When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that restaurants modify operations to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Washington, Seattle resident Larry Morris wanted to do something to help.
With some help from a friend in San Francisco, Morris launched a Seattle chapter of Frontline Foods, a national nonprofit that raises money to pay for meals that are donated to frontline workers.
The program’s mission is two-fold: It supports local restaurants by hiring them to produce meals, and it supports the healthcare workers who are treating people in hospitals, including patients with COVID-19.
Morris said what appeals about this effort is it benefits both healthcare workers and the restaurants, who have been hit hard by the shutdowns.
“That is really integral to what our mission is: keeping our restaurants afloat,” Morris said. “It’s as much about the restaurant as it is about the hospitals.”
Morris said the idea of having restaurants deliver meals to healthcare workers appealed to him. First, he has many friends in the restaurant and wine business. Second, all his charity donations go to hospitals in support of family members with health problems, and he already had the right connections.
When restaurants shifted to curb-side takeout or delivery and it became apparent COVID-19 cases were spreading in Seattle, Morris could not order foods from restaurants any longer because his daughter is immunocompromised, and it was unsafe to bring outside food into his home.
“It then switched to how can I provide the money to the restaurants, but we’ll give the food to someone else who can use it,” he said.
Frontline Foods Seattle chapter launched last month, and the efforts have moved fast.
Morris, who is a software engineering manager at Microsoft, recruited a few coworkers of his to help him. He said they did a lot of their preliminary fundraising by reaching out to people on Facebook and have only recently reached outside of their regular community.
“As I see that I have more money available, I’ll add a couple more restaurants and a couple more hospitals,” Morris said.
Right now, Morris has recruited five restaurants — Jack’s BBQ, Pasta Ya Gotcha, Nue, Raiz and The Box and Burgers Eatery — to provide meals. They are being distributed at Evergreen Hospital — Kirkland, Duval, Canyon Park and Redmond; Swedish Hospital — First Hill, Ballard and Redmond; Harborview Medical Center/University of Washington; and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Morris has received requests from 40 restaurants to participate in this program, but he said he has been very selective in his choices because if he used all 40 restaurants, he wouldn’t be routing enough business their way to benefit them. And if a restaurant had to bring back an employee to help make the meals, it could actually cost them money.
“We’re very focused on making sure that we’re helping the restaurants,” Morris said.
He said when restaurants apply to work with Frontline Foods, owners are asked to indicate their average meal price, including tax, tip and delivery. The majority of restaurants fall in the $10 to $15 range.
“I do consider pricing when selecting restaurants, but a key part of our mission is to help keep our restaurants afloat, so I would never ask them to sell to me at a loss,” Morris said in an email.
When this first started, Morris was reaching out to restaurants where he knew the owner. Now, with a big restaurant pool from which to draw, he is enlisting restaurants partly based on region and partly by what they can provide. Morris said he is really looking at restaurants who can provide breakfast meals for the frontline workers ending the overnight shifts.
Where the meals are being sent to also depends. At the beginning of the outbreak, Evergreen Hospital needed the meals at its Kirkland location, which was the site of the nursing home that was hit so badly by COVID-19. Morris said now hospital administrators are reporting flare ups happening in different locations.
Meals are sent to hospitals with the greatest need.
“Every week, I typically get a slightly different answer,” he said. “So we very much leave it to the hospitals to tell us where they are seeing the biggest problems.”
Morris said each week he and his team contact their hospital representatives and tell them how much money is available and let them know what restaurants have been available.
Hospital representatives know what meals each restaurant offers and the average meal price. They then give the Frontline Seattle representative a list of locations, times and quantities.
As of last week, the Seattle chapter has delivered about 1,500 meals. The volume varies by hospital and how many people are on during a shift.
When Morris first started Frontline Foods Seattle, he thought only to help the hospitals with frontline workers treating COVID-19 patients. He soon realized, however, that the COVID-19 outbreak has affected other hospitals, as well. Morris said he added the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to the list of hospitals because he learned that when the outbreak hit Seattle, the restaurants and food vendors at the hospital had to shut down, leaving staff providing health care but without any onsite food options.
“It definitely opened my eyes to what are the different ways you can be impacted by COVID,” Morris said.
Morris said Frontline Foods Seattle is currently helping out as the first wave of COVID-19 cases wraps up and numbers level off. Work will not stop there, however.
While the Seattle chapter volunteers can choose to dial back fundraising efforts, Morris said they also have the option of diverting funds to benefit other areas of the country in great need, such as New York. Most likely, he said, they will continue their current course of action in case a second wave of infections springs up in the state.
“We are starting to plan our budget around what that spike would look like,” Morris said.
He said 100 percent of all donations made to Frontline Foods Seattle is used to pay restaurants for the meals made.
To learn more about how to help, to donate or sign up a restaurant or hospital, go to frontlinefoods.org/Seattle.