Food for the hungry, rent relief for downtown New Haven merchants

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    Two people wearing medical masks prepare to load supplies from Yale into a truck from the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.
    Yale Hospitality has donated food to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen for more than a decade, and will continue to do so through the COVID crisis, said Yale‘s Rafi Taherian. “They are not forgotten — we are thinking of them and will continue to take care of them.”

    As Yale Hospitality’s Rafi Taherian was making plans to feed Yale’s now reduced on-campus population, he was also thinking of other people who might be affected by the dispersal of students and staff in response to the COVID-19 crisis: New Haven residents who depend on the city’s soup kitchens. For decades, Yale Hospitality, the university’s dining operation, has provided them with unused dining hall food. This had to continue, Taherian and fellow university leaders felt.

    It has, and it will.

    Our community soup kitchens were very much on my mind as we began planning for our reduced food production,” said Taherian, associate vice president for Yale Hospitality. “They are not forgotten — we are thinking of them and will continue to take care of them.”

    As Taherian and his staff reconfigured campus dining operations and ensured continued support for the soup kitchens, colleagues around Yale were taking steps to bolster the merchants and economy of downtown New Haven, and continuing preparations for the necessary medical response.

    Yale University Properties, which manages university-owned commercial properties, suspended base rent obligations for city shops and restaurants in Yale-owned buildings for March and April. Yale medical affiliates have been scaling up health care operations, and key Yale research scientists have refocused their work on COVID-19 to help find and develop tests and treatments for the disease. Medical and nursing students have been helping the elderly get groceries, and are placing calls to them at nursing homes to offer companionship amid particularly isolating circumstances. More than 300 School of Nursing faculty, students, and staff volunteered for duty in the event of a surge of COVID-19 cases. University and Yale New Haven Hospital employees gave blood to shore up the hospital’s supply.

    Yale also has set up the Yale Community for New Haven Fund. It aims to raise $5 million to support health care delivery, assistance to local businesses, community educational needs, and area not-for-profits focused on, for example, the well-being of children and families, homelessness, and food insecurity. Yale contributed an initial $1 million, and will match every dollar given by faculty, students, and staff up to the $5 million goal.

    These are unprecedented times, and we are working with the city and many partners to collaboratively weather the storm,” said Lauren Zucker, Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven Affairs and University Properties. “Our local merchants are acutely feeling the loss of business and customers. We are communicating with them daily and are committed to working with them through this crisis. These stores create meaningful jobs for New Haven residents and contribute to our vibrant downtown as well as foster our local economy. We all need to help each other so that our community, our city, will remain intact and strong.”

    Food donations

    As soon as it became clear that Yale students would not return to campus after spring break, Taherian’s team began collecting perishable food items for donation to DESK — the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, which Yale has been supporting for more than a decade — and Haven’s Harvest, an environmental organization that shares excess food with soup kitchens and groups with similar missions. Taherian, meanwhile, assured leaders of those organizations that there would be no break in Yale’s food donations.

    In Yale’s Culinary Support Center on Winchester Avenue, Managing Director Christina Wethington and staff are preparing daily breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in to-go containers for students who are unable to leave Yale and for critical staff members who are still working on campus. About 400 pre-packaged meals are produced and distributed daily.

    We are producing extra packaged food options so we can donate meals and other food products to DESK and Haven Harvest,” Wethington said. “We also share our post-service packaged leftovers with them.”

    Yale Hospitality has long played a vital role in ensuring that DESK has the means to serve those who are most vulnerable in our community, and we have been especially grateful for their compassion and proactive role in recent weeks,” said Steve Werlin, the soup kitchen’s executive director. “As we battle this pandemic on the local level, Yale Hospitality has committed to providing DESK and our partners serving those experiencing homelessness in New Haven with to-go box meals, prepared dishes, and whole food items that will ensure everyone has food to eat in a central location where professional staff can check in on their wellbeing and health.”

    Pre-packaged breakfasts include muffins, bagels, yogurt, granola and oatmeal bars, and whole fruit; lunches feature vegetarian or meat sandwich options along with salad and dessert; and dinners are hot meals that vary day to day, also with a vegetarian option.

    Dining hall chefs, managers, and staff are to be commended for their continued commitment to caring for the wider community,” said Lori Martin, founder and executive director of Haven’s Harvest, a nonprofit food recovery organization started last year as an outgrowth of Food Rescue U.S. “Their care and commitment is felt initially by volunteers who arrive to pick up the food donations, and then by the sites that receive the food.”

    To help support the local economy, Taherian’s staff has also increased food purchases from local vendors, he said.

    Right now, a lot of the [food] outlets are under a tremendous amount of pressure,” he said. “We are trying to funnel some of our purchasing dollars into the community.”

    We are a part of the New Haven community, and are not immune to what’s happening,” he added. “We are all feeling the same level of stress and anxiety. I’m grateful that we have employees who never forget their commitment to Yale. And we don’t forget our commitment to our wider community.”

    Rent reprieve

    Retail shops and restaurants have been hit hard by the temporary scaling-down of on-campus operations. Most businesses have closed for now, and the restaurants that remain open have shifted to take out-only, following a statewide order from Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.

    As an immediate way to help, University Properties suspended base rent obligations for over 100 city businesses located in university-owned buildings, according to Lauren Zucker, associate vice president for New Haven Affairs and University Properties.

    Claire’s Corner Copia, the popular vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Chapel and College Streets, was among them.

    As owner Claire Criscuolo was weighing how best to respond to the pandemic, she was concerned foremost with the health and safety of her employees. She opted to close temporarily, with the intention of reopening when it’s safe. She was relieved when University Properties suspended her base rent payments for March and April.

    In difficult times like these, even a little help goes a long way,” she said. “And what Yale did for us was huge!”

    Zucker’s office has helped connect struggling merchants with the Small Business Association, which facilitates assistance loans and grants for entrepreneurs, and has alerted Yale tenants to city and state conference calls about the pandemic, and to government financial relief programs. The office has also promoted a gift-card-buying initiative to support the downtown shops and restaurants. Retailers and restaurants are selling the gift cards to support their employees.

    During this unsettling and uncertain time, I can’t begin to express how much it means for Yale University Properties to suspend base rent for March and April,” said Kim Pedrick, owner of the Chapel Street shops idiom and dwell. “Their partnership and ‘getting through this together’ is immensely appreciated. New Haven is a community that supports each other, and [Yale’s] assistance will have an enormous impact on enabling us to open our doors again.”