Two groups hit hardest by the coronavirus need support: The Community Meals Fund Act can help
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The restaurant industry feeds people not only in good times, but at all times. During disasters, chefs are among the first responders, preparing meals for victims and relief workers alike. Who better to feed communities in crisis than those who cook for a living? Yet their ability to serve others is now at stake.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted mandatory closures to protect public health, forcing restaurants to scale back operations or temporarily close, furloughing employees. Nationally, we are experiencing the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression. Of the more than 36 million people who have filed for unemployment since early March, nearly 40 percent of April’s job losses were in the leisure and hospitality industry alone, which includes restaurants and food service.

These job losses affect families, many of whom will struggle to choose between paying for rent, health care, utility bills, and food. Families are now waiting in line, sometimes for hours, at food banks or school meal sites just to make sure their children have enough to eat.

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There’s no doubt about it: the coronavirus has caused a catastrophic health and economic emergency that is pushing millions of Americans into poverty and hunger.

Yet, despite their own personal crises, chefs and culinary professionals are still serving their communities, finding innovative ways to feed hungry children and other vulnerable populations.

This is exactly what the restaurant industry, and the thousands of individuals who are a part of it, is known for. Restaurants don't just nourish, they nurture. Even in these desperate times, that kind of care isn’t going away—though it is finding new pathways of expression.

It’s demonstrated by chefs like Erik Bruner-Yang in Washington, D.C., who developed the Power of Ten, a practical, scalable revenue model that keeps restaurant workers employed while feeding at-risk populations. Or Zach Bell and Clay Conley in Florida, who converted one of their kitchens to feed kids and families at risk of hunger, and will continue to do so long after conditions normalize. And chefs like Mary Sue Milliken in Los Angeles and Jody Adams in Boston, who are among the many helping to feed frontline workers coast-to-coast.

Sustaining these types of partnerships during periods of great need is challenging. Unlike other industries, restaurant cash flow is dependent on current business. With restaurants operating on small margins during the best of times, this pandemic is dealing a tough financial blow.

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It’s time for Congress to invest in public-private partnerships like these to meet the needs of communities at risk of hunger.

That’s why our organizations support the Community Meals Fund Act (H.R. 6384), introduced by New York Rep. Nydia VelazquezNydia Margarita VelasquezTreasury to give Congress access to all PPP loan data House GOP lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19 DOJ watchdog launches probe into death of inmate pepper sprayed by guards MORE.

By establishing a new program to help fund public-private partnerships between local restaurants and nonprofit organizations, this bill would provide chefs, culinary professionals and other restaurant workers with critical support during this time of need, while also helping some of the hardest-hit communities.

Through the Community Meals Fund, nonprofits could qualify for grants of up to $500,000 to partner with small and mid-sized restaurants to prepare and distribute food to kids and other vulnerable populations.

It would deploy the longstanding expertise of the operators and staff in this industry who are well acquainted with safety protocols and equipped to feed people, whether in decorated dining rooms, from a food truck window or ladled from a steaming kettle over a flame.

Hundreds of chefs and culinary professionals stand behind this approach. This week, 410 of them from across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands signed a letter to Congress, urging the adoption of this legislation in the next coronavirus relief package.

The Community Meals Fund is a win-win solution, reaching two groups hit hardest by the pandemic: kids and families in need and the restaurant industry.

This is critical. Children are hungry. Before the pandemic, one in seven children in America lived with food insecurity. But new reports project childhood hunger has risen sharply over the past two months, with closer to one in four kids experiencing hunger in our nation today.

Restaurants need support. They are an essential part of American life. Restaurants are woven into our social fabric, providing needs beyond nutrition. We dine out for a host of reasons: to do business, to celebrate, to mourn, to gather.

As an industry, restaurants are also one of the largest economic drivers in our nation. It accounts for nearly $1 trillion of our annual domestic economy.

The road to economic recovery begins with Americans having every tool available to weather this crisis. It will take a combination of resources to get there, including legislation for nutrition programs and innovative approaches, like the Community Meals Fund, to identify revenue streams for restaurants to provide food to vulnerable populations in their own communities.

That’s why Congress must adopt the Community Meals Fund in its next relief package. This crisis is on the doorsteps of millions of Americans. Let’s invest in responding to it.

Lisa Davis is the senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign. Katherine Miller is the vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation.