Support to Go: How Takeaway Meals Help Agencies Cope with COVID

by | Feb 3, 2021 | Hunger Relief

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent public health guidelines designed to minimize in-person contact, many community-dining and meal programs had to close or pivot their programs to provide food hampers and take-away meals. For agencies without the kitchen capacity or funds to make the change, this meant thousands of vulnerable people with reduced access to healthy, prepared meals. Because of this, Second Harvest has seen a significant spike in the demand from our agency network for take-away meals.

Luckily, Second Harvest has had support from some incredible partners who have put the spirit of giving squarely on the menu – here are two of their stories. 

Thinking outside the (takeaway) box with MLSE 

Chef Zielinski

In December, we shared the inspirational story of how Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s (MLSE) team of chefs, food and beverage staff and employees prepared 100,000 takeaway meals to give to agencies, including shelters, food banks and senior centres – and that was in addition to the half a million meals MLSE had already produced between April and the end of July. 

When we caught up with MLSE’s Culinary Director, Chef Chris Zielinski, in January 2021, the December rush was behind him and the comparative calm of preparing meals for the Leafs was on the agenda, though normal buffets and locker-room meal service have been paused.

“Now that the Leafs are back in play with a gauntlet of safety protocols, we have to individually package all their food in containers, too. When they’re in the locker room or in their dining space, we have to stay clear,” he says. “But we try to do things to make the arena space feel like home including providing the team with all their game day favourites. It’s not just about the meal, it’s also about the ritual that helps them play their best.”

Chatting with Chef Zielinski, it becomes clear that whether you’re a pro athlete, a frontline worker, or a person accessing a food program, Chef Zielinski’s overriding goal is that you enjoy a good, healthy meal. 

Here are his reflections on MLSE’s incredible accomplishments of 2020, preparing and packaging over 600,000 meals for people in need:

“Because we are all MLSE arena employees, we started from the unique position where we are used to cooking a lot of food. We also have the space and cold storage, and we have a lot of great people who are very passionate about the cause. We had the advantage to turn this into something so spectacular.

We partnered with Second Harvest, Tablée des Chefs and Toronto Public Health to figure out what was possible. We also worked to make it a MLSE company-wide priority. People in all departments of our business were talking about it and asking how they could help. 

We had to think on a grand scale about food donations – the size of donation we needed was 10,000 chickens, not a few bags of rice. And yet so many great vendors and suppliers stepped up, and many of our partners put their hands up and said, “How can we help?” for food and transport. 

In December, the pace was 13,000 meals a day. To accommodate physical distancing, we only had eight staff in the kitchen cutting and cooking at any time. We were able to use many of our 700 full-time staff as packagers on the concourse. We also had help from our restaurants, e11even and Real Sports, but they were also operating with a small team. I’m not going to lie, it was very challenging, but a very rewarding challenge, even though we are used to making a lot of food.

But one of the most heartwarming things I saw was when I was biking to work, I passed a couple social service agencies and saw our meal containers being delivered. I took pictures and shared them with the staff. A hot meal brings a sense of dignity. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

1 Hotel Toronto’s recipe for community 

1 Hotel staff prepare and package 3,000 meals each week.

1 Hotels, an American boutique hotel chain, was slated to open its first Canadian location in Toronto in the summer of 2020 in what is currently the Thompson Toronto hotel, before COVID effectively put the brakes on almost the entire tourism and hospitality industry. 

“We had lots of staff on furlough, and we had staff who were trying to find other hospitality work,” says Todd Orlich, Managing Director of 1 Hotel Toronto, which paused their opening until later in 2021. They also had the support and encouragement from the hotel’s owner, Mark Scheinberg, who has a home in Toronto and a strong focus on philanthropy, to find an opportunity to support the community during a difficult time.

“When he thinks of running a business, he’s thinking of social responsibility. He really believes in partnering with members of the community; it’s in his DNA,” says Orlich. “He’s always challenging us: what are we going to do to be an active neighbour across the board? It’s challenged us to come up with ways to meet that expectation.”

One obvious need was to get food to vulnerable Torontonians hit hard by the pandemic. “We had a brand-new kitchen and staff available,” says Orlich. An idea for a partnership sprang up quickly and Second Harvest worked with the City of Toronto and the United Way to identify community organizations with a need for prepared meals. 1 Hotel Toronto hired back 12 of their kitchen staff and began paying to produce and package takeaway meals, with all costs covered by the Scheinberg Relief Fund. The partnership launched in mid-December 2020 and is set to run until the end of February 2021. 

1 Hotel Toronto is currently producing over 3,000 meals per week which Second Harvest distributes to more than 10 community organizations like women’s shelters, food bank and pantry programs, seniors centres, multi-service centres, etc. across Toronto. 

“Our guys are highly trained cooks and I’ve never seen them happier,” Orlich says. “Cooking for 3,000-plus people a week makes them happy because they see the results of their work, and they take extra pride in the quality and healthfulness of the meals. That’s going to translate to a better crew.

“Usually, it’s the $50 cut of beef or the obscure micro-basil or a new cooking technique that gets their interest,” he jokes. “But recently we had a request for children’s meals and the guys couldn’t be happier. This restores their love of what they do.”

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