How a Chicago restaurant is feeding families during the crisis

ROOH is one of more than 2,400 eateries across the country working to keep communities fed during the pandemic. But with no end in sight, the group says they need Congress' help to continue supporting families, restaurants, and farmers.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
ROOH chef Sujan Sarkar prepares some of the 450 meals that will be delivered to the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago on July 13, 2020. Volunteers from neighborhood organizations deliver the meals to those in need in the area.

Before coronavirus arrived, Manish Mallick's trips to this city’s South Side had been limited to attending graduate classes at the University of Chicago.

Now Mr. Mallick is a South Side regular – and a popular one. He regularly arrives bearing food for the hungry from his Indian restaurant several miles to the north, in the city’s downtown.

“Thank you, sugar, for the meals. They’re so delicious!” one woman recently shouted to Mr. Mallick outside a South Side YWCA. He recorded her response on his phone to share it with his staff.

“God bless you!” she added, raising her arms for emphasis.

Mr. Mallick has personally delivered thousands of meals cooked and packed by his staff – among them, chickpea curry and tandoori chicken with roasted cottage cheese, sweet corn, peas, and rice. Volunteers from neighborhood organizations then take them to children, retirees, and the multitudes who’ve been laid off or sick during the pandemic.

“We all need to help each other,” Mr. Mallick says. “That’s the best way to get through a crisis.”

His restaurant, ROOH, is one of more than 2,400 eateries, from New York City to Oakland, California, working with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide meals to the hungry. Traditionally, the organization has paid restaurants $10 a meal to feed people affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

Now the organization is focused on this current crisis, as are many other entities that help feed the hungry. They include food banks and other nonprofits, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is buying produce, meat, and dairy products from farmers for its growing food box program. Many U.S. children also have been receiving meals provided by a large network of public and private sources at school pickup sites.

World Central Kitchen is among those that provide meals to schoolchildren. But its leaders are worried about their ability to sustain the effort in an extended crisis.

So they're lobbying Congress to provide federal emergency funding to help bring the restaurant model to every state. The idea is to help not only the hungry, but also restaurant workers and farmers, who've been hard-hit by the impacts of coronavirus.

“It’s a domino effect of impact,” says Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, which was founded by chef Jose Andres and his wife, Patricia. They’ve tagged this latest response #ChefsForAmerica.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to begin rolling out the Senate GOP bill soon. Whether it will contain language from a World Central Kitchen-inspired bill – originally called the FEED Act and sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers – remains to be seen. Congress resumes this week and lawmakers are on two-week sprint hoping to approve the next round of virus aid by month’s end.

Mr. Mook says the longevity of this crisis requires federal aid, and he and others anticipate food insecurity worsening in the months to come as unemployment benefits come to an end for some.

“We feel like this is the calm before the storm,” says Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee.

Ms. Tussler also is frustrated with the sometimes chaotic nature of donations in this current climate and the difficulty – partly due to social distancing – of determining the nature of people’s food emergencies. Rather than the government distributing food boxes, for instance, she supports increasing food stamp assistance, also known as SNAP, to ensure that those most in need are fed.

Either way, Verna Swan, a retired nurse who lives in Englewood and volunteers to deliver meals from ROOH and other restaurants, says the service is greatly appreciated. She and her nephew, Israel Swan, took meals to seniors in their neighborhood in recent days.

“We’re family. We look out for each other,” says Verna Swan, a volunteer for I Grow, an organization that serves the neighborhood, where she first moved when she was a teen.

She says these meals also have connected the residents with new people and cultures. Several had never tasted Indian food before.

This is not how Mr. Mallick, a longtime tech executive, had envisioned things going last year, when he first opened ROOH, which specializes in what he calls progressive Indian cuisine. But he pivoted, first delivering meals to hospital staff when Chicago cases skyrocketed in the spring.

To survive, he has turned a parking lot next to his restaurant into an outdoor dining patio and beefed up delivery services. And he’s looking to grow his mission with World Central Kitchen, which also has enabled him to hire more kitchen staff.

“It’s a blessing,” he says.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Lisa Mascaro, the AP's AP chief Congressional correspondent, contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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