By Chris Mohney
Feed the Polls is a partnership between The Infatuation, Zagat, and The Migrant Kitchen. Our mission is to offer free, healthy meals to people waiting at the polls on November 3rd. Please donate to help reach the goal of distributing 50,000 healthy meals across polling locations around the country on Election Day.
Nasser Jaber is cofounder of the Migrant Kitchen, a catering company and social impact organization that hires immigrants, migrants, and undocumented workers to both train them in commercial cooking as well as help gain their cuisines more exposure in the marketplace.
Since April, we have expanded our operations to deliver around 2 million meals to New Yorkers in need. The operation expanded from a few kitchens that we took over in the city to a major kitchen out in Long Island City. We built an entire system where we have 60,000 to 70,000 meals weekly that get delivered to people’s homes, mostly seniors. Each box is made with nine meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chef Lisselly Brito has developed a menu that is nutritional for seniors, but also has a lot of their immigrant and migrant cuisine embedded it in.
We also went to Beirut after the explosion. We heavily fed refugee camps—Syrian and the Palestinian—as well as the affected areas of the bombing. We are still ongoing with this population. We just had 2,000 pantry boxes sent to the Bekaa Valley to help Syrian refugees for most of winter. Each box has a month’s supply of food.
Recently we opened our pop-up in Brooklyn—Arab-Latino food based on the Arab-Latino diaspora in South America. For every meal that’s bought, we give away a meal. So far it’s been a hit, and we’re trying to expand it more and more.
We met for coffee with Infatuation/Zagat CEO Chris Stang. The conversation was mostly about Beirut and our experiences there—us and José Andrés and World Central Kitchen. We started talking about the election, and voter-suppressed areas and gerrymandering, and all that stuff, and he said, “Look, what if we can help people sustain themselves while they’re in long lines at the polls?” We were like, “Yeah, we can definitely execute this. It’s an easy switch for us.” And here we are with Feed the Polls.
Because of the experience we’ve had with COVID, we can easily find grassroots partners that we trust. These organizations supply us with caterers or food trucks, most probably people of color or veterans, because a lot of veterans ended up in the food business. We’ll pay them to bring those trucks out to the polls and provide a hot meal for anyone that’s ready to vote. And can we put them in districts we know are facing voter suppression or voter inadequacy.
We were able to contact organizations in Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The way that we would ask for partners is very simple. Give us the data on the polls in your area. Which districts do you think are more important for this election?
On the food side, Chef Lisselly will vet them so that we can scale up and do 2,000 meals, 3,000 meals, or 15,000 meals. We would tell them that the meal has to have a protein, a starch, and a salad, whatever the meal is. The production cost of a meal should work a certain way. The meal cost is going to be $8 to $10, which is very cheap. That cost includes a donation to the organization that sends the volunteers, the cost of the meal, packaging, and all the logistics. If you need help with that cost, we can work with you on finding somebody like Sysco that can supply things for you.
We would ask that the organization supply a volunteer or two to make sure that people are organized on the line, all that kind of stuff. And we will be on the ground managing. It would be great to do 1 million meals if we really want to affect the election. But, of course, it depends on funding. This is a grassroots operation.
The way that we have scaled up this operation, not just in New York but globally—it sounds like a lot, but we’ve done this and we understand how to execute.
We’re really hoping to be working in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan. We have access to different organizations like the NAACP, the Muslim network, the Christian network, and the Jewish network, which allows us to go local and figure out who’s best about giving us the data, and who can help us execute. And they all know each other. For me, it took a phone call to Chicago to get to Michigan. I called a friend of mine in Virginia, and he got me Pennsylvania. It’s all about networking and having skin in the game, which we already have. This is not something we built overnight. We’ve been active for years. We know everybody that we need to reach out to that can get us some help.
Operationally, let’s say that we go to Ohio. The distances are far—it’s not like New York. You need caterers to send out the food, but there could be snow, there could be thunderstorms, there could be whatever, and the food would be cold. The other option is to do hot meals on a food truck.
We have had other issues come up too. For example, in Michigan there is one particular district with a Yemeni population, and Neo-Nazis show up to intimidate people there. We have to be very careful with that dynamic. Another dynamic is that people can tell you, “Hey, I don’t want people taking off their masks at the polls,” because they want to discourage people from coming out. Not that you can’t eat or drink at the poll, because you can.
On our end, we make it as easy as possible. We put a food truck in the parking lot of a school or whatever the polling place is. We can even put three or four trucks there. We can have somebody with a trolley come down the line and hand out the meals and the drinks. Nobody has to even get out of the line. But that will require a lot of volunteers, which these local organizations have been more than happy to supply.
When I get really excited about ideas, I go try to do them. My mentality is to move fast, break things, and fail quickly, which drives my team crazy because sometimes the information is not necessarily clear or not explained to them correctly and it becomes a chaotic environment. So I apologize on the record to them! But the truth of the matter is that nothing really intimidates me about this process. It is exciting. I just want to see how much we can scale up within the next four weeks.
Feed the Polls is going all the way to November 3rd. But food insecurity in New York is still really high. We have been supplying food pantries and fridges in Jackson Heights. It’s important for us to get people exposed to new cuisine that we deliver here in New York with the Arab-Latino pop-up. But at the same time, we want to make sure that when people buy from us, they know we’re also donating a matching meal. Because our main business is retail, we can afford to build in profit we can use to donate a full meal for every meal we sell, rather than just donate a portion of a meal’s cost.
The core message here is that there should be nothing stopping you from coming out to vote. We’ll take care of you, we’ll feed you. Just make sure that you practice your civic duty as a citizen of this country to vote. Do not think that your vote doesn’t count.