Martin Hernandez was enjoying his job as regional chef of Zinc Café — which has locations in Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach and Los Angeles — in mid-March, when the novel coronavirus struck close to home.
He’d lost his sense of smell and taste, two telltale signs of the virus, but his symptoms weren’t bad enough to warrant a test from his healthcare provider. When Hernandez’s wife, Alix Wiesen-Todd, came down with respiratory symptoms a week later, they both got tested and learned they were infected.
During their isolation at home, they relied on the kindness of family members, who helped with their three small children, dropped off home-cooked meals and functioned as a support system.
“It’s just crazy to see what people can do when you need help,” Hernandez recalled. “It made us realize we were grateful for what we had.”
With their recovery behind them, the two restaurant industry professionals began to think of all the families struggling to put food on the table, due to unemployment, lack of funds and under-availability of certain food items.
By then, the businesses they worked for had been shuttered due to shelter-in-place restrictions, so Hernandez and Wiesen-Todd decided to use their culinary skills and connections to help those in need.
In mid-April, the couple amassed a small group of volunteers, mostly relatives, who agreed to prepare home-cooked meals to pass out to area families in need.
They set up a Facebook page, Family Meals OC, with a link to a Google sign-up sheet, offering meals every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Carrington Park in Laguna Hills.
“We got 30 families right away,” said Wiesen-Todd, regional manager for restaurant chain North Italia. “And we know so many people in the industry, our vendors are letting us pay their prices to pick up their food so we can cook it — it’s been amazingly collaborative.”
Hernandez’s boss, Zinc Café owner John Secretan, helped the cause by sharing a GoFundMe page the couple had set up through the restaurant’s social media pages. Quickly, donations began flying in, allowing more families to be added to the list.
Today, Family Meals OC prepares items for more than 135 families.
Among them is Irvine mother of five Rori Gelfand, who drives from her Irvine apartment to pick up meals and pantry items from the makeshift drop-off station.
Her full-time hours at Irvine Unified School District were reduced after campuses closed during the pandemic, and she lost a babysitting gig that helped her earn grocery money.
“It is so stressful right now going to the grocery store to figure out what to feed the kids, and what they want isn’t there,” Gelfand said. “Now I feel better they’re getting three good meals a week — it means everything.”
For families who cannot pick up the meals in person, the Hernandez family makes deliveries. Right now, about 35 families receive meals, pantry items and other necessities each Friday.
“We have families who need formula for their babies, or diapers, so we try to get those items for them,” Hernandez said. “There’s no questions asked. If you say you need it, we’re going to trust that you need it.”
Costa Mesa mother Kristina, who asked that her last name be withheld, was hoping for help feeding her young children and signed up for Friday deliveries. She’s since been surprised with an extra drop-off meal package that included diapers and wipes.
“There’s not a lot of people who’d go out of their way for someone else,” she said. “It’s such a big help.”