PLEASANTON, CA — A Pleasanton organization founded in March to support struggling restaurants while feeding hungry people has spread nationwide in months.
Tech entrepreneur Reena Jadhav of Pleasanton initially sought to support health care workers and patients sent home as a result of the pandemic through her nonprofit Free Meals, which she founded in March. Jadhav, who struggled with colon cancer at age 35 and an auto-immune crisis at age 45, knew the struggle of needing food but feeling to ill to get out of bed and cook nutritious meals.
By purchasing meals from restaurants grappling with a downturn in business amid the pandemic, it's a win-win, she said.
"For me, just the thought that someone is sleeping hungry, it's just unacceptable," Jadhav said.
At her child's suggestion, Jadhav said she logged on to community social networking platform NextDoor and told her neighbors that she would be buying nutritious meals through a delivery service for anyone who needed them.
News of the offer spread far and 15 volunteers signed up to help within two weeks. One end-of-life patient said she would have died of starvation if not for Free Meals, Jadhav said.
"It was insane how fast it grew," she said.
Frontline workers were already well supported, so Jadhav pivoted to focus on people struggling most with food insecurity, such as single parents, foster children and seniors without family support.
Soon, the Free Meals team began reaching out to restaurants, asking if they would commit to providing nutritious meals to a family of four for $25. They have partnerships with restaurants of all types — Indian, Mediterranean, American, Italian, Filipino — and even chain restaurants such as Denny's, Taco Bell and Lazy Dog.
Free Meals recently launched a "BODO" — buy one, donate one — campaign. That means that anyone who buys a meal from participating restaurants will have the option of donating another meal to someone in need.
Free Meals uses DoorDash, which allows them to serve food insecure families in Tri-Valley and beyond the Bay Area. The nonprofit has served families in Southern California, Chicago and New York.
"If we get a request and it meets our criteria, we just [deliver] it," Jadhav said.
Free Meals has also distributed groceries to East Bay families.
Though Free Meals has fed families across the country, the nonprofit maintains close Tri-Valley ties. Volunteers have worked with the Pleasanton Unified School District and local nonprofits.
As the nonprofit looks to the future, Jadhav, who has funded Free Meals on her own thus far, is inviting corporations to consider giving the organization grants or order for company events through Free Meals.
Workday, based in Pleasanton has given $5,000, she said.
Free Meals may have been founded in response to the pandemic, but Jadhav hopes to continue serving people struggling with food insecurity afterward. They've received dozens of comments from recipients who share their struggles, from recently single parents to people who have lost their jobs.
Jadhav said her love for her community is what's kept her motivation for Free Meals going strong.
"That's the only reason I'm doing this ... It's about my neighbors," she said.
Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.