Photo provided by Devin De Wulf/Krewe of Red Beans

The City of New Orleans, on June 1, released a Request for Proposals for a city-wide feeding program, “COVID-19 Mass Feeding Initiative.” The stated goals of the RFP are utilizing local restaurants, commercial kitchens, and their employees while providing nutritious meals to our fellow citizens who have contracted COVID and are out-of-work, families with children, senior citizens, and adults who are homebound. The city has allocated some $18 million for 30 days of food, twice a day. Local groups were encouraged to apply.

Initially I was excited for the opportunity — our group, the Krewe of Red Beans, have formed a dedicated team of New Orleanians to help during the COVID-19 crisis. First, as COVID-19 hit, our little neighborhood parade group worked hard and created what I believe was both the most innovative and largest food-to-hospital-workers program in America.

We began with a $60 order of food for my wife’s hospital, University Medical Center. Each day we ordered more meals for more ERs and ICUs, spreading from St. Bernard to Kenner. Donations came from small donors and local companies, and people continued to donate as they saw the impact we were having. Within six weeks, we had raised over $1 million in donations and sent over 90,000 meals to our doctors and nurses (and more than 10,000 coffee and cookie orders). We created an elaborate, well-run system to send 2,300-plus meals twice a day to 15 hospitals and New Orleans EMS.

We also began hiring out-of-work musicians to deliver the meals — putting 25 musicians to work each day during a time when festivals were cancelled, music clubs were closed, and unemployment benefits were difficult for gig workers to receive.

The main purpose of this was to support our local restaurants. We were proud to place orders at 49 locally owned businesses, 50 percent were woman-owned, and 31 percent minority owned. We were intentional about each order. We used small neighborhood spots that could only handle 30 or 50 meals ordered at a time, and larger restaurants that could create 500 meals at a time. This allowed us to support smaller businesses and create a flexible system that could respond quickly to increased demand.

As of writing this, our group has spent nearly $250,000 on minority-owned restaurants, artists, and delivery “gig” workers. We’ve been able to support places such as Neyow’s, Fritai (a Haitian restaurant inside St. Roch Market), Heard Dat Kitchen, and Queen Trini Lisa (who makes the most amazing Caribbean food), Mardi Gras Indians such as Desmond Melancon and members of the Creole Wild West and Wild Tchoupitoulas as well as artists Sean Clark,  Jessica Strahan, and Jeremy Paten.

This effort, Feed the Frontline NOLA, ended on May 3 as our donations dropped off and we were unable to continue spending $30,000 per day on feeding nearly every ICU and ER in New Orleans. From March 16 to May 3, our effort was greatly appreciated by hospital workers and restaurant owners alike – and we were proud of the effort, but it was bittersweet to have to stop. Perhaps if we had received funding from a local, state, or federal government we could have continued.

While that one effort has ended, we haven’t stopped trying to help our city. We created another effort, “Feed the Second Line,” which seeks to help our culture-creators, especially elders. We are working to send them fresh produce, prepared meals, and groceries. We have also partnered with Rouses and will soon be sending out groceries to the elders. A partnership with the Crescent City Farmers Market enables us to send out local produce and save our elders from having to visit a grocery store – it’s a risky activity as COVID-19 is still lurking.

We want to look out for people like Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, our parade grand-marshal-for-life, and Mr. Benny Jones, leader of the Treme Brass Band. And we assumed there were plenty of other elder musicians, big chiefs, and others whom our city’s culture needs to protect. This effort also allows us to support local restaurants and farmers and create jobs.

We are currently sending weekly food-love to over 150 elders and employing 38 musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and even a tour guide. The backbone of our city’s culture is on both ends of our effort. We have a unique innovative system that enables us to create flexible gig work in a time when so many of our city’s population is unemployed.

Initially, looking at the city’s RFP, I assumed it was a great opportunity to expand our operation. We could create roughly 353 new jobs — which could help our out-of-work musicians, tour guides, artists, and others who have lost their ability to earn a living. We could support 75 to 100 locally owned restaurants, especially smaller neighborhood spots. I believe we could create a public-private partnership and re-create the network of restaurants that we used to feed all the ER workers. We could summon the power of volunteers and create a community-wide effort, all of us second-lining together to achieve a common purpose.

I began brainstorming a city-wide food-system. We would create 100 food locations throughout the city, located in front yards, churches, and local businesses that wanted to help. We would choose locations based on population density and poverty rates, to provide the most support to the areas that would be most in need. We would also re-create our food-packaging distribution center (we rented out a wedding venue in April for that) and bring a sleek network of musician-delivery staff. At each of our 100 locations, 300 meals would be given out daily, and if the demand were still there, we would be able to quickly augment the food with our 65 local restaurant partners. We would also raise donations to pay restaurants more for their food and seek out volunteer chefs to help us stay within budget.

Most importantly, I believe we could feed our fellow New Orleanians in a dignified way, rally the community behind a mission, and make sure no one goes hungry in the best food city in America. With this in mind, I happily began combing through my very first City of New Orleans Request for Proposals.

But quickly, the fine print of the city’s RFP proved disheartening. For starters, the city will pay for services “NET-30” or 30 days after completion. How can we or a small neighborhood restaurant possibly purchase millions of dollars of produce, meat, and grains with funding coming afterwards? How would we provide jobs to our fellow citizens with an IOU? Only a large corporation could possibly float that much money.

The city also proposes paying $10 per meal, which seems to correspond to the number of meals requested and the amount of money allocated for this city-wide food program. But the city disregards the price of packaging, delivery and serving. It may not seem like a problem at first, but if you pay for packaging for 30,000 meals a day, that cost will add up quick. And if you are looking to create jobs, then you need to pay people for their time. The city’s request seems to assume that bidders will already have a fleet of delivery vehicles and staff that they can deploy.

The best we could possibly pay restaurants for their food to create 350 jobs is to pay around $5 a meal. That might seem like enough money to create a meal — and it is. You could make rice and beans all day long and spend $2, especially if you rely on donated ingredients. But that would come with a huge catch — you would be unable to save any of your favorite local restaurants.

For a small, neighborhood restaurant, it is completely unrealistic to create a $5 meal if you want quality, local ingredients. Perhaps a government-issued ham sandwich is in order. Or airline food. Or something frozen and trucked in from Houston.

As we have said all along, you can have mass-produced government-issued food that feeds thousands of people, but you will not save your restaurants. You will not create many jobs that way. You certainly won’t create an innovative solution to our greatest challenge. To save our city’s economy we must be very strategic about how we spend our money.

And we must create wise inefficiencies. They may seem counter-intuitive at first, but they would allow us to create jobs and benefit small local businesses. We could save money and buy everything on Amazon but buying local will support locals. We could use a single drive-through location for food giveaway, or we can hire people to staff multiple locations and create jobs. We could use a free graphic design website to create our posters or we can hire a local artist. These are the choices we must carefully make when our tourist-dependent economy is destroyed.

Now is the time to invest in our city, to invest in our people, to be thoughtful and intentional – and realistic. Seems that the thing we must learn is how to use any opportunity to maximize the local impact. We must spend local and create opportunity for our own people, not big food-service corporations that can churn out 30,000 ham sandwiches.

Devin De Wulf is founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, co-founder of Feed the Front Line NOLA and Feed the Second Line, a stay-at-home dad of two, and an artist. He is no longer bidding for the city’s feeding RFP.

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