Date April 10, 2020
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Community initiative at Brown provides meals to Providence residents with limited food access

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the University has partnered with the City of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office to purchase and distribute 24,000 meals to area residents with food security needs.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Since March, state leaders have called on Rhode Islanders to slow the spread of novel coronavirus through social distancing, a practice that requires people to restrict their proximity to others and to activity outside of homes. 

While this order has altered how nearly all residents get their food, it has posed particular challenges for those who already — well before the pandemic reached the Ocean State — confronted limited access to affordable, healthy food. Many of these individuals and families depend upon busy food pantries and shared meals provided by faith- and community-based organizations to meet their nutrition needs. 

To play a part in addressing this challenge within its home city, Brown University has partnered with the City of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office to purchase and distribute meals for area residents with food security needs. The initiative, which began on Tuesday, April 7, will supply 24,000 meals to up to 1,600 households through the end of May.

“Ensuring that residents have access to healthy food is especially urgent as the community confronts the challenges introduced by COVID-19,” said Barbara Chernow, who oversees Brown Dining Services as executive vice president for finance and administration at Brown. “As members of the Providence community with the ability to produce healthy food in a healthy, safe work environment, it was important to step up and share in the city’s efforts to secure meals for each of its residents.”

To help residents comply with local stay-at-home orders, Brown Dining Services is offering these meals in the form of food kits, each containing a combination of fresh and prepared foods — such as fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, soups and sandwiches — to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for one adult for five days. With the program now launched, dining staff members will prepare 100 food kits each Tuesday and Thursday through the end of May.

Each of the kits will be delivered to Providence households by representatives of local community- and faith-based organizations identified by the Healthy Communities Office. The focus will be on deliveries to individuals and families contending with food insecurity. 

“Part of what makes this fantastic is that each bag contains almost a week of groceries,” said Ellen Cynar, director of the Health Communities Office. “This is critical at a time when we are trying to decrease the need for people to leave their houses.”

Brown’s capacity to produce the meals emerged as most students departed campus residence halls when COVID-19 forced a move to remote teaching and learning for the spring semester.  

Organizers of the initiative — from the City, from Brown and from the community organizations — have adopted safety measures to ensure that volunteers and Dining Services staff adhere to social distancing guidelines. Pickups are done curbside near the University’s Sharpe Refectory, with a small number of volunteers assigned to gather food packs on each delivery day. 

And the size of the refectory — Brown’s primary dining facility and the location where Dining Services is based and where the kits are prepared — allows staff ample space to work at least 6 feet apart, said George Barboza, director of dining programs. He said that dining staff members have embraced the role of providing healthy, varied food options meant to last up to five days at a time. 

“The staff is committed to working with the city to help the community, and they’re already thinking of creative ways to develop menus for the coming weeks,” Barboza said.

For Cynar, the ability to make large quantities of high-quality food in a safe working environment made Brown an ideal choice to partner with on the initiative.

“When I call up a partner and say the name Brown University, there’s a level of trust and an expectation of quality,” she said. “We know Brown will do this safely and offer quality and nutritious food that the people receiving it will feel great about.”

Brown’s partnership with the City on this initiative began when City representatives approached Al Dahlberg, assistant vice president of government and community relations at Brown, about the need to secure meals for Providence residents with limited access to affordable food. Dahlberg connected Barboza and Cynar, who together mapped out the implementation details.

The program adds to a wide array of Brown student, faculty and staff community initiatives underway in the context of the pandemic — from medical supply donations to research on COVID-19 to grants for local artists — and with the meal initiative up and running, Dahlberg said that Brown continues to explore avenues for further collaboration. 

“It is in the words of Brown’s mission to better the community, the nation and the world,” Dahlberg said. “We are always looking for opportunities to partner with the city and state, and we’ll continue working closely with these colleagues on tackling the challenges arising from this moment.”