ori Niehaus was sitting on her bed in the Chicago suburbs in late March when inspiration struck. Inspired by her fellow Fulbright grant recipients, Niehaus started a GoFundMe to support local restaurants and feed front-line workers. A few texts and a phone call later, the Chicago chapter of Feed the Front Line was born.
Niehaus, BC ’18, is a president and co-founder of Feed the Front Line Chicago, a chapter of the national charity that purchases food from local businesses to give to COVID-19 front-line workers. She met her co-founders and fellow Chicago natives, Rachel Jacoby and Amy Verrando, while all three were completing their Fulbrights in Malaysia. Feed the Front Line Chicago has so far raised over $60,000 in donations, supported over 120 local restaurants, and served over 8,000 front line workers, according to its website.
After graduating from BC in 2018, Niehaus began her Fulbright Malaysia program as an English teaching assistant in a rural community near the Thai border. She then traveled around Asia for the next few months before returning home to the Chicago suburbs to focus on applying for graduate school.
“I have one friend who was in Malaysia with me named Sarah,” Niehaus said. “She was trying to find something to do with the little bit of the extra time she had that could be of use to her community, and basically just decided to purchase some food from a local mom-and-pop shop restaurant and donate that food to front-line workers.”
A few days later, other Fulbright grant recipients in Portland and Pittsburgh started similar efforts in their own communities. Niehaus hopped on a call with these friends to figure out what they were doing and how to start something similar in the Chicago area.
“I said it’s now or never and just threw up a GoFundMe one evening,” Niehaus said. “Then, 24 hours after that, I had received a couple of texts from other Fulbright Malaysia and grant recipients who live in the Chicago area that were interested in helping out. I hopped on a call with them, and then the three of us really kind of spearheaded everything and started developing it.”
Jacoby said that she could not have imagined how much Feed the Front Line has grown since it first launched on March 31.
“I think when we started we really just wanted to be able to help our community however we could,” Jacoby said. “We’ve just been really humbled and really overwhelmed by how the community has responded in a lot of different ways.”
riginally, Niehaus said that Feed the Front Line’s primary focus was feeding health care workers. It quickly became apparent, however, that there were other populations who were putting themselves at risk that weren’t receiving the same type of support, such as nursing home staff, pharmacy workers, and addiction recovery centers. Though 60 percent of their donations still go to health care workers at hospitals and testing centers, Feed the Front Line Chicago has expanded its reach to places that were previously not given much attention.
“Basically [we’re] saying that we see them and recognize that they’re giving a daily sacrifice as well and we appreciate the work they’re doing,” she said.
Niehaus said that the most rewarding part of her involvement with Feed the Front Line has been getting to know Chicago’s local business owners and connecting with the owners of restaurants she had been going to since she was young.
She recounted a story about Wendy Villarreal, the owner of Cozzi Corner Hot Dogs & Beef located in Downers Grove, Ill.
“There’s a restaurant in her plaza that had just opened up two weeks before coronavirus, which obviously is not ideal for a restaurant,” Niehaus said. “Obviously you can’t just walk into someone’s restaurant at this time and can’t get up-close, face-to-face conversation, but she had noticed that they had just a handwritten ‘we’re open’ sign, like a poster in the window.”
Villarreal already had plans to order a nicer sign for her restaurant, detailing their hours of operation and that they were open for pick-up, according to Niehaus. So Villarreal placed an order for the other restaurant too and dropped it off, saying that she didn’t see this neighboring restaurant as a rival.
“[Villarreal] was just talking … like ‘yeah like we don’t really see it as competition,’” Niehaus said. “There’s enough people that need food and we all just want to do our best to support one another.”
Jacoby discussed how the Chicagoland community has rallied to support one another, whether it be through extra donations from restaurants to workers or the workers’ reciprocal support of local businesses.
“[It’s] a cycle, because we have to deliver the meals to those workers [and] those workers want to give back to the restaurants who supported them,” Jacoby said. “So on their own time and when they’re free, they’ll go to support the small businesses who are supporting them, so it’s just been great to see how the community has really come together.”
According to Niehaus, front-line workers have met them crying, written them thank you cards, and even, as done by the staff of the Center on Deafness in Northbrook, created a giant poster decorated with staff handprints and thank you messages.
Niehaus described a call she made to Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Willowbrook, which had been hit hard by the coronavirus. The nursing home reported 58 cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths, according to the Daily Herald. She said the outpouring of thankfulness from the staff was an affirmation of the positive impact of Feed the Front Line’s work.
“That moment of seeing someone and being seen … was really prominent in that call,” Niehaus said. “Where she was just like, ‘We are thankful for you guys because you’re recognizing who we are and the sacrifices that our staff are making.’ So for me that was like … affirmation that this work is important.”