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Neighbor Mealsground game for safer group takeout

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been coordinating group-buy takeout lunches for my neighborhood. It has worked very well, both for us and for the restaurants we want to support. Maybe it would work for you.

The key was getting neighbors connected without violating public health guidance. Fortunately, my landlady was way ahead of me on this one with a Google Groups e-mail list. (I tend to prefer for this kind of thing, but am hardly religious.) Several long-term residents who were already in touch joined in, which got the list off the ground before I even showed up. They’ve continued to share notes, drawings, and notes of encouragement since.

We’ve since expanded that mailing list considerably by buying a domain name, publishing a simple webpage, and setting up an e-mail address that forwards requests to join the list to me and my landlady. We put the website and the e-mail address on a letter-paper-sized poster, along with some words of enticement, which I printed out, shoved into plastic sheet protectors, and stapled to telephone poles up and down the street on a walk one day. A steady stream of new folks has reached out since.

A lunch run goes as follows. I trade separate e-mails with neighbors about a place. When we come up with an interesting prospect, we try to call or e-mail the restaurant with a few points:

  1. Have them confirm they can do a large takeout order in individual, labeled boxes or cartons.
  2. Ask how long ahead of time they’ll need the order. Usually they’ve asked for 24 hours.
  3. Ask when and how they’ll need payment. It’s been a mix of over the phone and on pickup.
  4. Ask for a copy or link to their current menu. Menus have changed, especially for restaurants that initially shut down after shelter-in-place.
  5. Ask if they have the safety equipment and supplies they need to work safely.

If everything checks out, I message the mailing list announcing the date for delivery, naming the restaurant, and linking to or attaching the menu. I ask that folks avoid soups and other liquids that might spill as I run around the neighborhood. Finally, I provide details for a video conference everyone can join on the day.

Folks to e-mail their orders to me, separately. As orders come in, I track names, addresses, items ordered, and any additional tips they want to give to the restaurant in a spreadsheet.

I also ask folks who’d be willing to pay for meals for neighbors who can’t afford them right now. Many have. In fact, in week one we had more meals offered than meals ordered for to those who could afford them. The number of free meals actually going out to folks has steadily increased since. We suspect many of the folks who can’t afford meals aren’t well connected, either. So we’re exploring ways to reach out to them directly, perhaps through flyers in their mailboxes. A few have found us on their own.

When the time comes, I pay for the order on my credit card and copy out a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers to carry with me. I try to put them in an order that makes sense to walk from one end of the street to the other.

The day-of logistics aren’t terribly complicated. I go to the restaurant with a mask, gloves, and hand sanitizer, and pick up, making sure to keep my distance. General Rule: If it’s not awkward, you’ve probably stopped paying attention, and have fallen back on habits that aren’t good right now. Once the food in hand, it’s back to the neighborhood to go house to house, dropping each package by the door, ringing, and stepping a good ten feet away. I wait until they open up and retrieve, say something nice, remind them to handle safely, and move on to the next. The warm food stays warm.

After lunch, I check my spreadsheet against the receipt and calculate a total per order. I split the 20% tip across all orders proportionately, and assign free meals to the folks paying for them. I then follow up with those who are going to pay, one by one, asking how they’d like to handle. For those who’ve answered before, I request payment in the same way as last time. So far, folks have paid with Venmo, Square Cash, PayPal, and once with actual cash in an envelope. I set the envelope aside for a week before handling. It hasn’t been a problem.

If you use Zoom for the video call, it can be a bit tricky to set up. I’ve found the following works best for us:

  1. Use a random meeting ID.
  2. Use a passcode.
  3. Enable video for all.
  4. Allow people to join before the host.
  5. Disable the waiting room.
  6. Disable automatic mute.

That way I can set it up on my account and not hold people up while I’m running around delivering.

Eating together by video has worked surprisingly well. But we are also thinking about setting up picnic tables or lawn chairs outdoors, making sure to space folks out appropriately, and eating “together”. That’s worked in our neighborhood for a few families with kids who’ve held dance parties in the street, spread out like a giant game of four square. We’ll see.

We’ve gone with a new restaurant each week. Over just a few weeks, we’ve seen spots that initially shut down completely open again for takeout, and, alas, vice versa. I like to think that for those with the means, the delivery program serves as a kind of mini advertisement for what’s still going. But mostly, I like that we’re doing free meals for neighbors who are hurting.

Of course, good food don’t hurt, either. We’re in Oakland, after all.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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