People & Places

The Bright Side: Burlington eateries make meals for frontline workers

Emergency Department health care providers at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington were greeted in the staff room by dinner, courtesy of the Great Northern restaurant, on Thursday night, April 9, 2020.

As the Covid-19 crisis began to descend upon Vermont, Burlington nurse Sheramy Tsai noticed something going on in other communities that she thought ought to happen here. People across the country were raising money to buy meals from local restaurants, then donating those meals to frontline workers at the hospital.

“This was a slam dunk for me,” Tsai said. “We’re helping two frontline workers, really: frontline workers at the hospital, and frontline workers in the food industry.”

The Bright Side is VTDigger’s series on Vermonters doing good during the coronavirus crisis. Read the full series.

As a former hospital nurse (and current school nurse), Tsai said she knows how grueling long shifts at the hospital can be, even without a pandemic. She thought a project that gave local businesses a much-needed boost while feeding the city’s health care workers might be the perfect fit for Burlington.

So a few days into the crisis, Tsai reached out to the organizers of Frontline Foods, a San Francisco-based effort to connect local restaurants with local hospitals, and met them online to learn how to get the project off the ground in Vermont.

In just two weeks, Vermont’s Frontline Foods chapter raised almost $35,000, and brought hundreds of meals from Burlington-area restaurants to workers at hospitals and nursing homes nearby.

“Nurses and doctors, they can probably feed themselves,” Tsai said. “This is really about a morale boost. It’s about community members coming together and showing gratitude and saying ‘we got your back.’ And then letting these workers sit down and have a nice meal.”

Dozens of restaurants have already signed up to make the meals. So far, the project has already fed hundreds of emergency room and nursing home workers with food prepared by restaurants like El Cortijo, Restaurant Poco and The Great Northern.

Tsai said several hundred people have already donated to the cause, with several individual donors giving as much as $10,000.

“There’s now 40-some chapters of this initiative, and we’re right up there with New York or San Francisco or L.A.,” Tsai said. “We’re this small little state, but we’re holding our own in terms of fundraising.”

Tsai said there’s been so much interest that it wasn’t sustainable for her to manage on her own. Now, she oversees a half-dozen people managing fundraising, marketing, and communication with restaurants and hospitals.

Going forward, Tsai said they’d love to expand across the state. But for now, they’re focusing on the Burlington area, largely because that’s where the crisis has hit the hardest.

“UVM is the only Level 1 trauma center. They’re treating the majority of the very sick Covid patients in the state,” she said. “Others haven’t been hit as hard.”

Tsai said the response they’ve gotten from all sides — the restaurants, health care workers, and the community at large — has been “overwhelming.”

“Last week, I got a text from an ER nurse after we delivered food,” Tsai said. “She’s said, ‘Seeing my staff sit down and talk for a couple of minutes and actually enjoy their food, this is what recharges us.’” 

And Tsai said these deliveries are almost more important for the restaurants. She said though take-out can help, restaurants really depend on people sitting down, drinking, and lingering for appetizers and desserts to make their money. Now, that revenue has disappeared.

“We want to see them on the other side of this crisis,” Tsai said. “If we don’t support them as a community in a time like this, they won’t make it.”

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Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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