In just a few weeks, Off Their Plate, a grassroots project started by a med student to help both health care workers and restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic, has expanded into a national organization with $2.2 million in donations. The organization, which lands in Philly this week, pays restaurants to put together meal boxes for hospital employees. In the first couple days, two Philly restaurants delivered food to area hospitals, and two more signed on. Next week, the restaurants plan to prepare 1,000 meals.
“People want to do something good — they really want to direct their efforts toward something good right now,” says Ellen Halle, a second-year MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She’s the team lead for Off Their Plate’s Philly branch, which includes two other people in her MBA program and a few in the hospitality and health care industries.
Like Halle, everyone at Off Their Plate is a volunteer, and the organization says all the money raised goes toward paying restaurants to make meals and delivering the meals to hospital workers. In turn, the restaurants are required to put about half of the money they receive toward employees’ wages.
“We want Off Their Plate to be a recurring, reliable source of income for restaurants,” says Maya Hutchinson, a volunteer with a background in advertising and politics who’s helping get the word out. “We’re ordering 100-plus meals at a time. It’s a substantial amount, and we want it to be every week, which hopefully lets a restaurant keep on some of its staff.”
Off Their Plate breaks it down like this: Every $100 donated means 10 meals sent to workers in the health care industry and three hours on the job for a shift worker at a restaurant. Five thousand dollars raised translates to 500 meals and 150 work hours.
“For me this is personal — my brother is a critical care pulmonologist at Penn and his wife is an ER doctor at Jefferson. They’re on the front lines, and I wanted to figure out a way I could be helpful,” Hutchinson says.
The meals Off Their Plate orders from restaurants are not only for doctors. “We make a big effort to make sure these meals aren’t just going to clinical staff and physicians. We want to feed the custodial staff, the people who are working in the cafeterias, the security and maintenance workers, the people doing lab tests,” Halle says. “As we build relationships with hospitals, we’re emphasizing that we want some of these meals to go to folks who may not be as visible on the front lines, but are still contributing immensely.”
The team says it also makes sure participating restaurants are up to speed on COVID-19 safety protocols like proper hand-washing and routine cleaning of all surfaces before they can prepare food for a medical facility. “We’re in scrappy startup mode,” Halle says, and will do whatever it takes, including sourcing masks and gloves if a restaurant needs them.
Off Their Plate launched in Boston mid-March. After her medical rotation was put on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis, Natalie Guo, a Harvard Business School grad and current Harvard Medical School student, starting reaching out to friends and coworkers with the idea of delivering restaurant meals to local health care workers. She made the right connections and the project quickly expanded from Boston to New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. The organization teamed up with Jose Andres’ nonprofit World Central Kitchen — a key move that means donations to Off Their Plate are tax deductible.
It kicked off in Philly on April 15, with Jill Weber’s Mexican restaurant Café Ynez preparing meals for employees at HUP. Judy Ni’s Taiwanese eatery Baology put together food packages for Einstein Medical Center the next day. The restaurants have leeway to work off their regular menus or design new dishes. Ni says one consideration is creating dishes that don’t have to be eaten immediately, since not all the recipients are dining at the same time.
Nok Suntaranon’s Kalaya and Sofia Deleon’s El Merkury are signed on to participate too, and there are partnerships with about five additional restaurants in the works. The week of April 20, Off Their Plate plans to add food drop-offs at Presbyterian Medical Center and the VA Medical Center, delivering 1,000 meals in Philly.
“Judy at Baology has been extremely helpful,” Halle says. “She was already doing some of this on her own, without the type of financial backing Off Their Plate allows us to provide, and she introduced us to a lot of restaurants in her network.”
It’s been primarily women-run restaurants partnering with Off Their Plate. That wasn’t a deliberate move, Hutchinson says, but the organization appreciates the opportunity to promote women-owned businesses.
In Philly, the partnerships have been exclusively with restaurants led by women. Halle says that was a coincidence, but “it does align with what this organization is all about — working with smaller restaurants that are more at risk of going out of business at a time like this.”
Since it launched, Off Their Plate has raised enough to provide $1 million to restaurant employees and deliver almost 220,000 meals to more than 90 hospitals across nine cities. It’s provided about 23,000 meals so far.
“We’ve had a pretty successful grassroots campaign in Philly,” Halle says. “We’re hoping to be able to keep raising money and keep growing this operation, until it’s no longer needed.”