COVID-19 Update: Behind the Scenes in FareStart’s Kitchens

April 9, 2020

Day by day, FareStart is making steady progress as we work to scale up our kitchens to produce up to 15,000 emergency meals per day — 600% more than our usual volume. All of our kitchens are buzzing with activity, as staff nimbly adapt to changes in protocols to protect everyone’s health and safety while providing nutritious meals.

One meal at a time, we are feeding our vulnerable neighbors impacted by the crisis including people experiencing homelessness, low-income seniors, youth and families. Downtown Emergency Services Center, Plymouth Housing, Pike Place Market Housing, Ronald McDonald House and King County isolation and recovery sites are just a few of the nearly 30 partners we’re supporting across nearly 70 sites. We're also feeding students while our job training programs are paused. Since the beginning of our COVID-19 response, FareStart has produced 100,000 meals for people in need.

“I couldn’t be prouder of everybody showing up every day … it’s going to take each and every one of us, working together, to make it possible to get these meals out,” says Chef Wayne Johnson, FareStart’s vice president of culinary operations.

Temperature checks mark the start of every shift, for both kitchen and administrative staff. Once cleared as fever-free, employees don a sticker they wear all day showing they’re safe to work. Kitchen staff wash their hands and give their workstation a thorough cleaning— the first of many wipe-downs they’ll do throughout the day as part of stepped-up sanitizing measures.

To maintain safe social distancing, workstations are spaced at least six feet apart, separated by lines of tape, with just one person at each station. Despite the steady rhythm of knives chopping, fridge doors opening and closing and the hum of music from the radio, it’s quieter than usual in our kitchens. There’s no way for a kitchen full of cooks spaced six feet apart to engage in friendly conversation without the noise rising to disruptive levels.

It’s a heads-down atmosphere with each cook at each station focused on prepping and packing up meals full of high-quality, nutritious foods like fresh fruit and muffins for breakfast; turkey, hummus, or egg salad wraps and applesauce for lunch; and protein-packed bowls like arroz con pollo, teriyaki vegetable, or chicken masala for dinner. For each meal, there are vegan and allergen-free options. We’re also providing select sites with microwavable meals and snacks that are shelf stable such as chips and granola bars.

To produce as many meals as possible, we’ve split what used to be one shift into two at our main FareStart kitchen at 7th and Virginia. The first shift starts at 4:30 a.m. (three hours earlier than before), the second at 1:30 p.m. The kitchens are active until 9:30 p.m. most nights.

We’ve reallocated many of our staff and hired more than a dozen FareStart graduates from restaurants that had to close their doors or scale back because of COVID-19. We’re planning to hire even more graduates and foodservice workers as we continue ramping up production of emergency meals at our kitchens in downtown Seattle, South Lake Union and Beacon Hill.

Our chefs are sourcing ingredients needed to make nutritious meals, in some cases working around sudden shortages of staples like whole wheat bread. Disposable packaging has also become hard to find, due to the steep rise in demand for take-out meals, so corporate partners are stepping up to fill in gaps in our packaging supplies. We are also grateful to the many food donations from local restaurants and food purveyors that are helping chefs plan nutritionally balanced menus – First & Goal, Charlie’s Produce, Junebaby and Food Lifeline just to name a few.

We’re also talking with foodservice and catering partners in anticipation of scaling up to 50,000 emergency meals per day if the community needs it. Staff is quickly learning the ins and outs of emergency meal production including delivery logistics, large scale in-kind food processing, storage and refrigeration.

For his part, Chef Wayne is thinking every day about all the students who are eager to get back to their training at FareStart. But he is grateful for the opportunity to feed so many people in need, and determined to keep our mission moving forward during these times of great sacrifice.

“Our mission is real right now,” Chef Wayne says, “and our mission will get us through this.”