Project Isaiah quickly made use of idle airline catering infrastructure to provide meals to hungry people in 11 cities nationwide.
Project Isaiah quickly made use of idle airline catering infrastructure to provide meals to hungry people in 11 cities nationwide.
May 7, 2020
When New York shut down in March, senior citizens living in affordable housing developments were left on their own. Already sick, or unable to leave their homes for fear of becoming infected, thousands of people found themselves with little access to food.
“We were hearing of entire buildings that were quarantined, of older people who were positive,” says Allison Nickerson, executive director of LiveOn NY. The organization works with 120 nonprofits and 250 senior centers, directly providing services to 10,000 seniors across all five boroughs every year. As volunteer networks were strained and the workforce was reduced, it became clear that people were going hungry.
The situation at affordable senior housing developments was especially concerning. “We started asking: What’s going to happen if the staff aren’t showing up? What’s going to happen to people? They need to eat. It was very dire. It’s still very difficult, but that was really life or death,” said Nickerson.
As March gave way to April, trucks began pulling up in front of senior housing to deliver thousands of boxed, cold meals. These sandwiches and snacks hadn’t been prepared and shipped by city agencies or local food pantries, however, they came from airline caterers.
But not in partnership with an airline. The meals—more than 30,000 of them in New York that first week alone—were the result of a unique arrangement between catering company Gate Gourmet and a brand-new nonprofit organization called Project Isaiah.
Airlines rely on widespread infrastructure, which includes food production facilities. This existing network of hubs, transportation, and logistics has enabled the scrappy nonprofit to provide emergency food relief in outbreak hotspots where social services have been overwhelmed by need.
Project Isaiah was built from the ground up in a manner of weeks by two women with no distribution or crisis management experience, just “mad spreadsheet skills,” some powerful connections, and an ability to work the phone.
The fact that an upstart program has served hungry people faster than governments and established food relief programs suggests that existing systems were breaking down even before the pandemic.
And yet the fact that an upstart aid program and a catering company have been able to serve hungry people across the country faster than governments and established food relief programs suggests that existing systems were in need of an update before the pandemic. Some 37 million Americans were food insecure in 2018, and that number is likely to grow by orders of magnitudes in the coming months. The national effort has also raised questions about whether it’s possible to prepare massive quantities of food, quickly and affordably, without putting people in danger.
Right after shelter-in-place orders went into effect around the country, the airlines found themselves with a glut of food and no passengers. With most planes grounded and airport lounges closed, thousands upon thousands of pounds of produce and snacks were rerouted to food banks and pantries, soup kitchens, and community centers from March into early April.
Many airlines have long worked with the national advocacy group Feeding America to distribute unneeded perishables to the organization’s 200 food banks. The network was ready to receive the food—and it did not go to waste. Almost every Feeding America food bank was seeing an influx of need, and about 60 percent of those sites were trying to feed more people with even less food on hand.
Delta Airlines gave away more than 200,000 pounds of food from its worldwide network of kitchens, often in collaboration with the Sodexo workers who staff the airline’s Sky Clubs. United Airlines, also alongside Sodexo employees, donated almost 160,000 pounds of food from their catering operations, Polaris lounges, and United Clubs. Southwest Airlines also reported donating $400,000 worth of snacks and other in-flight provisions to 15 food banks in the Feeding America network.
Smaller carriers were also able to donate what surpluses they had on hand. Hawaiian Airlines distributed in-flight snacks to community nonprofits in their home state, and the airline had been running groceries from O’ahu to Moloka’i ever since one of the rural island’s major supermarkets closed for COVID-19 related reasons (the market has since re-opened).
Not all donations went through Feeding America, but most came as the result of longstanding direct ties. Thirty Alaska Airlines’ kitchens in 16 states sent produce and other goods to food banks, including shelf-stable Picnic Packs, which are sold in-flight.
Some of the fresh fruit, eggs, and yogurt made their way to the SODO Community Market in Seattle, a food pantry operated by the statewide food bank Northwest Harvest. “That produce, the amount that they donated is the equivalent of more than 20,000 meals,” says Laura Hamilton, the food bank’s director of development. (The airline has also just announced a new fundraising campaign to support food banks along the Pacific.)
American Airlines staff working out of Dallas/Fort Worth International airport have been volunteering at the Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) for a number of years, and those community ties led to the donation of 10,000 pounds of fresh produce and breakfast foods. The TAFB is the distribution hub for 330 smaller food banks and pantries in 13 North Texas counties. It’s currently distributing 60 percent above normal, moving 1.6 million pounds of food throughout the region.
Once the hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce and in-flight meal kits went out, the airlines had no more food to give. But the infrastructure was still in place, so Devon Spurgeon, a corporate communications specialist living in Washington, D.C., and Blair Christie, a marketing and communications consultant, decided to work together to connect the dots by creating Project Isaiah.
“We were sitting watching what was happening with the COVID-19 epidemic, and trying to make sense of it while also asking ourselves how can we be helpful. So the idea was to start with a very basic need, which is of course food,” says Spurgeon.
Project Isaiah raises funds from high net-worth individuals and institutions—so far that list includes the Emerson Collective (founded by Steve Jobs’ former wife, Laurene Powell Jobs), Bank of America, and the George Lucas’s Family Foundation—then hires Gate Gourmet to produce and distribute the meals. (Recording artist Janelle Monáe has also collaborated with the project in Atlanta.)
Trucks carrying meals from six production facilities arrive each morning in 11 cities across the country, entrusting their cargo with on-the-ground organizations identified by Project Isaiah through cold calls, word of mouth, and Google searches. New York was one of their first theaters of operation.
“We’re delivering for Project Isaiah Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays across the city. It’s over 50 individual drop points, so it’s a massive logistics effort,” says Greg Hughes, VP of Operations Support at Gate Gourmet’s Reston, Virginia headquarters. “We make the meals this afternoon and they’re in the hands of the people in need the very next day, in most cases by the middle of the day.”
Gate Gourmet’s day-to-day operations have remained roughly the same. But now Project Isaiah is a customer, rather than an airline. The difference is that instead of placing orders based on booked seats, partner organizations are placing orders based on the needs of their community.
“We sent Gate Gourmet information about how many people need food, what types of food they prefer, if there are any restrictions, and then they drop off the meals. Then the building manager of the affordable senior housing building distributes them to the tenants,” says LiveOn NY’s Nickerson, from her New Jersey home.
Project Isaiah quickly established itself as something of a hunger strike force, jetting into overwhelmed cities to fill the acute food needs of people falling through the cracks of existing social programs. They intentionally sought out and partnered with organizations likely to be overlooked as other philanthropic dollars began flowing, stepping into the gaps left by struggling governments and social services agencies.
The concept piloted during the last week of March in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco. The following week, Project Isaiah began delivering meals to Boston, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans. Detroit and Philadelphia soon followed. As of the first week of May, Project Isaiah had delivered 1.1 million meals in 11 cities to over 200 partner organizations.
“We were able to work quickly, activate, and execute quickly without even involving too many people,” says Christie from her Annapolis home.
Project Isaiah’s rollout may have relied on established Gate Gourmet procedures, but every city presents its own challenges. When Detroit became another COVID-19 hotspot, Project Isaiah parked refrigerated trailers full of food in neighborhoods with high rates of infection. Public health employees then dropped several days’ worth of meals on people’s doorsteps so that they could remain quarantined and fed.
“We’ve been able to, with the flexibility that Gate Gourmet has, come up with a custom solution in each and every city,” says Spurgeon. “We’ve been able to work really closely in partnership with these organizations and the local governments.”
In Detroit, the Salvation Army of Metro Detroit—which was serving over a million meals a year before the pandemic—modified their mobile community kitchens to provide contactless delivery on the streets. Project Isaiah delivered 15,000 meals and snack kits, most of which were distributed through this new delivery system. Having prepackaged bags ready to deliver “allows the drivers to spend more time with the clients at the windows,” said a Salvation Army spokesperson.
Originally, New Orleans wasn’t on Project Isaiah’s radar. Then, former mayor Mitch Landrieu reached out. The rapid escalation of the crisis there demanded another rapid response, which they coordinated with two city councilwomen and required a little flexibility on the delivery side.
“We’re literally bringing a truck into a central spot, like a church parking lot, and then working with the volunteers there to offload the trailer and then hand the meals out straight away,” says Hughes.
In addition to seeking out smaller community organizations serving vulnerable populations easily overlooked by larger philanthropic efforts—people living on the margins of margins—Spurgeon and Christie have made a point to find those nonprofits and charities able to distribute Project Isaiah meals through other partner organizations in their cities.
Take Alexandria House in Los Angeles’s Mid-Wilshire district. It provides transitional housing to women and children, as well as supportive services to the greater neighborhood. Since the pandemic, they’ve also had to focus on helping people in the neighborhood find food.
“This is the reality of the current pandemic; those on the fringes are the first to suffer the consequences of our broken social support system,” says Michele Richards, Alexandria House’s development director. “The food we receive from Project Isaiah is a critical part of this new outreach. Many of our past residents have lost their jobs, are immuno-compromised, and lack the support that’s necessary right now.”
Alexandria House partnered with two nearby organizations that are both working with homeless people and those moving into transitional housing.
Gate Gourmet traditionally works out of airport facilities, but the meals made for Project Isaiah stay on the ground, traveling by truck and delivered by catering vehicles and box trucks. The meals are also not the cooked fare served on sectioned trays during long flights; they’re boxed and bagged, shelf stable, or refrigerated.
“You’re going to have a main, you’re going to have a support item, you’re going to have some type of fruit, and you’re going to compliment it with a sweet, and then in some cases of juice or water,” says Hughes. “A lunch could be a turkey sandwich, chips, fruit, and a sweet,” he adds. “From time to time, as supply allows, we’ve offered cereal and shelf-stable milk.” When they can’t provide a sandwich, he adds, “we’re trying to supplement it with items [to] build your own sandwich… leveraging different products, cheese and crackers, paired with other items.”
Spurgeon and Christie original planned to hire restaurants to provide meals, but the fear of contaminated food closed that door at the time. Prepackaged airline meals, on the other hand, were trusted as safe.
Project Isaiah insists that they always find ways to meet the nutritional standards developed in collaboration with their partners. “There’s still a calorie guideline and Gate Gourmet’s been really helpful as we learned from our organizations on the ground to make sure that we … have a level of volume beyond a snack,” says Christie.
While acknowledging the severity of the situation and difficulty meeting demand, Dr. Charles Platkin, editor of DietDetective.com and director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, is wary of sustaining people’s food needs with airline fare for too long.
“Overall, some of the airlines, depending on which ones, serve food that is very high in low-quality calories and not nutrient-dense,” he says. “Sodium levels are the key thing that concerns me for those individuals who are most vulnerable.”
Nutrition is a concern shared by LiveOn NY’s Nickerson, whose older clients often have special dietary needs. But she’s grateful for what Project Isaiah has done, and for what they’re able to provide.
“When you need food to survive, you need food to survive,” she says. “We didn’t just want—and Gate Gourmet was on the same page—snack food. They’re doing sandwiches, a healthy side, things like that.”
The food that Gate Gourmet provides isn’t especially unhealthy, but it’s not a permanent solution either. It’s a stopgap that everyone hopes will be replaced when city programs can supersede the need for emergency relief.
“Project Isaiah is taking what could be a not-great situation and making the best of it. And in an emergency situation sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
And yet, concerns over COVID-19 might hamper short-term efforts to begin replacing Project Isaiah’s meals with cooked fare. Health experts agree that standard kitchen hygiene and safe cooking procedures will kill the virus. And it’s clear that balanced meals that are prepared fresh are better for people’s overall health.
“Those who have challenged immunity systems are being impacted,” says Platkin. “We certainly want to make sure that the food we’re serving puts people in the best possible situation.”
That said, Platkin adds that Project Isaiah is, “taking what could be not a great situation and making the best of it. And in an emergency situation sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
On top of fighting hunger, Spurgeon and Christie also want to bring back jobs. “The biggest impact for us, beyond being able to serve the communities that we operate in, has been being able to put our employees back to work for such a good cause.” says Hughes.
Indeed, the program has enabled Gate Gourmet to hire back or keep on roughly 500 employees between six production facilities.
But although Gate Gourmet is working out of six strategic hubs based on capacity and availability of staff, there are still only so many hours to go around. And it’s not clear whether the workers who remain employed are being protected from the virus.
Tony Vega, a 39-year veteran of the company’s San Francisco International Airport location, says he has been working an average of 25 hours each four-day week, in a crew of 22 people where 1,000 people used to work in three shifts. He’s his family’s breadwinner, and his $21 hourly wage is no longer supplemented by the overtime he once relied on.
According to Ted Waechter, an organizer and spokesperson for the UNITE HERE! Local 2 union, which represents Vega, as of late April, an estimated 30 percent of the staff at Gate Gourmet—and its competitor LSG Sky Chefs—are still on the job nationally.
Vega helps prepare 5,000 sandwiches each shift, and he’s happy to know that those meals will be delivered to local organizations around the Bay Area, such as the GLIDE Foundation. But he also worries about his health. He is in his 60s and has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which makes him especially susceptible to the virus. He’s worried about getting sick, and about bringing the virus home to his family, but because of his seniority he was not offered a layoff, which would have allowed him to claim full unemployment benefits.
Five people at the facility where Vega works have reportedly been diagnosed with the virus. The union claims that three Gate Gourmet employees have been diagnosed, but an SFO spokesperson confirmed two cases. Another 20 workers have been forced to quarantine.
Vega says there has been no communication from the company about the infections, and that it took several weeks after San Francisco issued its shelter-in-place order to receive protective gear and other precautionary measures.
“This is the reality of the current pandemic; those on the fringes are the first to suffer the consequences of our broken social support system.”
“The mask that I’ve got, I got it from my supervisor two weeks ago,” he says on the phone from his San Francisco home. “She purchased it herself and was nice enough to give me one.”
Now, masks and hand sanitizer are being made available through the company and there are temperature checks at the beginning of each shift. The depleted workforce allows for ample space in the production facility and employee cafeteria, everywhere except on the assembly line where the sandwiches are made.
“The way we do it, one person makes it and passes it over to another person who’s wrapping and packing. We’re talking about maybe two feet [between people],” says Vega.
“Safety is our number one priority,” a Gate Gourmet spokesperson told Civil Eats, adding, “we continue to work in close cooperation with authorities, customers, and airports to assess and address the impact of COVID-19 on our industry.”
The virus is also likely exacerbating an existing, protracted labor dispute. Gate Gourmet employees at Vega’s work haven’t had a contract since December 2018, and the union has been protesting in front of airline offices. Workers voted to strike last summer but have been prevented from walking off the job so far because of the Railway Labor Act.
Medical benefits have been a major point of contention. According to union rep Waechter, the infected employees received no additional sick leave or other compensation to help with medical bills or other expenses.
When asked about the infections, Project Isaiah said, “Health and safety concerns specific to the COVID-19 crisis were what drove the creation of Project Isaiah. These meals provide several days of food during the quarantine … and require fewer volunteers to deliver than daily hot-meal service. The current crisis has produced many heroes. We consider Gate Gourmet and its employees, who have worked tirelessly to provide meals to those in need, among them.”
A number of organizations around the country have reached out to Project Isaiah for help, but Spurgeon and Christie are trying to prevent spreading the effort too thin. Right now, they’re hoping to plan more strategically instead of simply reacting to new crises. And they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign (more than $28,000 at press time) to augment their foundational support in expectation that their efforts will continue for some time.
Spurgeon and Christie didn’t disclose the overall amount they have raised so far, but they say they aren’t paying themselves and have relied on volunteers to help with administrative support. Gate Gourmet’s Hughes says the company doesn’t comment on pricing, but he did add that, “everything is provided at cost, with 100 percent of funds going directly to the preparation and distribution of food for this important cause.”
The hope is that if city- and state-level efforts ramp up in the coming months, the effort might be able to move to new regions. And as work to shore up or build new food assistance programs takes shape, the people working in these frontline aid organizations want to ensure that new systems are not only robust but equitable, reaching the people who were food insecure before the pandemic, as well as the newly unemployed.
“Not only does violence not stop under quarantine—but so far in Chicago, over 70 percent of the reported deaths have been African Americans from disinvested communities like the ones we serve,” says Tara Dabney, director of development and communications at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. The organization does outreach related to gun violence, but it has also begun working with Project Isaiah to provide 500 boxed meals and 500 snack boxes to the Institute’s community each week for the past three weeks.
“We know we could pass out 1,000 meals every day if we had the donations to be able to do so,” says Dabney.
One immediate hope is that the kind of emergency relief coming from Project Isaiah will be replaced by fresh groceries for hot meals. “It’s one thing if you’re COVID-positive and quarantined. But in July or August, if people are still in hotspots and they don’t have acute health needs, I would like to see their food delivery options improved,” says Nickerson.
She also wants the city’s senior centers, which have kept both the traditions of scratch cooking and culturally specific meal programs alive for so long, to contribute to solutions. Community is still important in times of crisis and in times of recovery.
While new systems are being developed, Platkin insists that it’s important to build them fairly and equitably.
“Yes, you feed people. That’s very, clear. [But] are you just ‘feeding’ people?“ he asked. “The question to ask is: Are government staffers, food banks, and other feeding groups giving up too quickly? Just because someone is poor, sick, or vulnerable doesn’t mean they don’t have a human right to eat healthy, whole foods.”
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