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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Projects that connect restaurants to the hungry nourish bodies, hearts

UPDATED: Sun., May 10, 2020

It's a flury of activity as Mindy Howard, right, moves to pick up food while Zach Zappone, left and his father Mike Zappone, center, hand meals to Heather Easterling Ritchie, who will drive them to families in need on Thursday at No-Li Brewery's parking lot in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
It's a flury of activity as Mindy Howard, right, moves to pick up food while Zach Zappone, left and his father Mike Zappone, center, hand meals to Heather Easterling Ritchie, who will drive them to families in need on Thursday at No-Li Brewery's parking lot in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

For about 90 minutes almost every day, Mandi Ibarra-Rivera is a meal wrangler.

Working from home, Ibarra-Rivera, a Spokane writer, contacts restaurants and coordinates orders from hungry families to help produce the home food deliveries that have been the core of Spokane Food Fighters – an emergency response system for the hungry that sprang to life on March 22, as the state shut down to thwart the coronavirus.

Started by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, Food Fighters sprang from a simple idea. As Ibarra-Rivera put it: “We would pay restaurants for their food and also get food to people who need it.”

Wrapped into that loop are people like Lorraine White, a 64-year-old retired caregiver who lives in north Spokane on a fixed income of $600 a month. White doesn’t have a computer, but her niece logs on and requests meals on her behalf. White couldn’t be more grateful.

“I think it’s great,” she said Friday. “Wonderful! Fabulous! Outstanding! It was a very creative idea.”

It’s an idea that has flourished for Spokane Food Fighters, which is still expanding. A similar effort is the Facebook Live-based project overseen by local charity dynamo Rick Clark, which is winding down after a 43-day push that raised more than $50,000 to spend at more than 50 local restaurants, with volunteers delivering the meals to shelters, blood banks and other organizations.

Spokane Food Fighters has now delivered more than 20,000 meals, expanded its offerings to include staple-food deliveries from Second Harvest Food Bank and a pickup option in Kendall Yards. Local residents can order food online for delivery the following day.

There’s clearly a lot of need – and just as clearly a lot of desire to help meet it. Food Fighters has raised about $75,000 in donations large and small, daily delivery slots are snapped up by volunteer drivers the minute they are offered, and a core group of volunteers like Ibarra-Rivera keep it all running.

The project’s lone paid worker, Excecutive Director Robbi Katherine Anthony, was crucial to establishing the project’s website and doing a lot of the heavy lifting, organizationally, Riccelli said.

For Anthony, Ibarra-Rivera and other volunteers are the crucial elements in “this little microcosm we’ve got going on with SFF, and they round out the idea that what we’re doing is not just for those we deliver meals to or the restaurants we partner with, but the people we work with on a regular basis,” she wrote in an email. “They’ll … brighten your day, and when we are socially isolated, that’s as much a service as the deliveries themselves.”

A web of connections

The initial network was built on contacts and associations Riccelli had from his work as a legislator and his days at Mead High and Gonzaga University – or, in Ibarra-Rivera’s case, as a youth soccer coach. Riccelli coached Ibarra-Rivera’s son, and when he was launching Food Fighters, asked her if she thought there might be a role for her.

Riccelli also coaches the son of GU women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier, who volunteers for the project as well.

Ibarra-Rivera quickly became the point person organizing orders and deliveries with the restaurants, while her husband is a regular on the pickup/delivery schedule. She said the coronavirus has left many feeling helpless, and that volunteering can make a difference. It’s nourishing in a different way.

“There’s not a lot you can do,” she said. “But you can do this.”

At first, the Food Fighters could deliver about 35 meals a day. Now it can manage 150, and has expanded deliveries to the Spokane Valley. It has continued to evolve organically along with the need and the participation of volunteers and partners, Riccelli said, and he foresees that continuing as the uncertainty of reopening public life and the economic fallout becomes clearer.

“We don’t really have an end point,” he said. “As long as there’s need, we’ll continue to grow.”

The project has spent roughly half the $75,000 it has raised from donors. That includes its larger partners, such as the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, No-Li Brewhouse, STCU, Global Neighborhood Thrift and chef Adam Hegsted’s Eat Good Group.

Hegsted became a part of the project early on. The stay-home order slashed his business by 85%, and he had to lay off around 150 people. He was looking for something he could do to both keep remaining staff busy and provide some sustenance to people who had lost their jobs.

“To help put a meal on their table was part of what made me want to do this to begin with,” he said.

Hegsted is preparing 150 meals a day, at a low rate of $4 per meal, three times a week for the project at his Wandering Table restaurant.

“That makes it so we can have that chef keep working,” he said.

Riccelli said he’s been impressed by both the response of the project’s partners and larger donors, but also with a high number of donations of $10 or $30.

“It’s been pretty amazing to see our community respond,” he said.

A great run

The project run by Clark, who became well-known for his Giving Backpacks nonprofit, was focused more specifically on helping restaurants, and on purchasing full-price meals from them with money donated during daily Facebook Live chats that Clark ran for 15 minutes.

“On day one, my goal was to raise $200 to buy enough pizzas from Pizza Rita to feed everybody at the Hope House” women’s shelter, Clark said.

He raised $500.

“Little did I know that would be the least amount we ever raised,” he said.

Many people donated, and a group of core volunteers helped do the deliveries, but Clark took on the lion’s share of the work and responsibility, and did so with a prominent social media presence that ran from donations to photos of the restaurants and the people receiving meals.

He took Sundays off, but did it every other day.

“It became like Groundhog Day,” he said. “Every day was the same.”

The number of people who’ve been fed is approaching 3,500. He has been trying to wind down the effort so he can refocus on running his nonprofit and the rest of his normal life – but donors and volunteers are still itching to help, he said.

As he’s spoken about bringing it to a close, he’s been overwhelmed with emotion by the scale of the response from people wanting to help.

“We had a guy donate a dollar. One dollar,” he said. “That just hit me.”

White, the woman whose niece has organized Food Fighters deliveries for her, is on the thinnest of budgets in the best times. She takes pride in having no outstanding bills, she said – which is no mean feat on her slim Social Security income, and which puts pressure on her food budget.

“I’ve got to be really, really frugal,” she said.

She said she’s impressed with the spirit of giving wrapped up in the project, and that she hopes people who are receiving the help are thinking of what they can give back – even if it’s a note of thanks like the ones she sends to volunteers.

“When people do get some money, they could give a thank you to these restaurants,” she said. “It’s just a five-star operation.”

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