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It’s quiet at the Takoma Park Aquatic Center in Northwest as Mark Bucher fills a sliding-glass-door refrigerator with individually packaged meals of steak salads and pasta bolognese.
Bucher co-owns Medium Rare, a nearly decade-old steakhouse with three locations in D.C., Arlington, and Bethesda. The restaurant has been providing free delivered meals to seniors since early in the coronavirus pandemic.
Bucher’s newest project — one that he’s collaborating on with a host of local government agencies and restaurants — is called “Feed the Fridge.” Initially launched in the fall, the project is installing community refrigerators stocked with healthy, restaurant-quality meals in public spaces.
The point of the program is to provide school-age kids with good, nutritious meals, but families are welcome to collect what they need. The meals are free and available for anyone to take.
This is what Bucher was working on recently at the aquatic center. While stacking containers on top of each other, he recounted how the site’s fridge was empty when he arrived at about 11:30 a.m. that morning. “They are cleaned out every day,” he said.
As of now, Feed the Fridge has set up eight refrigerators across D.C. They’re filled daily with 25 meals from six area restaurants, including Medium Rare, Cava, and Duke’s Grocery. (That list is expected to grow as early as next week.) The meals are designed to be served hot or cold.
Each participating restaurant is being paid $6 per meal by Bucher’s nonprofit, We Care. By the end of this week, he says the total number of fridges will double.
Before 2020 wraps up, the project aims to stock each refrigerator with 100 meals daily. The plan is to scale up to 100 fridges by the end of January — the equivalent of 10,000 free, restaurant-quality meals for whoever needs them.
Each meal features a protein, a starch or carbohydrate, and a vegetable. “The bolognese sauce has cauliflower grounded into it,” notes Bucher. “The kids don’t even know [there’s a vegetable in it].”
“They’re not checking in with anybody, there isn’t any list,” he says of the protocol for picking up food from the fridges. “It’s dignified.”
Food insecurity has long been a problem in D.C., particularly for children and seniors. Last year, at least half of D.C. students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to the nonprofit D.C. Hunger Solutions. More than 14% of District seniors were food-insecure in 2018, the highest rate in the country when compared to states, found a study by Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks.
The pandemic has exacerbated this issue. A D.C. Food Policy Council report from September estimates that 16% or more of D.C. residents will be food-insecure in 2020, up from 10.6% before the public health emergency. It also says food insecurity among children could rise to 28.6% — up from 19.6% in 2018 — and that nearly a third of seniors reported not being able to access or afford the food they needed in the spring.
In mid-March, when the city shut down due to COVID-19, Medium Rare offered up meals to area residents over 70 and unable to leave their homes. The demand was huge, according to Bucher. “We had caregivers email us, kids email us, the building manager email us … asking us to deliver meals,” he recalls. Bucher says the scale of the need made him realize many D.C. seniors are unfamiliar with or simply can’t afford food-delivery services like Uber Eats, Instacart, and DoorDash.
Fairly quickly, local governments caught wind of what Bucher and his team were doing, and looked to help. D.C.’s Department of Aging and Community Living tells DCist/WAMU it connected Bucher to more than 300 seniors.
“They were ready and willing to serve anyone and everyone we could connect with them,” agency director Laura Newland says in an email. “[The residents] were so pleased with the meals and very grateful to Medium Rare.”
As the pandemic drags on, Bucher’s team continues to deliver more and more meals. He says they’re close to having delivered 20,000 meals since March. That includes about 3,000 Thanksgiving meals; another 3,000 are expected for Christmas.
A D.C. restaurateur providing meals to those in need inevitably draws comparisons to another one who’s gained international recognition for doing the same — José Andrés. Bucher says Andrés is a personal friend of his, and that he’s taken a lot of inspiration from Andrés and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen. But while Andrés’ charitable work is global in scope, Bucher is primarily focused on feeding those at home.
“I’m literally going into D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, apartment to apartment,” he says.
Bucher admits it’s been a big lift to deliver so many meals to so many people. That’s how the idea for Feed the Fridge emerged. Instead of going from home to home, he thought, why not make it easy for people to pick up meals at community centers, fire stations, public libraries, schools, and senior living facilities?
Other kinds of locations could be incorporated into the project, too. Bucher says he’s even spoken to the Smithsonian Institution about putting a fridge in at least one of its museums.
Earlier this month, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation announced a partnership with Bucher to install fridges at recreation and community centers across the city.
Delano Hunter, the department’s director, says the program is already a success. There are rarely ever any meals left at the end of the day, Hunter says, and he hears personally from community members about how much they appreciate the effort. The city plans to expand the initiative to 20 DPR locations in the near future, according to Hunter.
“What’s been good about partnering with Mark is that it’s been turnkey,” he says. “He’s been able to manage those relationships with other organizations and restaurants. We have the know-how and locations, and he has the resources.”
Still, delivering free meals costs a good deal of money. Bucher set up a GoFundMe for the project that has brought in about $65,000 so far. He says the overall price tag for Feed the Fridge has been around $100,000, and Medium Rare has put up the startup funds. “We made the decision that money didn’t matter so much,” Bucher says.
At the same time, the project has had positive side effects on the restaurant’s reputation and business. Bucher says he’s been able to bring back all of his Medium Rare employees who were furloughed earlier this year. “Medium Rare is now firmly weaved into the life of Washingtonians,” he adds.
That’s not to say the restaurant isn’t struggling like others across the region. The winter threatens to reduce outdoor dining crowds, and restaurants need to be cautious in making sure staff don’t contract COVID-19 while vaccines are disseminated. But Bucher believes local restaurants will bounce back after the seasons change.
Meanwhile, the future of Feed the Fridge isn’t necessarily tied to the pandemic. The project offers a model for how private businesses and local governments can work together to address community challenges like hunger.
While Bucher isn’t currently charging D.C. for operating the fridges, he believes there will come a time when restaurateurs and officials can strike a mutually beneficial deal for community feeding. “We can manufacture really good-tasting meals inexpensively,” he says. “We are chefs. We know how to do this.” And the $6 per meal that Feed the Fridge restaurants are receiving is helping them keep employees on payroll and cover operational costs, Bucher points out.
For now, he and his team are stocking the community fridges one steak salad at a time. “People are learning that the meals are here,” he says.