When chef Vinson Cimino opened his Cleveland restaurant on March 6th, 2020, he wasn’t expecting to be open for less than 10 days. With an excess amount of food filling the kitchen, he decided to cook the ingredients into meals for his staff. What started as a simple way to give back has transformed into a nonprofit, Cleveland Family Meal, that provides free meals to individuals who are in between jobs or can’t afford food.
What does your role entail at Cleveland Family Meal?
When our restaurant closed due to the pandemic, we had an overwhelming amount of food since your anticipation when opening a new restaurant is that you’ll be very busy at first. I had a brand new staff that was only able to work one week before closing, so the least I could do was feed them as much as I could with the ingredients we were able to freeze. After a couple days, other people in the hospitality industry began reaching out who had a similar problem of wanting to feed their staff, as well as barbers, tattoo artists, and other professionals who were suddenly out of work. We started cooking for our people but continued cooking for everyone else. It snowballed quickly— by day 3 I was getting calls from people to donate food and money to keep us up and running. The original goal was to help the hospitality industry, but it’s great that it’s expanded beyond that.
How do people access the meals?
We went from giving out all prepared foods to having an open-air food market with fresh produce and household supplies. The markets occurred twice a week and we’d have a couple hundred people in line. There’s a form people can fill out on the website to request meals, or they can contact us directly via email, phone, or on social media. We try our best to help underprivileged communities get the food resources they need. Looking ahead, we will probably expand into food advocacy, community driven work to help expand access to our meals. A lot of people that we hire in the restaurant industry come from these communities, so I want to work on helping fix the problem at its source.
What has been the best part of working with Cleveland Family Meal?
It’s been great knowing that we’ve helped so many people, especially when people tell us we are feeding their kids. It’s been a way for us to give back to the community that has given so much to us. Restaurants really take the community for granted. We rely on our staff to keep our restaurants alive, but we rarely get to extend that hospitality to our workers. Being able to provide hospitality to those who provide it for us was a really big deal and changed my perspective on the restaurant industry. Instead of thinking about just how to make the best food, now we think about how to make the best environment for our employees. I want to serve great food and provide livable wages for those working next to me. The pandemic completely shattered the restaurant industry, and I want Cleveland Family Meal to be a vehicle for positive change.
As COVID restrictions lift and jobs reopen, how is Cleveland Family Meal changing?
At our peak, we were feeding 400 people a week. Towards the end of winter, our numbers dwindled to feeding about 20 people a week. We’re at a point now where we are pivoting to our next stage, which will provide assistance to those in need in a more direct fashion. Individuals or families can reach out and we will work with them directly to meet their needs, whether it’s needing food assistance while caring for a sick relative or being in between work. We knew that we didn’t want to stop the organization just because the pandemic is ending. People need help in a different way now. The goal is still to help provide provisions for people in hard times.