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Rare collaboration delivers meals, dignity to those in O.C. most impacted by COVID-19

Floor manager Don Smith at Toast Kitchen + Bakery in Costa Mesa puts together meals to be distributed by Delivering with Dignity OC, a public-private partnership that aims to give out nearly 5,000 meals each week to residents vulnerable to COVID-19.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
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A newly formed army of local nonprofits, donors, agencies and volunteers are teaming up with Orange County restaurants with a single mission in mind — to deliver some 5,000 fresh meals each week to those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the collaboration Delivering with Dignity Orange County are combining their public and private networks and resources to find individuals and families most in need and provide them the comfort and care of a warm meal.

The group’s first delivery, 150 meals prepared by staff at Toast Kitchen + Bakery in Costa Mesa, took place Wednesday as a line of volunteer drivers loaded bags of spaghetti Bolognese, salad, chicken and mashed potatoes into their backseats and took off in all directions.

Volunteers help load up meals to be delivered by driver volunteers as part of a new program called Delivering with Dignity OC, in Costa Mesa, on Wednesday
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The effort came at a crucial time.

The Orange County Health Agency on Wednesday reported 26 new deaths from the coronavirus and 363 hospitalizations, the highest levels since reporting began. Conversely, the county’s testing rates fell Wednesday to a record low. Only 1,478 tests were reported — less than one-third of the county’s June 17 peak testing day.

Health officials qualified the high number of deaths on the agency’s Twitter page, saying “a concentrated effort was made to compare death certificates received from the County Office of Vital Records to existing cases” in the state’s reporting system, which resulted in a higher-than-usual count.

Still, the California Health Department reports 90 fatalities occurring in Orange County in the last 14 days alone, as a recent Los Angeles Times data analysis identified the county as one of four responsible for contributing to a recent statewide spike in hospitalizations.

Karen Williams, president and chief executive of 211 OC, a nonprofit that connects vulnerable people with vital social services and resources, said the impact of coronavirus has been devastating in how it has compounded already serious problems.

Theriault House director of volunteers and community engagement Caroline Horstmann, left, receives meals delivered by volunteer Gepa Veronica Miclaus as part of a new program called Delivering with Dignity OC, in Stanton on Wednesday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

That’s why the group is partnering with Delivering with Dignity to identify clients who could benefit from an emergency meal service.

“One of the things we’ve seen with COVID-19 is an increase in food insecurity,” Williams said. “People are at risk or are exposed to [the virus] or have had it and have to do social isolation — how do you get groceries?”

Meals provided by Delivering with Dignity are created by participating local restaurants for $6 that, when multiplied by 200 or 300 meals, allows business owners to recoup losses and rehire staff.

The collaboration came to Orange County courtesy of Tustin resident Daniel Kim, founder of the nonprofit Dragon Kim Foundation. He saw the same program operating in Las Vegas and thought his home community could benefit from its approach.

Kim explained Delivering with Dignity is intended to serve people who meet three key criteria — they are at the highest risk for coronavirus, ineligible for or not being served by other food delivery programs and are financially unable to meet their food needs without leaving home and have no social network upon which to rely.

But recipients aren’t the only ones who are helped, Kim said. Local agencies and nonprofits benefit from the program by better serving the needs of the clients they serve, while local businesses are able to recoup from the losses they’ve suffered during the coronavirus shutdown.

“It’s a very elegant solution to address a lot of problems,” Kim said of the Delivering with Dignity model.

So far, the effort has raised about $150,000, enough to prepare about 28,000 meals, at $6 for an individual meal and $22 for a family meal, Kim estimated.

Theriault House residents Justin Hampshire, Cristina Bahena and their child Justin Hampshire Jr. received meals delivered through Delivering with Dignity OC, in Stanton on Wednesday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The goal is to deliver some 5,000 meals each week to people in Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Santa Ana over the next six weeks — possibly longer if interested agencies and volunteers continues to coalesce the way it has in just the past few weeks.

Jack Toan, who works as vice president of philanthropy and community relations for Wells Fargo and was brought into the collaboration by friend Kim, says he thinks the program could grow.

“We definitely want to figure out how to increase the sustainability, because I think we’ll see the need well beyond six weeks,” Toan said. “There are a lot of food programs, but they have a lot of limitations, and there are people falling through the cracks.”

Toast Kitchen + Bakery owner John Park estimated his 2-year-old business is currently operating at about 25% capacity to keep diners distanced. So, when he heard about Delivering with Dignity, he was happy to help.

“My faith is really important to me, and I believe it’s our duty to do this,” said Park, who regularly attends NewSong Church in Santa Ana with Toan and Kim. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”

Bronnie Lee, who owns Wasa Sushi & Teppan in Newport Beach and used his industry experience to enlist help bring other restaurateurs to Delivering with Dignity, agrees.

“We’re just so blessed to have such an amazing partnership with these restaurants,” Lee said. “I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.”

Kim said it’s been amazing to see how much one simple idea has grown in just a few short weeks. He chalks it up to a community of people who believe in showing compassion for others.

“It’s not just food delivery,” he said. “It’s delivering hope and the message we all care and together, as a community, we can all get through this.”

The program is funded through donations from the Sun Family Foundation, Sisters of St. Joseph Health Care Foundation, Anaheim Community Foundation, Wells Fargo and others. Volunteer deliveries are organized by OneOC and the Dragon Kim Foundation.

For more information, visit deliveringwithdignityoc.org. Prospective restaurants may contact Bronnie Lee at bsglee@gmail.com.

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