From celebrities and chefs to local food banks and grassroots organizations, people everywhere have been pitching in to help mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our communities. Here’s how Off Their Plate (OTP) in Boston is helping healthcare workers on the frontline, and restoring restaurant workers’ wages too.
We can all agree that frontline healthcare workers deserve the biggest ‘thank you’ for their service since the coronavirus pandemic started.
On a daily basis, they are exposed to long hours, grueling work—and potentially the virus itself—in order to help save the lives of others.
That’s why Natalie Guo, a Harvard Medical School student, decided to start Off Their Plate (OTP) in mid-March 2020. OTP is a growing grassroots movement that works to provide nutritious meals and groceries to hospital teams nationwide—while also restoring the wages of restaurant workers.
OTP raised over $2.5 million donation dollars in just a matter of weeks, and they’re still going. “100 percent of donated funds go to feeding frontline workers and restoring restaurant wages,” Guo says.
OTP’s work is fueled by a coalition of volunteers, medical students, socially-minded restaurant owners, hospital leaders, and the communities where these hospitals are located.
Managing to start a movement this powerful, which has now raised over $2 million, in such a short period of time is no small feat. To find out how Guo pulled it off, keep reading for a Q&A with the founder, plus information on how you can get involved.
Chowhound: Why did you start Off Their Plate and what was your inspiration?
Guo: I came up with the idea for Off Their Plate in mid-March, after my medical school rotation in Boston was suspended due to COVID-19. I was seeing news about restaurants closing down operations and laying off staff, and thinking about how many of them likely had no safety net.
A lot of my friends and colleagues were trying to figure out how to contribute to pandemic relief efforts. I realized that together we could create something that would provide income continuity for a portion of the millions of impacted workers (the most vulnerable of which do not qualify for unemployment), while also providing meal support for our overworked, frontline healthcare workers. I was inspired to build a model that would enable donations to touch lives in our impacted communities twice, and saw an opportunity to be the conduit.
Did you have a background in service work prior to starting Off Their Plate?
Guo: Service is inherent to those who choose healthcare as their field. I’ll take this question a different direction than perhaps intended and share that I worked as a hostess at a Chinese restaurant in Baltimore when I was in high school. I was fortunate enough to be working not to support my family’s livelihood but many of my coworkers in the front-of-house and kitchen were. The guys who took my appetizer orders, Mr. Lee who led the kitchen—they were my first colleagues. They taught me how to have fun while working hard. It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a service industry but it’s an industry that I hold close.
What has it meant to you to be able to help others during this time?
Guo: As a graduate student, I feel more often than not that I am being invested in by others, taught by patients, supported by residents. To have the chance to give back to them in even a small way infuses my own days with meaning. I imagine those teachers and colleagues and friends in the emergency departments (EDs) and intensive care units (ICUs) and that if I were there with them, I, too, would wonder where the world was, watching and waiting from afar. I’d wonder how to reach out for help if I needed it. Off Their Plate started as a nice thing to do; more and more, I believe it is a positive duty we have to those on the frontlines.
Can you share a story or a moment that’s touched you the most since the pandemic hit?
Guo: There are too many. As a business person in a former life, I kept asking myself how we could make this a more economically impactful or sustaining pool—how to “stretch a dollar”’ The first way we do this is of course by contributing donations directly in the form of wages to workers while making meals for frontline workers. The second came about organically when after we had served our pilot meals at the Brigham and Boston Medical Center, I started noticing in our informal Paypal Pool, which is how we started, that nurses and families of personnel who had received meals were contributing money back into the pool. This was generating a sort of flywheel around the donation pool itself. It was “refreshing” itself through the generosity of the recipients!
What has been the biggest challenge about running and operating Off Their Plate?
Guo: Learning the restaurant industry’s unique economics and margin structure and adapting our model to meet needs of both owners and workers has been a constant exercise. Independent restaurants operate on razor thin margins in a normal economy, and COVID-19 has upended their normal operating procedures. They’ve had to adapt quickly, and it’s been wonderful to see how many restaurant owners want to jump in and figure it out with us. A key focus of ours is ensuring that as much of our donated funds as possible go toward wages and employee relief funds, and are looking into every avenue to do that, including working with restaurant owners to best manage the unit costs of producing each meal, getting donated ingredients or packaging, and providing donated delivery services.
What has been the most rewarding part of running this initiative?
Guo: As someone with limited experience in the non-profit world, I’m humbled by how generous the community can be. From $10 to $250,000—and beyond, givers spanning the financial spectrum have something to teach us about extending a hand. Others have been generous with their time. In three weeks, we grew to an organization of over 80 of the most capable and dedicated people I have had the chance to work with. Many of us have never met, but we’ve come together to do this work for a brief time. I’ve heard time and time again our team members asking to take something “off the plate” of another team member across the country. I feel so fortunate to share this experience with such generous spirits.
What would you like to say to your volunteers who’ve dedicated their time to help out?
Guo: Our team of 80 (and growing!) are spending dozens of hours a week to run our city and centralized operations, often while also keeping up with their existing job(s) or class(es). I want them to know how much I admire their willingness to jump on during a time of uncertainty, donate their time and talents when the news cycle can be paralyzing and we worry about our own families. Off Their Plate was built by all of us and will continue to scale and impact lives because of our collaborative efforts. I’m beyond honored to be a part of this team.
What would you like people to know about Off Their Plate?
Guo: On both sides of the equation—our hospital partners and restaurant partners—we do much more than order a meal for delivery. We devote significant resources centrally to two areas:
- COVID-specific sanitation and safety guidelines to protect healthcare workers and our restaurant staff as well.
- Also, [we are] continuously evaluating whether our next marginal donor dollar is being given to the highest need restaurant worker and healthcare personnel. Our needs assessment mapping of COVID-19 frontlines aims to feed healthcare staff in high-Coronavirus volume centers, in food deserts, in low-resource centers, and those staying in temporary housing to avoid exposing their own families. On the restaurant side, we prioritize restaurant partners who are small operators, care about giving their workers generous wages, and employ staff that may not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Where do you run your business? Or where do you operate from?
Guo: I’m usually in Boston, where I go to school, but right now I’m back home in Dallas. Our team is spread all over the country (and as far away as London!). We have team members in our launched cities, but since we’re all working on this remotely, it’s awesome to be able to leverage folks no matter where they’re currently based.
What Makes Off Their Plate Stand Out?
With so many non-profit organizations out there, it can be difficult to know where to put your hard-earned dollars when attempting to donate to a worthy cause.
When it comes to how OTP differs from other organizations, Bonnie Cao, Off Their Plate’s NYC City Lead, says:
“Off Their Plate makes a point of being thoughtful at every stage of the process—from the restaurants we partner with (strict food preparation and delivery guidelines, focus on employees), to the schedules of delivery and types of nutritious and delicious meals we’re delivering to healthcare workers.”
Cao adds: “And at the end of the day, we’re a bunch of nerds! Tracking every step of the process and making sure every donor dollar is directed responsibly and 100 percent towards supporting local restaurants and healthcare workers.”
How You Can Contribute
To get involved with OTP and contribute to their efforts, there are a couple of ways you can help.
First, you can donate money to help feed hospital professionals and pay the restaurant workers who prepare the meals. So far, donated dollars have helped to pay for more than 240,000 “hero meals,” fund over 77,000 work hours, and pay nearly $1,250,000 in wages.
For every $100 donated, you send 10 meals to our COVID frontline and restore three shift hours to the community.
To inquire about volunteering your time you can fill out this form, where you’ll include your personal information, plus details on where you live.
Header image courtesy of Off Their Plate