Student-led project supports both restaurants, health care workers

Hero Meals Arizona has brought hundreds of meals from local restaurants to health care workers at Phoenix Veterans Affairs

During a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans and taxed the country's health care system and economy, a group of ASU students searched for a way they could help others while remaining safe.

What resulted was Hero Meals Arizona, a project part of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps with the UA College of Medicine — Phoenix

The group works to simultaneously support local restaurants and health care workers at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs by using donation funds to purchase meals from local businesses and providing those meals to workers, according to Jennifer Wong, a junior studying biomedical engineering and lead of communications at Hero Meals Arizona.

“Our main goal was to help both frontline health care workers and local owned businesses," Wong said. "We were taking our donation money and purchasing meals from these small businesses and would donate those meals we bought with our own funds."

ASU students now lead the program after it was started by the UA College of Medicine — Phoenix.

As of late August, Hero Meals Arizona had fed 660 health care workers at the Phoenix VA since its start in May. Lindsey Masterson, a sophomore studying kinesiology and lead of fundraising at Hero Meals Arizona, said with each delivery, they fed around 100 to 200 health care workers, shifting which department received deliveries with each distribution.

Leslie Lockridge, nurse executive and acting associate director of patient care services at the Phoenix VA, said the support from Hero Meals has not gone unnoticed by the staff.

"The support and donations we have received from our community partners has made a tremendous positive impact on our staff," Lockridge wrote in an email. "These have been extremely challenging times and our staff has worked tirelessly to take care of our Veterans. The meals and goodies (were) such a morale booster for everyone."

Akhil Mahant, a junior studying biomedical sciences and lead of delivery at Hero Meals Arizona, said in order to find restaurants to work with them, they would reach out virtually to locally-owned, less expensive restaurants in the Valley that needed the support. 

Mahant said for the health care workers, the deliveries are “a way to kind of get away from it all and be like, 'Hey, someone’s here to drop me off a cookie or a free lunch.'”

“(The pandemic) lasted a lot longer than what we all thought it was going to last," Masterson said. "Yet these health care workers are still going out every day and putting on five different layers of PPE and struggling and having mental breakdowns because they’re taking care of so many sick people with this sickness that’s not really known about."

With schools opening, some events resuming and more businesses and restaurants welcoming back customers, Hero Meals Arizona is still working to support health care workers and local businesses.

The pandemic has substantially impacted Phoenix-area businesses, with at least 50 restaurants, bars, bakeries and dessert shops closing permanently as a result of COVID-19, according to ABC 15. 

“Our core values are still there, our main goal is to show frontline health care workers that we see you, that we’re not overlooking you, we want to be there to extend this hand for you and support these small businesses since a lot of them did suffer,” Wong said.

Hero Meals Arizona is currently working to become its own nonprofit, which would mean they would no longer be part of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps and would operate independently. Becoming a nonprofit would allow the project to take more tax-deductible donations and expand its reach to more hospitals and restaurants in the Valley, Wong said. 

Since students mostly run Hero Meals Arizona, they have had to take a brief break as classes resumed this fall. But they are still working to fundraise for a future delivery and recruiting more student volunteers. 

“It shows that we are all in this fight together,” Masterson said. “It doesn’t matter if you are working in the ER or a student on your computer reaching out to businesses, it’s all of us banding together to help our community get through this difficult time.” 


Reach the reporter at mcbushma@asu.edu and follow @meredithbushman on Twitter. 

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