WORDS + PHOTOS BY KEIKO HIROMI
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that restaurants could start to open this month, with changing and varying restrictions, as we attempt to inch back toward pre-COVID-19 routines.
But not every restaurant will reopen. Some owners and workers express concerns for lack of proper protections and safety, not only in establishments but also on the way to work and back on public transportation. Among those worried is Tracy Chang, chef-owner of PAGU in Cambridge. Chang has been assisting programs to cook food for healthcare workers, all while working to rehire her employees. Many are the breadwinners in their families, Chang says.
To take on the pandemic challenges among us, Chang collaborates with Project Restore Us (PRU), an initiative that connects untapped restaurant resources to communities. Co-founded by Chang, Dr. Marena Lin, Lily Huang of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, and Chef Irene Li of Mei Mei Boston, the idea started with Lin searching for ways to support workers during the pandemic, and realizing that restaurants have underused resources which could help serve families in need.
“The idea is to link up restaurants, which are currently really suffering in terms of [loss of] revenue, and [labor] unions. These groups are really complementary,” says Lin, a climate scientist, postdoctoral scholar at UCSD, and member of UAW 5810, a union of more than 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and researchers. Restaurants have access to goods at low price points, often in bulk quantities. With years of union organizing experience, they know workers and their needs.
In motion, PRU has been able to create a weekly grocery box for $35 per family. Revenue earned from sales goes to the restaurant and its employees, while additional support for furloughed workers comes from union members who are still employed. Many of UFCW members are in the laundry, restaurant, and domestic-work industries, but the union also represents essential workers who still work at Stop & Shop and in Boston-area hospitals.
In one pairing, PAGU partnered with United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1445 for a four-week pilot to feed 162 food insecure essential worker families in Somerville, Everett, Malden, and Revere. PAGU employees prepare grocery boxes, while volunteer drivers deliver to furloughed union members in Somerville, Everett, and Malden.
In its pilot week over Memorial Day Weekend, the team produced 14,000 pounds of rice, beans, cooking oil, and produce, all funded by the UFCW strike budget. For that haul, Lin and Chang front-loaded the families with 25 pounds of rice, 25 pounds of beans, 1 gallon of cooking oil, 16 pounds of masa, and 16 pounds of produce (garlic, ginger, onion, potatoes, oranges, bananas) in the first week, then from the second week onwards mostly delivered produce. Lin says that by delivering a bulk of staple during the first week, the families can plan better. At the same time, it helps to cut down the labor for restaurant workers and reduces the number of store visits for families, thus reducing the chance of exposure.
“We live in the United States of America, and to see how many people have issues with food [is] just unbelievable.” Kevin McGaffigan of Local 1445 talks about the program after making deliveries in Somerville with his wife, Kathleen, who works at Stop & Shop full time. “I would have never thought I would be in this situation. These are hard-working people.”
Chang and Lin say the model they are utilizing helps communities as well as restaurants. Grocery distribution, in some form, may be part of the future for restaurants. Currently, Pagu offers takeout/delivery food and some home groceries—fresh produce, pantry staples—for contact-free pick-up. Whatever it is, restaurants need to find creative ways to bring in more revenue, so they can rehire their workers and stay open. Citing her safety concerns for her employees, Chang, who has outdoor space, says that she is keeping PAGU closed to on-premise dining for now.
“It’s important that they (restaurant workers) are taken care of right now,” says Chang, who grew up at the Cambridge restaurant of her grandmother, an immigrant from Taiwan. She continues, “It’s evident that communities they live in—Chelsea, Revere, East Boston, Revere, and Everett—are really hurting.
“One of my other employees texted me and said that only one he was able to pick up food was donated from the National Guard. If we were able to employ them to feed their own communities, who we consider our communities … I think that’s how you really take care of those who are the most vulnerable.”