By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published Sep 08, 2020 at 11:01 AM

As our community adapts to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to become complacent. It's easy to ignore the unemployment numbers and turn a blind eye to those in need of food, housing, health services and other vital services. 

But numerous organizations, including Hungry Hearts Community Meals, have made it their mission to deal head on with the struggles faced by so many in our community.

On Saturday, May 23, Hungry Hearts distributed its first 300 meals to South Side residents in need at Damascus Gate Restaurant, 807 W. Historic Mitchell St.

Since that time, the program has distributed an additional 4200 meals with the help of 19 local restaurants and volunteers, providing not only nourishment for families in need, but also supplemental funding for restaurants. Participating restaurants are paid $10 per prepared meal, giving them a minimal, but critical, source of revenue as they struggle to remain in business.

Chef Gregory Leon of Amilinda, who has assisted with coordinating restaurants for the program, says he and his partner Orry have found their work with the initiative to be gratifying.

"Back in May, we had no idea what the future was going to look like for our restaurant, but we decided to participate," he says. "And it’s been amazing. We’ve connected with so many great restaurant owners, and it’s great to know that we’re helping 300 people each week and giving them a hot meal they wouldn’t have had. It also feels good to know we’re giving restaurants another source of income that could help them to stay open for another week."

Formed out of need

The Hungry Hearts initiative was formed as an extension of Divine Intervention, a homeless ministry based at Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church, 125 W. Saveland Ave. The ministry, which provided weekly hot meals, delivered bagged dinners and grew fresh vegetables for donation, came to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving Pastor Karen Hagen searching for a new way to assist the community in need.

"We launched on a prayer and a hope," Hagen says. "And we have done it each week since. When we started, it took two or three hours to distribute the food; and now we are giving away all of the meals in just over a half hour. Over time, the need has not gone down, and we can tell that there will continue to be a need for the foreseeable future. We continue to feel strongly that our responsibility is to be there for these people for the duration."

Hagen says that Hungry Hearts has been fortunate to have partnered with a variety of individuals including Ahmad Nasef, the philanthropist behind Damascus Gate, and Brother Sadar Durrani, an immigration lawyer who has, with the help of volunteers, delivered up to 100 Hungry Hearts meals each week to people who are unable to leave their homes due to illness or other factors. 

But, like so many initiatives working to ease the burdens exacerbated by the pandemic, Hungry Hearts needs assistance to sustain its efforts.

Continued funding is needed

The program, which has raised over $98,000 in contributions from individuals, local organizations, churches and grants, currently has enough funding to provide 300 meals a week through the end of December. But Hagen says that the future beyond that point is uncertain.

"People have been very generous," she says. "Of the money we’ve raised so far, almost $43,000 has come from individual donors."

Hagen is quick to point out that the program is not driven by money, but by the desire to help communities to survive in unprecedented times.

"We are feeding people," she says. "We’ve made the decision to honor peoples stories and situations. It’s not just hand-outs. In fact, we’ve gotten to know many people, recognizing them week after week. They have so much gratitude and they are generous to one another. We’ve had at least one man come to pick up his meals and decide to forego them on behalf of someone else in greater need."

"I can’t imagine the look on peoples faces when they arrive on a Saturday and we have to tell them that we only have a week or two left," Hagen adds with a pause.

How to help

To make it easy for the public to contribute to its efforts, Hungry Hearts has launched a GoFundMe Campaign, with a goal of raising the $25,000 needed to continue the program beyond December.

Individuals or organizations can also donate to Hungry Hearts online through PayPal or by sending a check to the attention of: DI Hungry Hearts Community Meals c/o Tippecanoe Church, 125 W. Saveland Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53207.

Administrative costs for Hungry Hearts have been donated by Divine Intervention Ministry, so every dollar donated to the program through the GoFundMe, PayPal or by check, is tax deductible and goes directly to restaurants providing meals.

Individuals who wish to volunteer to be part of the meal distribution effort can email DIHungryHeartsCommunityMeals@gmail.com.

To receive a meal at Damascus Gate Restaurant, families are asked to send one family member for pick-up of up to six meals. Upon arrival, meal recipients are asked to wait in line, maintaining social distancing. Masks are required; free masks are available upon request.  Meals are available on Saturdays beginning at 11 a.m.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer

Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.

Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon. 

Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.