and expand their meal distribution services until the end of the year. They’ve also entered into partnerships with other South Florida favorites such as Chef Creole.

“We will be adding more restaurants into November and December, keep an eye on our Instagram,” Bowen said.

And with the economic uncertainty that has come during the pandemic, these efforts are becoming increasingly critical.

As for Ramos, she said seeing the effects of food insecurity first-hand during the pandemic encouraged her to continue giving back to her community.

“For us COVID has been a time to reflect on our values,” she said. “We want to set a foundation that will allow us to continue to make value-based decisions. I want to give a certain amount to social justice groups or urban organizations.”

MIA_GIVING-ALLDAYMHAF5
Employee of All Day restaurant Chantelle Sookram and Raquel Ofir volunteer donating food in Overtown Miami on Wednesday October 21st., 2020. Alexia Fodere for Miami Herald

All Day is now lending its kitchen to the group Mutual Aid Meals, which uses the facilities during off hours to make meals and distribute them in Wynwood and surrounding neighborhoods.

“For us, since we’re directly on the border facing Overtown we see every day the hardships that are experienced by the homeless and food insecure,” Ramos said. “It is important to us to be of service to an organization like Mutual Aid that can help undo a little of that and give people the food they need.”

Mutual Aid

Mutual Aid is a startup, and was born out of its co-founders Raquel Ofir and Chantelle Sookram’s love for food. Like Food Rescue US, the group gets their ingredients from various local sources, including surplus food from other organizations.

They then take their food to All Day, where they cook up healthy vegetarian meals that are distributed out of a blue wagon.

“It’s very fulfilling,” Ofir said, adding that locals are now starting to recognize the wagon, and they’re getting regulars to stop by for meals. “It’s the little people coming together to make a difference.

And if you’re thinking these acts of kindness aren’t the norm in South Florida, think again.

Bowen says hospitality workers looking out for each other is very on brand, and what makes the areas food scene stand out.

“The beautiful thing about Miami is the chefs do care about each other and they do care about their friends being successful,” Bowen said. “It’s a very philanthropic city.”

To help

To donate to Food Rescue US, visit: https://foodrescue.us/ Donors will be given the option to write in which specific region they’d like to donate to after giving their contribution.

To donate to Mutual Aid’s efforts, they can be found on Venmo under the user name @MutualAidMeals

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