How Toronto’s restaurants are staying afloat and feeding frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

One woman's inspired idea simultaneously provides restaurants with orders and honours health-care workers

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Local independent Toronto restaurants provide meals to frontline workers during the pandemic. Courtesy of Feed the Frontlines

Inside the kitchens of Toronto’s independent restaurants, you’ll hear the sizzling of the protein, the chopping of vegetables and the delicious aroma of various tasty cuisines. Restaurant chefs and workers hustle around the kitchens, plating, lidding and securing food in travel-safe packaging that will be sent out to hungry frontline workers.

Feed the Frontlines T.O. acts as a pandemic saviour to health-care workers, staff with social services agencies and families in need of fresh meals. Adair Roberts, a health-care consultant, started the organization at the start of the global pandemic in March 2020. It aims to provide connect workers in need of meals with meals from independent restaurants around the Greater Toronto Area that are also suffering.

The organization raises funds from the community to buy these meals from the restaurants. Restaurant owners and volunteers deliver them directly to hospitals and communities in need.

‘The idea … popped into my head’

For many restaurants, Feed the Frontlines is a lifeline that allows them to remain open in spite of the fact in-house dining isn’t allowed.

“Probably 80 per cent of our revenue was just killed overnight,” said Jennifer Gittins, co-owner of Little Sister restaurant in Toronto, one of the partners working with Feed the Frontlines. Her kitchen started pumping out 600 meals a week for the initiative.

“We were able to bring back some staff; we brought back three employees,” Gittins said. “(Roberts) was a Godsend.”

Roberts had the contacts in health care to get the idea off the ground. She started the idea in New York City as a way to save her friend’s restaurant.

“The idea that kind of popped into my head was ‘Well, I work in health care; I know how hard this [pandemic] is going to be on health-care workers,’” she said in a telephone interview.

The idea raised close to US$3 million. The initiative flourished from there, and now Feed the Frontlines is also taking Toronto by storm.

Connecting with frontline workers a challenge

To date, the initiative has raised nearly $800,000 through its GoFundMe page, which is still going strong.

Together, Roberts and her volunteer team do various tasks from funding management, organizing partnerships and creating social media awareness for the cause. 

With COVID-19 spread being a top concern for hospitals, some were hesitant at first for accepting meals due to safety protocols, but eventually, it was a go.

 “Restaurant workers are being masked while they were doing the preparations, people packing the food were gloved and masked, and each meal was packed in an individual container with wipeable tops and masked and gloved delivery drivers,” said Roberts.

Because of the diverse kinds of restaurants in the GTA, the meals also help the recipients expand their palates.

“Initially it was just favourites I had chosen … I spoke to three of my favourite local places that I would’ve hated to go out of business,” Roberts said.

Feed the Frontlines has worked with a fair share of partners, including Little Sister, which describes itself as a “Dutch-Indo” food bar, and Middle Eastern restaurant Tabule, among others.

“It really helped to know that we were putting smiles on people’s faces and getting so much positive feedback from the front liners,” said Diana Sideris, owner of Tabule, in a telephone interview. “Just knowing we’re able to give back to the community and help out is great.”

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Posted: Apr 16 2021 6:24 pm
Filed under: COVID-19 Features Food