Stars and Execs Rally to Feed the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Epidemic

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Jeffrey Wright, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman

As the coronavirus outbreak strains hospitals around the country, three newly formed relief groups in Los Angeles; Berkeley, California; and Brooklyn are purchasing meals from local restaurants to deliver to heroic health care workers.

All around the same time in late March — as novel coronavirus outbreaks worsened around the U.S. — Westworld actor Jeffrey Wright started a nonprofit in Brooklyn; in Berkeley, California, novelist-producer couple Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon sprang into action with a like-minded initiative; and in Los Angeles, a group of execs — including Discovery’s Erin Arend, HBO senior vp Nora Skinner, Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden and Magnet Companies’ Jeff Berman — came together with a similar idea.

In all three cases, the organizers hit upon a plan to help struggling local restaurants and overworked health care workers. Each is raising money to purchase meals from eateries at full price, which are then donated and delivered to hospitals. "The health care workers and the first responders are having a tough time getting food because all the restaurants are not operating at 100 percent. And the restaurants need revenue, and they are so energized to be able to play a vital role," explains Wright of the community needs that inspired him to start a GoFundMe drive called Brooklyn for Life!. "It's all community-based, grass-roots, streamlined, efficient."

Similar nonprofits have sprung up across the country. One such, Frontline Foods — which is partnered with chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen — is now purchasing restaurant meals to feed health care workers in 24 states.

Los Angeles

In L.A., the severity of the coronavirus crisis inspired a group of entertainment-industry parents — all of whom have kids in at Brentwood's Kenter Canyon Charter School — to launch their GoFundMe fundraising effort, Help Feed the Frontline Fighting COVID-19. "It all started through our local elementary. We were all on a text chain. COVID was escalating. People were starting to work from home," says Shannon Pruitt, managing partner at Horizon Media, who co-founded Help Feed the Frontline with Skinner, Arend, Harden, Berman and Alison Kuperberg of Sullivan Street Events. "One of the women said, 'My sister is an ER doctor at Kaiser and they are being overwhelmed already.' We reached out to her and she said, 'We need masks. What we also could use is a decent meal.'" Quickly, they banded together and ordered dinners from a local restaurant, Marmalade Café, that was delivered to 75 nurses and doctors at Kaiser's L.A. Medical Center. "It came together in about 36 to 72 hours," says Pruitt of the formation of the relief effort.

"We are now delivering 10,000 meals a week to 13 hospitals. We've been able to scale very quickly," continues Pruitt. Since its inception, the group also has partnered with World Central Kitchen as well as Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson of L.A. restaurant Playa Provisions. Since March 24, the group has raised more than $670,000 of its now $1.5 million goal. Among the contributors from the worlds of entertainment and sports are The Ringer's Bill Simmons (who donated $100,000); Los Angeles Laker Anthony Davis (who, in conjunction with cold-food-storage company Lineage Logistics, made a $250,000 matching donation); producer Brad Falchuk; actor Jason Bateman; and Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof. All donations are tax deductible.

"For the health care workers, it shows that the community is rallying to support them while at the same time it helps local businesses stay operational, and they have a sense of pride and excitement that they are helping," says Pruitt, adding, "A lot of these doctors don't have time to eat. There are no breaks. And by the time they are getting out of the hospitals, it's not easy to get food."

Brooklyn

In early March, Wright was in London shooting Matt Reeves' now-delayed The Batman. "I was filming and just following the outbreak very closely," Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter. Since the film shut down production, he has been sheltering in place at home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. When a neighborhood pizza shop called Graziella's started a campaign called Operation Pizza encouraging customers to order pies for workers at Brooklyn Hospital, Wright was tagged in a tweet about the effort. "It's a place [where] I order pizzas and goat-cheese salad and lasagnas on the regular," he says, adding that "I can literally see Brooklyn Hospital from my window."

Soon, Wright was talking to a friend, Michael Thompson, the owner of another local spot, Brooklyn Moon Café, about getting involved as well. The actor said he didn't realize that workers at the hospital were in need of food. "They have a cafeteria," says Wright, who, after speaking with Brooklyn Hospital's senior vp external affairs, Lenny Singletary, learned otherwise. "Lenny said they could use additional meals to augment the cafeteria because you have hospital staff working 15, 16 hours a day, many of them no longer going home, many of them staying in hotels near the hospital. Whatever we could do would be welcome and appreciated."

Since then, the aid operation — renamed Brooklyn for Life! and launched March 25 on GoFundMe — has ramped up from those two initial restaurants to include nearly 40 restaurants in the borough, seven hospitals and multiple EMS stations. "The restaurant folks are so energized to be able to play a vital role. That's been really gratifying and meaningful in the midst of this thing, which can at times make people feel pretty helpless," says Wright.

To date, the group, which is now a full 501c3 nonprofit charitable organization, has raised more than $175,000 of its $1 million goal. "Today, we are preparing over 2,500 meals for delivery every day," says Wright, who praises the "incredible support" of the office of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to facilitate outreach to hospitals as well as some police stations. Food for medical workers is also available at a bodega, Green Bites, across the street from Brooklyn Hospital.

"We're just trying to do what we can to make sure the community we had before this outbreak is maintained through it and returns as strong as it was before, once we push through this thing," says Wright. "Americans have to do what we can to serve and take care of our communities, because it's not coming down from the top as it should. There's no federal government leadership looking out for us."

Berkeley

When the coronavirus crisis hit, Waldman, the novelist and writer-producer (Star Trek: Picard, Unbelievable), and her husband, Chabon, who's adapting his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as a Showtime series, had been living in Los Angeles for a year working on entertainment projects. But in March, they decamped back to their house in Berkeley, California, to be at home with three of their four kids, who range in age from 17 to 25. "This all started," says Waldman, "because my friend Tanya Holland of [local restaurant] Brown Sugar Kitchen called me and said that she basically sent an email around to all of her regular customers and said, 'Guys, if I'm going to make it, I'm really going to need you to step up and start ordering because it's all going to be takeout."

On March 19, Waldman immediately put in a large order for her family. "On my way to pick it up, a friend of mine who's an ER doctor at Cal Pacific Medical Center was telling me how he had been eating out of machines and it was so stressful, and some stranger just dropped off dinner," continues Waldman. "I just thought that was so marvelous. So I called Tanya — I had just left the restaurant — and said, 'Hey, can you do 25 meals?'" A couple of hours later, Waldman delivered those 25 initial meals to Highland Hospital's Emergency Department. "I just pulled into the triage tent and said, 'You guys want dinner?' The first person I talked to burst into tears, which made me cry," says Waldman.

Three days later, Waldman put out a call on her Twitter account to other Bay Area restaurants to get involved. "And Jenny Schwarz, the owner of one of one of my favorite restaurants in Oakland, Hopscotch, emailed me and said, 'You know, if you want to scale this up, let's work together and I will organize the restaurants." Other friends and volunteers soon got involved to form a new charitable group, East Bay Feed ER. Waldman (with help from Chabon) focuses on fundraising. "Which was literally on my Venmo at first," she says, adding that when the meals are purchased from area restaurants, "We pay full price plus a fat tip. The restaurants have told us that just one of our orders [means] they can keep an employee on for two weeks." Since those early days, World Central Kitchen has come on as the group's fiscal operations partner.

To date, East Bay Feed ER has raised more than $360,000 from nearly 5,000 contributors and delivered 3,900 meals to five different hospitals. One of the critical aspects of the relief effort is preparing and delivering food up to COVID-19 safety standards. "Everyone wears masks. Everything is individually packaged. We have contacts at the hospital so we know where to drop off and when it is most appreciated. During the daytime there is a cafeteria, but for the nighttime shifts there's no cafeteria. We also have a system where the person picking up the food goes to the restaurant and opens the trunk of the car. The restaurant person puts it in the trunk. The driver shuts the trunk and drives to the hospital and opens the trunk again. The hospital staff unloads the food. So the driver never touches the food and the only person who ever touches the metal of the car is the driver."

Continues Waldman, "We clarified our mission early on as having three parts: to support and boost the morale of hospital staff, who are doing their jobs under truly abysmal conditions with very limited amounts of PPE to keep them safe; to sustain our local restaurants, which are really the heart of our community; and the third part, which turns out to be incredibly important, is to give people a feeling that they can contribute right now because this experience is one of such hopelessness and helplessness." That's been true on a personal level for her as well; she recently told the New Health Club podcast that starting the nonprofit has kept her constantly active, which helps keep her tendency toward depression at bay.

"It makes this period of isolation and loneliness more tolerable," says Waldman, "and it can give you a sense of community and shared purpose."

A version of this story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.