One year in, collaboration still dishing up hot meals and dignity to O.C.’s neediest residents

A woman in a kitchen prepares meals.
Holley Sao, kitchen manager for Toast Kitchen & Bakery in Costa Mesa, prepares meals for Delivering With Dignity, a collaboration of donors, volunteers, assistance agencies and restaurants that has delivered 81,000 hot meals to people in need.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

As Orange County entered the long stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, a contingent of nonprofit organizations, restaurants, philanthropists and volunteers teamed up to provide fresh, hot meals to residents whose food options were scarce.

Delivering With Dignity Orange County created a framework in which donors raised funds to pay $6 per meal to independent restaurants, which took turns boxing up goods for an army of volunteer delivery drivers.

The meals went to clients of assistance agencies who were at high risk for the coronavirus and confined to their homes, did not qualify for other food programs and who otherwise had no support system or means of procuring food.


Among them was Jeffrey Hull, a client of the Costa Mesa nonprofit Project Independence, which helps adults with disabilities find jobs and live on their own. Last year found Hull often stuck inside his apartment with limited transportation and means of getting fresh meals.

“I mainly stayed inside the house,” Hull said of his pandemic routine, which was alleviated by Delivering With Dignity. “I’ve gotten meals delivered before — I think it’s a fantastic organization.”

Todd Eckert, development director for Project Independence, said the meal program filled a huge void.

“The pandemic clobbered a lot of us and our ability to get out,” he said. “A lot of our clients are isolated, so this was a godsend.”

Although the collaboration was formed as a stopgap measure during a time of crisis, one year later, its participants are realizing the span and scope of what they created is much deeper than anyone anticipated.

Delivering With Dignity founders held a small ceremony this week at Costa Mesa’s Toast Kitchen & Bakery — where the first meals were prepared in June 2020 — to recognize the village of people who’ve contributed to the effort.

In the course of one year, the program has raised about $646,000 and has provided 81,000 daily meals to families and individuals in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and other communities.

“As long as the need is out there, we want to do everything we can,” said Daniel Kim, founder of the nonprofit Dragon Kim Foundation, who saw a similar program operating in Las Vegas and brought it to Orange County.

“We’re very proud of the effect we’ve had in the community. It wouldn’t be possible without this collaboration,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can get done when you have an objective and put aside the egos.”

And what a collaboration it has been.

One driver, Naomi Takahata, delivered 6,615 meals in a one-year period, Kim said. Others came through companywide volunteer efforts, such as the Santa Ana branch of Medtronic, which assembled a small team that delivered 50 meals.

“Some of the employees have taken it a step further and delivered on their own time,” said Medtronic team leader Ed Martinez. “[That’s] what we want, to have Delivering With Dignity have a bigger net out there into the community.”

Delivering With Dignity also enabled eight independent restaurants to preserve at least 30 full-time positions at a time when eateries were forced to implement massive layoffs to survive.

Karen Williams, president of 211 Orange County, a nonprofit that connects vulnerable people with vital social services and resources, said that although some aspects of the program may shift as the pandemic recedes and restaurants become fully operational, the need for hot meals is likely to remain.

“If you’re living in a motel, or you’re renting a room from somebody or living in a garage, you may not have kitchen access,” she said. “So, being able to have prepared food makes a big difference.”

As for Kim, he’s motivated to keep the program going as long as the need is out there.

“The day we stop is when the need goes away,” he said.

Cardine writes for Times Community News.