When they came to get their lunch on the first day, it was pouring rain. But the young boy and his older sister waited patiently in the downpour to pick up their free lunch at Oaxaca Taqueria at its Upper East Side location.
They came back again on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday, never at the same time. Each day, the siblings waited outside, where signs on every window urged them to wait, until the workers signaled that it was okay for them to enter. Each day, the children entered and stopped—six feet away from the counter, where the gloved workers stood—and ordered their lunches. Then, after a quick exchange of food, conversation, and laughter, they turned around, plastic bags in hand, and walked home.
This week, a chain of 10 Oaxaca Taqueria restaurants around Manhattan and Brooklyn began handing out free lunches to schoolchildren on weekdays to combat the food insecurity caused by school closures in a city besieged by coronavirus. From 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., workers took orders from hungry kids, preparing to-go boxes filled with rice, beans, chicken, tortillas, and even a vegetarian protein option.
In New York, 18 percent of children suffer from food insecurity, according to a 2018 Hunger Free America report. That means that nearly one in five students rely on school-sponsored meals—sometimes both breakfast and lunch— to make it through the day. And with about 1.1 million schoolchildren normally attending public schools in New York City, the task of feeding those among them who are hungry seems monumental when the schools are closed.
The city has not forgotten about these vulnerable children. In fact, the Department of Education announced that starting March 23rd they would offer three free meals to students across more than 400 citywide locations. But further help for such a big task is probably a welcome offer. That’s where Oaxaca Taqueria’s owner, David Schneider, comes in.
When he heard that public schools across the city would be closing, Schneider, a 35-year veteran city restauranteur, called up his business partner, Varun Malhotra, 29, to talk over his idea—to feed hungry children. Malhotra was on board. The two put their plan into action as soon as they could. Since Oaxaca Taqueria is already a take-out and delivery business, the chain of restaurants has been able to adapt to the new environment and also keep his employees working during this uncertain time. And with the meals for children, there is more work.
Oaxaca funded the first round of meals for the children, ensuring that each of their locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn was equipped to serve up to 50 free lunches for kids. Schneider and Malhotra researched the public schools surrounding each Oaxaca location and emailed the schools to let them know about the opportunity. They have also relied on social media to spread the word, posting on Instagram and getting community members to post in Facebook groups. The Oaxaca team also started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the next few weeks, where Schneider and his team have raised more than $2,000 in seven days. With more funds, Schneider and Malhotra hope to expand Oaxaca’s reach.
“As a lifelong New Yorker, you do what you can,” Schneider says. “We all seem to pull together.” He says he has seen New York weather through some of its worst days— from the first World Trade Center bombing in 1991, to the terrorist attacks on 9/11—and wasn’t about to stand idly by. And he says he has a connection with the city’s public schools. Both of Schneider’s parents worked for the Board of Education; his mother spent more than 40 years as an educator and his father taught high school and served as community school board president for Manhattan’s 2nd district.
“We are in a position of, I would say, good fortune in that we are able to stay open right now,” says Aditi Vyas, a spokesperson for Oaxaca Taqueria. “This is our moment to help other people.” The company’s says its locations are seeing a steady trickle of people coming in for the lunch program, and they hope to see more people as word spreads.
As she visited a couple of locations on the first day of the program, Vyas says she noticed a jittery atmosphere among the workers. They try to keep contact to a minimum, she said, even as they are excited to help their community. Vyas says she saw one worker wipe down a counter countless times in the 10 minutes she was there. “They’re putting their lives at risk to make sure they can feed the city,” she says.
Local and government-run programs to help food insecure students and families can be found online. To locate one of the state sponsored sites offering free meals, you can follow this link from the NYC Department of Education website, text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877, or call 311.