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Feed Our Hospitals: How a non-profit created in the early days of COVID-19 is impacting our New York City hospital workers and the restaurant industry

By Teresa Bruno

I sat down with Jessica Vernon, Lauren Smith and Kelsey Orem of Feed Our Hospitals to discuss their mission and the impact that they have made so far. 

Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a physician, a nurse or a respiratory therapist working on the front lines of COVID-19. As you imagine their typical day, you may be surprised at this fact – New York City’s healthcare providers do not have easy access to nutritious food. They cannot simply order a meal for themselves; it’s challenging enough to find a spare moment to eat. Small businesses and local staples are shut down, especially in underserved areas which are the hardest hit. 

This is the untold story behind the heroic actions of healthcare providers and what Jessica Vernon, an OB/GYN at NYU Langone Hospital, quickly realized as she saw her peers and many departments become rapidly overtaken by COVID-19. Jessica further explained:

“Although some units were getting donations, hospital workers were getting bombarded from all different angles and struggling to organize food deliveries. Other departments which do not typically cover Emergency Medicine and Intensive Care were turned into COVID-19 wards and nobody was sending donations to them.”

Jessica shared her experience with her best friend, Lauren Smith, a former investment banker turned investor/advisor in real estate and technology. Together, they started a grassroots drive for non-perishables that grew exponentially. According to Lauren, “the hospital demand created the vision”  and, within a week, they were filing papers to form Feed Our Hospitals, a non-profit that would seamlessly supply local hospitals with nutritious meals for healthcare workers, while also supporting local restaurants in critical need of business.  

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Happy healthcare providers receiving their meals from Feed Our Hospitals.

Lauren brought in Kelsey Orem, a performer in Broadway’s hit musical Jagged Little Pill (and NYU alumna), who has been sidelined by COVID-19. Together they form the core of operations. Their days are filled with matching hospital needs to restaurants, coordinating delivery, fundraising, engaging with donors and ensuring legal, finance and safety standards are met. Lauren adds “after that, it’s just putting out fires.” 

At first, it was challenging to grasp the totality of demand:

“This isn’t just, you know, talk to the head of the hospital and administration and then you’ve got your demand figured out. It was every single department and every different floor all competing [with one another]. It’s just insanity. There’s so much demand – each department, and then you have three or four shifts a day.” 

Beyond that, pockets of underserved groups continued to appear, for example, respiratory therapists “are not a specific department that you would think of, but they’re the ones taking care of patients on ventilators all day and all night.” Once word traveled around a hospital, the team would start to receive a ton of inbound emails: “Hey, we’re desperate. We are out here in the Bronx and no one is serving us meals. We are all overworked. Can you help us?” 

A group of people preparing food in a kitchen

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The Feed Our Hospital team scrambled to provide advocate Dr. Neely Kahn and her peers a last-minute meal on Easter Sunday. Dr. Kahn has bravely shared her personal story of the horrors of working in a COVID-19 unit.

Now going into their sixth week of service, the team has built an effective playbook of operations. They work a lot within the NYU system, in support of Jessica’s colleagues, and they prioritize underserved hospitals that provide care to the most vulnerable populations in New York City.  They aim to serve a whole unit, including clerical and environmental services (janitorial), who are on the front lines along with doctors and nurses. Each week, the team recalibrates so that they focus on the right spots. Feed Our Hospitals has seen impressive results so far: Donors have contributed over $135,000, which funded over 9,000 meals for staff at 15 hospitals across NYC.  

With no end to the crisis in sight for restaurants, a core tenet of Feed Our Hospital’s mission is to pay them for the meals that they supply. Kelsey sources from both small, community restaurants and some larger companies and affected catering halls that have the capacity to fulfill large orders and last-minute requests. Kelsey explained, “It’s worked out really nicely. We have restaurants from upper Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, and all around Manhattan. It’s been wonderful to see how much these restaurants want to help and be how impactful it’s been. For us to place an order of even 30 meals a week is helping them out.” The team has partnered with Uber, which has donated the cost of delivery and allowed them to use their professional “Uber Central” dispatch technology. This has proven to be a key differentiator, allowing the team to partner with restaurants who are unable to deliver meals themselves, and handle multiple simultaneous orders from a centralized hub. 

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“It’s not much, but it’s what we can do and then shows them a little bit of love.” – Jessica Vernon 

The curve is now trending down in the City, and the general public is anxious to get back to normal. But for the healthcare providers on the front lines, they are still in the hospitals, inundated with patients. Think about 60+ days of working in a COVID unit and going to sleep and dreaming about keeping people alive. As word spreads, the team continues to receive requests from healthcare professionals who would like their hospital or department serviced. Feed Our Hospitals is staying focused on their mission, and providing support to them and to New York City restaurants is as critical as ever. 

To learn more, donate or volunteer, please visit feedourhospitals.org or follow Feed Our Hospitals on Instagram (@feedourhospitals), Facebook and LinkedIn

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