Early Wednesday afternoon, the seating area at Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen had been cleared and replaced by large folding tables loaded with neat paper packages being packed up by gloved workers. Soon, the free meals would be going out to feed the clients of different nonprofits. 

“The need is really huge,” said owner Adriana Lopez Vermut, who expects to be cooking at least 17,000 meals in the near future.

The meals are Vermut’s answer to the challenges she saw earlier on with the shelter-in-place order — how to keep her staff working and how to feed all of those out of work and unable to sustain themselves. 

The solution? Raise money for free meals and pay her staff for cooking and delivering them.  

So far, she’s raised enough money through word of mouth to provide 9,000 meals, and she’s doing so at 21 sites around the city. 

Like Pica Pica, other restaurants in the Mission District have figured out a way to survive and give back. Few are as deliberately focused on providing free meals as Vermut’s place, but many have incorporated giving back into their daily operations. 

Mixt offers discounts and online coupons for those in need and the salad maker asks customers to support its free food programs at checkout.   

“Challenging times ought to bring out the best in us,” its website proclaims, while co-owner Leslie Silverglide tells Mission Local the company is excited to deliver free healthy meals to UCSF’s healthcare workers.. 

“We will be bringing meals to their teams as long as we can sustain it,” she says, noting that online contributions support those efforts. 

The Liberties pub and grill is also raising money for free meals: “For every order we receive on our site, we’ll prepare a bag or box meal for someone currently unemployed, be it from the epidemic, from homelessness, or just plain bad luck,” according to its website. 

And, over at Prairie, owner Anthony Strong has turned his dining room into a general store where he advertises “Bulk goods. Below retail. Shelf safe. Ready to eat. Unhandled.” 

The store mostly stocks low-price staples: “I looked for what the grocery stores were out of,” Strong says, and purchased accordingly. But he also offers free “Industry Pantry Kits,” large boxes of shelf-stable food for laid-off restaurant workers, bartenders, “Even owners,” Strong says. 

Prairie’s customers have clamored to know how to help, Strong said, and those who can have been donating money to subsidize the pantry kits.

Strong said it was still early to say whether it was “working.” Still, he said, “Our lights are on and we have employees on the payroll.”

Back at Pica Pica, Vermut sees her venture as a model for how the city could be supporting local businesses and feeding its residents. 

With a little creativity in its budget, she said, the city could expand it to other restaurants, Vermut said. “There’s more mouths to feed, and people are stretched to the breaking point,” she said. 

The Venezuelan meals feature coconut rice, black beans, sweet plantain and either chicken, pulled pork, or grilled tofu. 

Compass Family Services’ blog reports that their clients (like those at Raphael and Conard Houses, Greater Life Foursquare Church, Jewish Families & Children’s Services, and many others receiving deliveries from Pica Pica) are gratified to have those neat packages left social-distancing style outside their doors.

Many other local businesses are ramping up free and discounted food programs, as well as initiating new ways to serve the community: curbside service, subscription plans, and complimentary treats are popping up all over. 

Samovar on Valencia Street, for example, has started a meal subscription plan and is offering discounts for COVID-19 relief workers including city and state employees and health care professionals. 

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