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New Orleans’s $18 Million Mass Feeding Initiative Presents Barriers to Local Restaurants

Details of the city’s $18 million FEMA-backed “COVID Mass Feeding Initiative” make it prohibitive for independent restaurants to participate

A city program to feed residents asked for restaurants to apply to be partners

The City of New Orleans’s aim to partner with local restaurants on an upcoming $18 million “COVID Mass Feeding Initiative” has been met with skepticism from those in the industry, due to requirements for potential partners that would seem to make it impossible for independent restaurants to participate.

The program, funded in large part by FEMA, aims to feed 30,000 food insecure New Orleans residents this summer. Announced last week along with a call to “all New Orleans restaurants” to apply to participate, it was presented as a way to employ local restaurants to prepare and deliver up to 60,000 meals to vulnerable residents per week for at least a month (after which the program will be extended on a week-by-week basis).

FEMA is covering 75 percent of the cost of the meals, and the city will pay for the remaining 25 percent. Restaurants, kitchens, and caterers had ten days (until June 10), to apply to be a partner in the program, dubbed the COVID-19 Mass Feeding Initiative, with the city planning to award contracts by June 14.

The subsequent Request for Proposals aimed at potential restaurant participants outlined details that included a plan for the city to pay partners for services rendered 30 days after completion. That means those restaurants would have to front the money for the ingredients needed to create a month’s worth of meals, a requirement that may ultimately end up excluding local restaurants in favor of corporate kitchens, because restaurant owners won’t be able to make the late reimbursements work. A restaurant owner who spoke to Eater on background said that in addition to needing funding upfront, the ten day turnaround for the application made it prohibitive for a smaller, independent restaurant.

“It’s such a wasted opportunity,” says Devin De Wulf, organizer of effort Feed the Frontline NOLA, a different initiative with similar goals, which delivered more than 100,000 free meals from local restaurants to New Orleans-area frontline workers from mid March through early May. De Wulf wrote a letter to the editor outlining his concerns to The Lens. The initiative, which raised more than $1 million in donations in six weeks, was nationally-recognized for its efficiency in serving the community: It paid local restaurants to make meals that were then donated, employing out-of-work local musicians and gig workers for the deliveries. (De Wulf says close to $250,000 was spent with minority-owned businesses, including local black-owned restaurants Neyow’s, Fritai, Heard Dat Kitchen, Queen Trini Lisa, Backatown Coffee Parlour, Addis Nola, and more).

De Wulf told Eater that when he heard about the Mass Feeding Initiative, he thought it had the potential to help make a model like Feed the Frontline NOLA’s sustainable with government funding. Upon further reading of the RFP, however, he felt its stipulations — particularly paying partners for services 30 days after completion — could likely only be pulled off by bigger entities such as corporate restaurants or commercial kitchens. Based on his time partnering with 49 local restaurants for Feed the Frontline NOLA, De Wulf thinks few, if any of them, could front the amount of money required by the city’s proposal. Eater reached out to the city about these concerns Thursday, but has not yet received a response.

The FEMA-backed program is an opportunity to feed New Orleans’s vulnerable residents while reviving the local economy, says De Wulf. “We as a city need to look to our small, neighborhood restaurants that people care about. The restaurants based on tourism — those places are doomed and not necessarily salvageable. What is salvageable are neighborhood restaurants,” De Wulf said. “That’s how we should feed our community.”

“Now is the time to invest in our city, in our people. Do you care about local restaurants? Yes or no? Do you care about local people? Yes or no?”

The city has said it will announce the selected partners on June 14.

[UPDATE: June 15, 2020]: The RFP Evaluation Committee Meeting for the COVID-19 Mass Feeding Initiative originally scheduled for Monday, June 15, has been rescheduled for Thursday, June 18.

Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the city’s restaurant industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at