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A New Nonprofit Will Help Food Service Workers Survive Medical Debt Emergencies

Family Meal will use collaborations with local restaurants and wineries to help fundraise for relief grants

A stock image of a doctor helping a patient
A medical emergency can create its own financial burden for restaurant workers
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

In the several years Josh Cole has worked in restaurants, he’s come across several restaurant workers in financial crisis after a medical emergency — a hefty hospital bill after a car accident, a broken limb that keeps a chef from the kitchen. But when those things happen, it’s not just the medical bills that cause financial stress; it’s the time away from work.

In Oregon, employers are required to provide 40 hours of paid sick leave, but that only covers larger restaurant businesses; restaurants with nine or fewer employees must provide 40 hours of unpaid sick time. Regardless, a lengthy stay in a hospital can be twice the financial burden: a nasty bill, plus the lack of wages from missed shifts.

Those situations, when bad enough, can cause longterm effects far beyond the weight of bad credit: Missing rent could result in an eviction notice, or a stroke could keep a restaurant worker out of the kitchen for months, in the case of Xico chef Kelly Myers.

Enter: Family Meal, a new nonprofit designed to help food service and agricultural workers in need in a medical debt crisis. Family Meal specifically provides financial relief: paying rent, covering groceries, etc. Using a combination of fundraising dinners, partnerships with restaurants, and direct donations, Family Meal helps restaurant workers in crisis stay afloat.

According to a study from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, around 90 percent of restaurant workers are uninsured or underinsured. Even those who have insurance often struggle with high premiums and deductibles, which make a cancer diagnosis, a broken leg, or even a nasty staff infection potentially disastrous for their bank account.

“I understand this is an industry that operates under fragile margins,” Cole says. “Every restaurant owner I’ve spoken with wants to provide health insurance for employees. But 70 percent of every dollar a restaurant earns goes back out into the business. That doesn’t leave much room... This is an opportunity to combat the disparity of people who are uninsured and underinsured.”

For example, if a vineyard worker has a surprise gallbladder surgery and misses harvest, she can apply via the website for financial relief. Then, the board review committee weighs the need compared to other applications and the funds it has available, before approving or denying that request and sending over another application with more specific financial questions. Then, they get moving on providing financial care.

Family Meal doesn’t actually pay off the medical bills for a number of reasons. In many cases, the actual hospital bill isn’t the most urgent cost; paying for basic living expenses, like rent and groceries, can often be the most urgent need when a restaurant worker gets sick. “We ensure that there’s a roof over their head and food in their pantry,” in Cole’s words.

To make the money to provide that relief, Family Meal partners with various restaurants in a number of different ways. The list of restaurant donors is already significant: Ox, Ava Gene’s, Lardo, Boxer Ramen, Gado Gado, Fried Egg I’m In Love, St. Jack, and Oui Wine Bar & Restaurant at SE Wine Collective are just some of the restaurants getting involved. Some are donating a flat percentage of sales for a portion of time, while others are creating food or drink specials that provide proceeds to Family Meal. The specifics of how each restaurant donates will be available on the nonprofit’s website once Family Meal officially begins accepting donations November 1.

In addition to those donations, Family Meal will also host a dinner series that will help fundraise for the organization. Twice a year, chefs like will come together for fundraising dinners: At the beginning of the year, the organization will host an intimate dinner with a higher ticket price, while a dinner at the end of the year will be a larger format, casual, outdoor event, likely at a local farm. The first dinner on January 11 will feature Earl Ninsom of Eem, Erik Van Kley of Arden, Sam Smith of Tusk, and pastry chef Nora Mace. Plus, wineries like Maloof and Cameron will donate wine pairings for the event.

Speaking of wine, a third facet of Family Meal’s fundraising effort is wine label collaborations: Wineries can donate a percentage of each specific bottle sold back to Family Meal. To start, Pago Casa Gran’s Falcata, a Spanish red blend, will donate $1 of each bottle sold to the foundation. Beyond that, regular diners can also donate directly to Family Meal via the website, and Cole expects the organization to change and shift as it grows.

“Family Meal is rooted in the belief that society functions best when people’s basic needs are met,” Cole says. “We recognize that this is a new organization. It will evolve.”

Family Meal plans to start issuing relief grants in mid-December.

Family Meal [Official]
Serving While Sick [ROC]
Portland Restaurant Community Comes Through for Chef Kelly Myers [EPDX]
Fundraisers for Sick Restaurant Employees Represent the Failure of American Health Care [Eater]