As a result of local initiative “Feeding the Frontliners,” close to 1,900 free meals have been delivered to healthcare providers in Lebanon County working on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
While the spirit-lifting gift has been a boon to medical professionals, the meals have also had a positive impact on the county’s restaurants, which have been closed to dine-in seating since the shelter in place orders were mandated by the state in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurants across the state have only been allowed delivery or takeout food orders since March, when Gov. Tom Wolf enacted shelter-in-place orders to reduce foot traffic in order to stem the lethal communicable respiratory disease.
A grant through the Lebanon County Commissioners allowed the restaurants to be paid for gift cards and for preparing the meals, which were delivered by volunteers.
The idea for “Feeding the Frontliners” came from Larry Bowman, past CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Bowman approached the commissioners with the idea of delivering free meals made by local restaurants to local medical professionals, and initially asked for a grant of $10,000.
Commissioners Bob Phillips, Bill Ames, and Jo Ellen Litz decided $25,000 would be even more helpful and approved that amount to go toward the initiative.
That funding came from the local hotel tax, which helps fund Lebanon County tourism through the “Visit Lebanon Valley” tourist board.
Recently, to continue the free-meal mission, Bowman requested and received another $5,000 from the commissioners.
“This will allow us to deliver to some of the sites we still want to reach,” Bowman said.
When those meals are delivered, it will likely push the number of free meals over 2,000, he said.
Bowman said he learned about another community reaching out in similar fashion and wondered if Lebanon County couldn’t do the same.
“We thought using the hotel tax would be a good idea,” Bowman said, explaining that restaurants are part of the tourism industry.
Because the grant had to go through a nonprofit, Kim Kreider-Umble of Lebanon Family Health Services volunteered to help.
United Way of Lebanon County reached out to both the restaurants and healthcare facilities and put a delivery schedule together, Bowman said of the collaborative effort.
“They reached out to about two and half dozen restaurants to see if they had the staff and the resources to participate,” Bowman said.
About 16 volunteers did the footwork, delivering meals to 20 county facilities, including WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital, the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Cedar Haven.
“This effort would not have happened without the help from the commissioners,” Bowman said. “I’m glad I could bring them the idea, and this is what we had hoped to do; support area restaurants and provide a morale boost to healthcare workers.”
Feeding the Frontliners gave WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital 90 gift cards to local restaurants. The cards became part of a drawing for Nurses Week, which took place May 6-12.
“Our nurses were delighted to receive the gift cards and very appreciative of the generous gift,” said Cindy Stauffer, spokesperson for the hospital.
One gift card winner, nurse Christina Fenstermaker, received a gift card to Gus Deraco’s.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” Fenstermaker said.
Response has been very positive, from both medical workers and restaurants, Bowman said.
“It’s gone well, even better than I had hoped,” Bowman said.
Lasagna, turkey dinners, and tilapia with rice were a few of the 150 meals delivered to Spang Crest Manor, a nursing home on Duke Street in Lebanon.
“It was a surprise delivery and a very nice surprise,” said Amy Kenn, communications director for Spang Crest/Luthercare. “They delivered enough meals to feed all the team members.”
Their meals came from Funck’s Restaurant, Kenn said.
“We were very appreciative of the support for our frontliners,” Kenn said. “We did a little post on our Facebook page as a ‘thank you.’
“We’ve been blessed by a lot of support from organizations and community members and it’s been very uplifting,” she added.
At the Blue Bird Inn Restaurant in Cornwall, the restaurant’s chefs created 120 meals of six different dishes, 20 of each, for staff at ManorCare.
“The United Way reached out to us and I thought it was an amazing program,” said Laurie Grasty, director of operations at the Blue Bird Inn.
“The chefs had a great time and got creative,” Grasty said. “We really enjoyed it. We made a special menu, just because we thought it was a great program.
“It was nice because it’s been especially hard for restaurants – it’s hard everywhere — but it was as nice for us as it was for them because we liked that we were helping frontliners,” Grasty said.
On Friday, May 29, Lebanon County entered the “yellow phase,” which eased some restrictions. But that still won’t help restaurants, Grasty said. Even bringing back dine-in service in a limited manner for outdoor seating, as will be possible starting June 5, acts as a double-edged sword, with restaurants needing to make their overhead fit severely limited capacity.
“When we’re in the green phase, we can open with stipulations, but we don’t know yet exactly what those stipulations will be,” Grasty said. “We’ll definitely need to have tables at least six feet apart.”
Paramedics and EMTs of the First Aid and Safety Patrol were some of the recipients of a free meal from the initiative.
“I don’t know what restaurant the meal was from, but it was Mexican and it was delicious,” said Greg Smith, executive director of FASP. “One item they brought was a large selection of different types of burritos and everybody enjoyed that.”
The FASP crew runs on two 12-hour shifts, Smith said, and Feeding the Frontliners brought enough food to feed everybody, or about 50 meals.
“They brought enough food for our entire day shift and evening shift,” Smith said. “I think it’s great, and our people will never turn down a free meal.”
Smith is impressed by the response they’ve received from the community, explaining that businesses like Mike’s Pharmacy and the Grose Funeral Home and even individual families have brought meals for the FASP crews.
County Commissioner Litz said she was glad the commissioners could approve another $5,000 to go toward the Frontliner program.
“I think it’s a small thing to let the frontliners know how much we value their service,” Litz said. “We’re not only feeding the frontliners, we’re feeding the restaurants and we’re feeding the local businesses. Because, ultimately, when this is over, there will be tourism because these businesses will survive and will still be here.”
Read more: Visit Lebanon Valley, virtually
It may be the first time the county commissioners have given funding for free meals, but not the only time they’ve ever given money to help people, Litz said.
In 2011, when Tropical Storm Lee destroyed homes, the commissioners voted to give some Act 137 funds to homeowners.
“There was a lot of devastation at the time and people who had lost everything,” Litz said. “It’s good to spend money when we can make it work with our mission, and by helping these businesses they will stay in the community. In times of crisis, we tend to get a little creative.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. WellSpan and the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce are advertisers on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.