Getting food to the people who need it most during the pandemic has been a primary concern for many nonprofit organizations — but what if the food being donated doesn’t suit the needs of the people on the receiving end? That’s the dilemma the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center was facing last spring and summer as the nonprofit’s primary mission of helping immigrants and refugees integrate into new communities in metro Denver shifted to helping them simply survive the economic hardships created by the pandemic.
Jennifer Gueddiche, chief operating officer for the Welcome Center, says it wasn’t enough to count on food banks and pantry donations to get food for the organization’s clients, since many of them come from cultures where American staples are either unfamiliar or unsuitable for their religious and cultural requirements. Orthodox Christians and Muslims from Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea form a large part of the Welcome Center’s clientele, so ensuring that halal meats, vegetarian meals and traditional ingredients made it to those in need played a critical role in temporarily switching from an education-based mission to focusing on food distribution. “We live in a culturally diverse community, and I don’t think people should have to eat foods they’re not familiar with,” Gueddiche explains. “We can do better than that.”
Relying on food banks often results in a heavy load of canned goods, and many East African immigrants have no idea what to do with the canned foods common in most American home kitchens, she points out. So the Welcome Center looked to another model that would help both “the most vulnerable members of the community, the food insecure” and business owners operating restaurants serving the needs of their immigrant communities, Gueddiche says.
During the pandemic, health-care professionals and restaurant workers have both been at particular risk: the first category because many are exposed to the virus every day while treating COVID-19 patients, and the second because of job and income loss, as well as exposure while they still had jobs. In the early months of the pandemic, groups popped up that paid restaurants to make food for front-line medical workers, keeping the money flowing to the food-service industry while providing hot meals for nurses, technicians and doctors who were short on time. The arrangement worked well, but some people were left out of the equation: owners of restaurants too small or obscure to be considered by food-delivery organizers, and low-income immigrants and refugees who found themselves out of work or at risk for contracting COVID because of their jobs, their age or their medical conditions.
The Welcome Center has been helping restaurants and food recipients since April, thanks to grant money from Help Colorado Now, a state-organized effort to provide emergency relief resources during both the COVID and the Colorado wildfire crises. “Help Colorado Now did what they started out to do, which was to get money down into the community, so I really appreciate them funding our effort,” Gueddiche says.
So far, the Welcome Center has received three COVID relief grants of $25,000 each through Help Colorado Now, which has been used to pay five restaurants to provide food, as well as cover some of the costs of food distribution. One of the restaurants in the mix is the eleven-year-old Golf Ethiopian Restaurant, at 10 South Havana Street in Aurora. “We provide meals on Sunday and Thursday,” says owner Bedru Hussein. “We choose the food, and Welcome Center decides who the food goes to.” The restaurant provides multiple options to make sure that people with specific needs and preferences have the right choices, he explains; that way, even those who don’t want Ethiopian food have something to eat.
The Welcome Center isn’t going it alone on this project. Gueddiche says she’s working with several community organizations, including the Ethiopian Community Development Council/African Community Center, the Oromo Community of Colorado, the United African Community Development Council of America, the Addis Kidan Ethiopian Evangelical Church and the Center for African Integration; each organization pairs with a different restaurant to help get the right food to the right people.
Jasmine Syrian Food and Odaa Ethiopian Restaurant, both at 10180 East Colfax Avenue, inside Mango House, are both participating; so are the Somali Ifka Cafe at 1535 South Havana Street and the Ethiopian Hira Cafe at 10782 East Iliff Avenue. While most of the restaurants package their meals for pick-up by the various organizations, the Hira Cafe has a catering license and provides breakfast and coffee that are served at the Addis Kidan church. In contrast, Ifka Cafe prepares food that’s picked up by the Center for African Integration and delivered to seniors and other at-risk recipients who can’t leave their homes.
Initially, the Welcome Center was providing about 160 meals three times a week, but with the participation of these five restaurants, each one preparing food twice a week, the number of people served has grown significantly. And the variety has grown, too, with halal meats, including goat, and vegetarian meals for Ethiopian Orthodox fasting days (of which there are many).
The Welcome Center program has not just fed people; it’s also fed the coffers of the restaurants. Odaa doesn’t have the capacity to tap into the takeout and delivery market; it’s primarily a one-woman business making food for the Oromo community that represents one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups. The Welcome Center’s program has helped Odaa stay in business. Other restaurants have used the grant money to pay their employees as tables go empty, tips dry up and supplemental gig-economy jobs disappear.
Gueddiche has visited Ethiopia during the course of her career working with immigrants and refugees, and has seen how the country’s food, religion and culture are all tightly intertwined with the many ethnic groups there; the situation is the same in Somalia and other countries in East Africa. When immigrants leave there to come to Colorado, they don’t cut all of those traditional ties.
Through the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center, though, authentic African restaurants and their customers can stay connected, even while dining rooms remain closed.