Updated 5:06 p.m.
Even before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders came down in March, all Sacramento restaurants had to stop serving dine-in customers. A lot of places switched to takeout. Many closed. But some local restaurateurs immediately started thinking about how to serve people in need.
At Canon in East Sacramento, the team launched a “Family Meal” program, along with four other restaurants, to serve seniors and low-income residents. But that program has limited funding.
On Wednesday, however, the state is launching a new program to serve meals for seniors, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up most of the tab.
“Now that we’ve got some money from FEMA, it’s going to be a lot more sustainable,” chef Brad Cecchi said of the family meals program, adding that the coalition of restaurants — which also includes Mulvaney’s B&L, Binchoyaki, Camden Spit & Larder and Allora — was initially relying on donations to make it work.
Gov. Gavin Newsom calls the new federally and state-funded program Great Plates Delivered. It tasks cities and counties with providing three meals a day to low-income seniors, at $66 per senior per day.
FEMA covers 75% of the tab, the state pays about 19% and local jurisdictions pay just over 6%. FEMA’s contribution is slated to end June 10.
In Sacramento, leaders hope these government payments will be enough to keep struggling restaurants afloat.
The announcement comes as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is pushing for stores to reopen and moving toward giving restaurants the green light. He says the new senior meal program will be a financial boost for the city.
“I don’t know whether it will make up for all of the loss, but it certainly is a major help and it couldn’t come at a better time,” Steinberg said. “There has been a lot of economic damage and hardship. The combination of some reopening, plus this opportunity, I hope will save as many in our restaurant community as possible.”
While some cities and counties have said they’re concerned about getting a program of this magnitude off the ground, the mayor says they’re ready.
“In Sacramento, we have very deep pre-existing relationships with our restaurant community,” Steinberg said. “We aren’t strangers.”
Some of the seniors who are already receiving food from the Family Meal program will be able to move over to Great Plates Delivered, if they meet the state’s guidelines.
Participants must be 65 years or older, or age 60-64 and at high risk for COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition. They must make less than $74,900 a year for an individual, and not be participating in CalFresh or Meals on Wheels.
At first, Sacramento plans to enroll 1,000 seniors. People who think they’re eligible can call 3-1-1 to sign up.
The city is also finding participants through Paratransit, United Cerebral Palsy and other nonprofits. Some seniors who’ve been getting food delivered from Raley’s through a partnership with Sacramento Republic FC may be able to switch over to the city program.
For every 1,000 seniors the city signs up, 40 restaurants will be hired to prepare meals either three or four days a week. That means making 50 meal kits daily, with each containing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Restaurants preparing meals three days a week will receive $9,000 a week from the city, while those participating for four days will get $12,000.
The city expects to spend $250,000 in local funding, which would make it a $4 million program, accounting for state and federal allocations. The long-term goal is to enroll 3,500 seniors and hire 120 to 140 restaurants.
The city has already selected 30 participating restaurants, including Broderick Roadhouse, Selland’s Market Cafe and Devine Gelateria in the downtown area, Colo’s Soul Food and Seafood in North Sacramento and Phở Ru Restaurant in South Sacramento.
At Queen Sheba Ethiopian Cuisine on Broadway, owner Zion Taddese says she jumped at the opportunity to work with the city after more than a month of slow business. She’s had to reduce her staff from 15 to six.
“My employees, most of them are immigrants,” she said. “So it’s just so hard for me to see reducing their hours, some of them I couldn’t even keep. This would give me an amazing opportunity to have my staff back.”
In the coming days, restaurant workers will start preparing 50 meal kits a day, four days a week. For lunch and dinner, Zion says they’ll focus on staples such as lentils, cabbage and yellow split peas cooked with turmeric.
“We use a lot of garlic and ginger, which is good for your immune system,” she said.
But she’s planning to serve an American-style breakfast with gluten-free pancakes and eggs.
The city says it worked to be inclusive of many types of cuisine.
“We did also consider size of business and ownership, whether it’s minority or women-owned,” said Julia Burrows, senior policy consultant for the city. “So far, what we’re tracking is that 59% of the restaurants are minority-owned, nearly 30% are woman-owned.”
Seniors will receive food from whatever participating restaurant is nearest them, and those who have special dietary needs will be matched with a restaurant that can accommodate. They’ll get food from one restaurant on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and another on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The city is using some of the state and federal funding to pay for meal packaging and delivery. Paratransit, a Sacramento nonprofit that typically drives seniors and disabled residents to activities, will be dropping off the kits.
A small portion of the funding will go to the Family Meal chefs, who are now serving as mentors to newly added restaurants preparing these meal kits for the first time.
Restaurants that want to join the Great Plates Delivered program can fill out this form.
Seniors who would like to receive meals should call 3-1-1.
Chef Brad Cecchi of Canon spoke to Insight With Beth Ruyak. You can listen to that interview here.
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