When Lisa McDonald, owner of Ann Arbor’s TeaHaus, received notice that her kids’ schools would be closing in early March, her mind went straight to lunch programs. No longer needing to pack sandwiches for her two sons, she instead began assembling hundreds of sandwiches to feed other kids in the area who rely on school meal programs. At her peak, in the first few months of the pandemic, McDonald was packing up and delivering 600 donated lunches a week to Avalon Housing, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing to the community as a long-term solution to homelessness, where they were distributed to kids in need.
Less than a block away, Phillis Engelbert, owner of Detroit Street Filling Station and the Lunch Room Bakery & Café, was also finding ways to fight hunger. Instead of school lunches, Engelbert began offering free meals and groceries to out-of-work service industry employees in March as dine-in shutdowns went into effect in Michigan. She soon expanded her community aid program at Detroit Street Filling Station to offer meals to anyone who needed help getting food. At the height of the program in April, she provided 270 free orders valued at over $6,000. To date, the program has donated over $20,000 of food and groceries to people throughout the Ann Arbor area.
Soon the two women were collaborating. In June, Engelbert began contributing to McDonald’s school lunch program. “Not only have they been donating [food], they’ve been making the food themselves. They’re amazing,” Engelbert says of Tea Haus’ school lunch program. Since Engelbert was already placing orders for groceries for the Lunch Room and Detroit Street Filling Station, she decided to add on some peanut butter and jelly sandwich supplies to support Tea Haus’s program. She also provided freshly baked cookies to include in the brown bagged lunches.
Engelbert and McDonald turned to donations from the community to cover the costs of their programs. At Detroit Street Filling Station customers have purchased gift cards and at Tea Haus, all tips and online donations go to the free meal program. “If there’s a need, we’ll meet it,” Engelbert says. “Once people know that we’re helping feed those in need, they send us resources to help us meet that need.” Donations spiked at the beginning of the pandemic, but business owners have continued to receive a steady flow of funds to support their programs throughout 2020.
Both women have continued their efforts into the fall, feeding the Washtenaw County community while keeping their businesses afloat as they implemented new COVID-19 safety requirements. For Engelbert, that meant figuring out a way to keep up with the growing demand from community residents with food insecurity, while not overwhelming her limited staff who were also continuing to prepare the restaurant’s regular takeout orders.
People placing community aid orders are asked to do so by phone before 4 p.m. the day of the pickup, in order help ensure that Engelbert and her staff can provide aid without disrupting the flow of service. Each community aid order is processed like a regular phone-in order: A ticket is created and sent to the kitchen to be filled, with the customer’s name on it and the order they’ve made. (Options include a mix of meals and groceries.) Whether the phone-in order is paid for or free is not designated on the ticket. This process ensures that employees won’t be able to distinguish between orders, thus helping maintain people’s dignity when requesting assistance.
Like donations, orders through the Lunch Room and Detroit Street Filling Station peaked in April, and Engelbert has since observed a decline in requests for assistance. Over the summer, she was still providing about 175 free orders at a cost of roughly $3,000 a month. Engelbert credits the declining need to the reopening of restaurants and outdoor dining, noting that much of her aid goes to industry workers who are either underemployed or unemployed. Still, Engelbert anticipates that many restaurant and bar employees will once again be leaning on community programs like hers in the coming months as winter weather and surging COVID-19 numbers disrupt the service industry.
McDonald hasn’t slowed down her efforts either. When the Ann Arbor Public Schools stepped up to provide meals through a summer program, and she continued to help fill in the gaps. She currently provides around 250 lunches a week and donating them to Food Gatherers, a nonprofit food rescue and food bank program serving Washtenaw County. With fewer lunch boxes to fill, McDonald has also taken on a weekly shift preparing hot meals at the Food Gatherers Community Kitchen in the Delonis Center; through that effort, McDonald and her Tea Haus team feed an additional 100 people per week.
As a local business, trying to sustain during the pandemic is a challenge on its own. With resources already tight, both Tea Haus and Detroit Street Filling Station are bringing the word “community” to action, feeding the hungry and finding financial backing from people who want to support what they are creating.
“How do you build community in the middle of a pandemic?” asks Engelbert. “We look at a restaurant as a community resource. We’re here and we want to be as beneficial as we can to the entire community.”
Neither Engelbert nor McDonald see their efforts winding down once the pandemic is over. “It’s now become a part of what we do,” McDonald says.
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