Viewpoint: Give restaurants a key role in feeding hungry during pandemic

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Because of mandatory closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry has seen receipts fall by 78 percent. More than 8 million restaurant workers have lost their jobs, contributing to the surge in unemployment rates to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and many of the nation’s 500,000 independent restaurants may not survive,, according to an analysis by the National Restaurant Association.

At the same time, food producers – dairy farmers, ranchers, farmers – are dumping and destroying food because the restaurants, hotels, schools and commercial customers are locked down.

At the same time, the number of Americans going hungry has increased almost overnight from 38 million to some 60 million, and with no end in sight. Indeed, around the world, experts are predicting a hunger pandemic, afflicting 1 billion people.

Meanwhile, restaurants – a $1 trillion industry amounting to 4 percent of GDP – play a pivotal role in the economic ecosystem of communities, stretching well beyond borders.

“Local, independent restaurants are the backbone of our communities, tourism, and redevelopment in every corner of the U.S.,” said the Independent Restaurant Coalition, formed by chefs and restaurant owners to lobby Congress for the interests of the industry. “We directly employ over 11 million people across the country, and indirectly employ hundreds of millions of workers up and down the food supply and delivery chain — from growers, packers, fisherman, linen services, delivery people and more — who depend on the continued revenue of restaurants to stay in business.”

Restaurants closing, taking with it some 8 million jobs. Some 60 million people going hungry. Food producers destroying food. What’s wrong with this dystopian picture?

The real tragedy is that it isn’t that this country doesn’t produce enough food, but that the federal government has done next to nothing to get the food where it needs to go. That takes an understanding of the problem and an interest in helping people now desperate for food. But we don’t have smart government now that can (or cares) to put plan in place.

Instead of just handing out money – the restaurant industry is looking for $120 billion just to stay afloat along with improvements to the Payroll Protection Program – to be flushed down a bottomless pit, make restaurants part of the COVID-19 response: Turn restaurants into community feeding centers.  They are the ones capable of reprocessing the food from the commercial suppliers to family-friendly portions to supply to food pantries or community food banks.

“Restaurants should be turned into community meal service. That would keep the ecosystem of the restaurant – employees, suppliers – intact and feed a lot of hungry people,” “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, one of the IRC founders, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross on NPR.

Instead of paying for people to be unemployed (the money is running out sooner than the emergency), FEMA could contract restaurants to produce food. Chef Jose Andres, one of the founders of the IRC and founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, has shown how it can be done. Andres was the one to bring millions of cooked meals to Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico when President Trump could only toss paper towels into a crowd. Andres should be put in charge to organize these community food centers, city by city.

Instead of a handout that couldn’t possibly go far enough to maintain payrolls and rent, the government funding could help restaurants stay in business, so they can pay their rent, pay their employees and feed hungry people. And it would forestall the cycle of prolonged economic devastation – another Great Depression – that the Trump administration’s callous ineptitude is unleashing.

“Providing economic assistance for the independent restaurant industry is one of the most critical investments to bring our economy back and the most visible step to give all Americans confidence that we will all come out of this,” the IRC said. “We are uniquely positioned for quick, efficient distribution of funds to tens of millions of workers up and down the food supply and delivery chain and can play a critical role in the swift administration of the federal government’s relief efforts during COVID-19.”

There were 38 million using SNAP (food stamps) before COVID-19 struck, when the Trump administration sought to tighten rules to make food stamps harder to obtain and make their use more restricted. The applications have increased 71 percent, adding another 25 million people needing assistance. In addition there are millions of people going to food banks who do not have SNAP benefits.

Food stamps, in addition to alleviating crippling hunger which affects child development (resulting in costly school remediation), undermines worker productivity and contributes to long-term (expensive) health problems, are actually one of the most important tools for economic stimulus in any community – something that is needed now. Instead of restricting benefits, a competent, caring government would be expanding access, increasing the dollar amount, and allowing food stamps users to purchase online grocery delivery (not allowed now), and even to pay for prepared meals from restaurants.

“SNAP is one of the nation’s primary counter-cyclical government assistance programs…serving as an automatic stabilizer to the economy,” the USDA.gov site says. “ERS research has estimated a multiplier of SNAP benefits on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1.54; that is, an increase of $1 billion in SNAP benefits in a slowing economy increases GDP by $1.54 billion and supports 13,560 additional jobs, including nearly 500 agricultural jobs (farming, forestry, fishing, and hunting).”

The IRC is proposing changes to the Paycheck Protection Program and CARES Act that better meet the needs of the restaurant industry, just as there was a bailout for the auto industry, the banks and the airlines.

“In the financial meltdown of 2008, the federal government bailed out institutions that were “too big to fail” while paying too little attention to the workers who needed help the most. Today, in the case of independent restaurants, there are too many to fail.”

Go to www.saverestaurants.com to join the fight.

1 COMMENT

  1. In addition to the food insecurity situation, food waste remains a problem largely unaddressed. recently in the news. For years, CommunitySolidarity.org has been rescuing & giving healthy vegetables, fruits, baked goods from fresh food supplies (markets, groceries) to the underserved communities on LI and Brooklyn through the efforts of volunteers. Their model, if recognized, expanded and applied more collaboratively could help solve several issues for the benefit of people and the environment.

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