Feed the Polls is trying to make waiting in line to vote on November 3rd more bearable for Americans — and much tastier

Feed the Polls is trying to make waiting in line to vote on November 3rd more bearable for Americans — and much tastier
Reuters
  • Feed the Polls, a new civic and culinary initiative, is seeking to get out the vote and feed voters.
  • At least 35,000 meals will be delivered to food insecure areas in US cities.
  • Lady Gaga has backed the initiative, $300,000 has been raised, and a fleet of food trucks is mobilizing from coast to coast.

What if democracy was truly free, and gourmet too? A new initiative, Feed the Polls, seeks to untangle how COVID-19, voter suppression, and hunger are playing out in the US today, where 1 in 6 children are food insecure.

Business Insider spoke virtually with Chris Stang, co-founder and CEO of The Infatuation, a restaurant recommendation website and messaging service, and Nasser Jaber and Daniel Durado, founders of The Migrant Kitchen, a nonprofit food relief kitchen employing undocumented immigrants in New York City. Together as Feed the Polls, they've raised more than $300,000 and will be distributing at least 35,000 meals on election day.

Feed The Polls will operate meal distribution sites in the following cities on Election Day:
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  • Philadelphia, PA - 34 locations
  • Los Angeles, CA - 10 locations
  • New York, NY - 4 locations
  • Phoenix, AZ - 3 locations
  • Miami, FL - 2 locations
  • Denver, CO - 1 location
Feed the Polls is trying to make waiting in line to vote on November 3rd more bearable for Americans — and much tastier
Feed The Polls
Azmi Haroun:

Could you tell me about ideation of the project and how Feed the Polls came to be with all the different pieces that you all represent?

Chris Stang:
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Yeah, we at the Infatuation and Zagat had been talking for a couple of months about what we were going to do around the election. We, historically, have tried to do things around turning out the vote. For example, in 2018, we have a food festival that happens every year and at that festival we worked with DoSomething.org and registered people to vote, so we've always been interested in ways that we can activate our community around important initiatives and, obviously, this is a big one this year.

So we had been thinking about what we were going to do, and I had actually seen Michelle Obama's Democratic National Convention speech and got really inspired because she basically, I'm paraphrasing, but mentioned something along the lines of, "You need to go out and vote. The lines are going to be really long. You should probably pack a lunch and maybe pack a dinner, because you're going to be waiting for a while."And for us, being a company that exists around food, that sort of just made me think, well, we should do something around trying to feed people as they're in line to vote. And we'd been trying to figure out how we could do that and what role we would play in it, I mean, we certainly are not the experts in producing food at scale and giving it to people. But as we had been playing around with the idea, I had a coffee with Nasser, who I know, and we were both back in New York and he had just come back from Beirut and had been serving people in Beirut. So we just were catching up and I had just casually mentioned the idea to him about feeding people in line at the polls and he was like, "We can do this, we got to do this."
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And that was like September 28th, so it was already pretty late in the game to be spinning up a new initiative around this, but Nasser and Dan and his team being who they are, they were very confident that they could pull off the feeding the people part. So we at the Infatuation and Zagat have a big engaged audience of people and a lot of reach and we thought, "All right, we can handle the promotion and fundraising side and you guys can handle the feeding people side, and let's figure out how to combine this into a new initiative," and Feed the Polls was born. I guess, I think, we launched it that last week of September and here we are today with almost $300,000 raised and a bunch of meals going out the door pretty soon.

Nasser Jaber:

Yeah, I mean, to comment on the conversation that Chris and I were having was about basically how low the voter turnout, historically, is in the United States for a country that is in a full democracy. So if you compare us to other nations around the world, the American public is not engaged in their civic duty. And it's not because of lack of interest, clearly, as we've seen. It's literally the economy, jobs, it's things getting in the way of getting people out to vote. But we can't solve all these problems.
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But we, on the front lines of food activism and food information, and food delivery, we decided, "Okay, what can we do make the lines easier to bear with food?" And at the same time, don't forget, there's social distancing, everybody's talking about how long the lines are, I mean, with the mail-in ballot system. So the idea was about, okay, we were already doing thousands and thousands of meals to front line workers in March and then that shifted into feeding senior citizens in New York for disaster relief, and then that shifted into Beirut pre- and post-explosion and we also did Jerusalem. And, of course, all that is because Dan has a genius logistical mind when it comes down to delivering high-scale operations. And we were like, "Oh yeah, we can definitely activate this." I mean, the number of meals is not the scary part, it's the fact that we're doing it coast to coast on one day and at the same hour. I mean, that was really the challenge. It wasn't the actual cooking of it.

And I love challenges and I thought this would be a great way to do it and take the risk, simply because if we get this to work and people come out and vote, regardless of who they vote for, we are strictly, and we keep saying this, we are non-partisan, we just want people to go out and engage in their civic duty. For us, if this works, this could go on, on, and on. For us, it's important to get people to go out and vote.

And also, we want to tackle food insecurity. I mean, The Migrant Kitchen and Infatuation are both dedicated to highlighting the fact there are people in this country who don't have food to eat. The truth of the matter is that no one should go hungry in the United States.
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I remember, I guess maybe eight or nine months ago, they were talking about cutting out food stamps, because you can't get sandwiches and this and that, and during COVID a lot of online delivery stores were not taking food stamps, so they had to make a rule about it. I mean, that is unacceptable. Right? That is unacceptable in the United States. And we will do whatever we can to make sure that no one goes hungry. And that's where we are today.
Feed the Polls is trying to make waiting in line to vote on November 3rd more bearable for Americans — and much tastier
Migrant Kitchen
Haroun:

How do you see, right now, food insecurity and the public health crisis with COVID, and voter suppression, playing out in conjunction and how are you hoping your project will address those issues?

Daniel Durado:
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I think, honestly, one thing that we've all come to realize and see through COVID and through this pandemic is just the inequality in the food system, right? It's really highlighted everything that's been living in the shadows, and it's work that we've been doing for quite some time. And for it to just come to the forefront, it has to hit you in the head, there's no way that you can turn a blind eye to it this time. You know what I mean? There are going to be people that are going to be in need for a long time to come. So I don't know what the answer is, I don't know what the solution is, all I know is that being able to do our part, this little drop in the bucket that this is, can hopefully continue to grow and continue to grow and continue to grow and we can make some substantial change to the actual food system in this country. Right? Because right now, it's definitely the haves and the have nots when it comes to COVID.

And as far as voter suppression, I mean, these longs lines that are weeks in advance you've got a line that's five hours long, how did everybody vote in one day in the past? You know what I mean? It's unfathomable. And to see how much certain groups want to continue to suppress the vote and make it more difficult to vote. You can move millions of dollars on your iPhone and you're telling me that you have to go stand in line for 10 hours to vote? It's one of the most ridiculous concepts I think we've come across in this day and age. Right? You have, at your fingertips, on your phone, the ability to do so much, but yet, when it comes to voting, we are still in the Dark Ages. It's not a national holiday. Everything that this country can do to suppress the vote, it seems to be doing.Jaber:
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And when it comes down to food insecurity, to add to Dan's point, is that when we think of food insecurity, in our minds, the image that comes, homelessness, dire poverty, people in... No, it's not that. There are people who work jobs that just cannot afford to buy meals, because their minimum wage is way more than the living expenses of the city that they're in. Right? If you read the Washington Post article that came out in May, we teamed up with an organization called DRUM, that basically serves the South Asian community in Jackson Heights. That's basically Elmhurst, and that was the most hardest hit hospital during COVID, one of the most underfunded hospitals. And New York Times did a piece on it. People were ashamed, culturally, to go out and say that they're hungry.

So we were feeding a lot of the senior citizens from the community, because they come from certain cultures where it's an embarrassment to say you don't have any food. And I totally understand that. When I was in college and I was unemployed, I didn't have five dollars to go grab a chicken and rice platter from the Halal cart, and I was embarrassed to say that. Right? And these things are realities that happen, I guess, across many communities, not just in New York. I think in New York we kind of have a blessing that we have alternative markets, like if you want cheaper products you can make and hour and a half train ride to Jackson Heights and buy it. But if you're in Seattle, let's say, you have ShopRite and Whole Foods and there are corporate supermarkets where the price range, sometimes, could be higher than what you are making if you are an employee as a barista in a café or a fast food joint.

Durado:
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And just to that point, as well, your level of income is going to decide where it is you're going to eat, as well. Right? Are you going to get that $20 bowl at Sweetgreen? Are you going to get the combo at McDonald's for $3? Food insecurity also gets to the level where it's not just about the access to food, it's the quality of food that you're getting. Right? Are they healthy nutritious meals? Are they respectable meals or are they just mass produced quantities of meals for communities that can't afford anything more?

Jaber:

And we see that heavily in New York. I mean, we talk about New York being a melting pot for the world, but the truth of the matter is, food segregation is pretty, pretty high. If you are in a public school or a school on 86th street, on the East Side, you're definitely getting more meals than the person on 103rd. Those are literally five minutes away from each other, but you have poverty on one end, you have wealth on the other, and access to food is completely different. So it's important for us to make sure that everybody's fed with respect, and that's the idea.
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Haroun:

In the Washington Post, you talked about, "Food with respect" and not just doling out bologna sandwiches. So what kind of meals should voters expect?

Durado:
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Oh man, in Phoenix, we got a couple of food trucks. We got a Puerto Rican food truck. We have a Native American vegan food truck. We have another Native American caterer. The food runs the gamut. In Philadelphia, right now, we're lining up, I think, close to 25 trucks that varies from Thai to Vietnamese to Mexican, so these are not, once again, ham and cheese sandwiches or bologna sandwiches, these are meals that we hope people want to eat. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you're giving people food. If they don't want to eat quinoa and farro, then it's a waste. You know what I mean? We got to make sure that we're giving people food that they want to eat, as well, and trying to make it as fresh, from scratch as possible. I think, I don't know what the official number right now, Nas, but I think we're inching pretty damn close to getting over 50,000 meals across the country right now.

Jaber:The good news here, and this is something that we didn't think about, but it happened as we play out, is that we're feeding people local food. We're not flying anything in or whatever. So if you're a food truck and you're in Philly and you're serving those meals and people like it, you have 600 customers that are coming to you that day for a truck, thousands of customers come to you for a truck. And then, people are going to follow you, people are going to come back. We all know that the food industry got hit pretty hard during COVID. One of the biggest food insecurities and employment insecurities are now happening across the restaurant industry, and it's going to get worse now with winter. The outdoor dining, as great as it was for the summer, I mean, today is going to be a dead day for most restaurants.
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Haroun:

What was the personal drive for this project is for you?

Jaber:
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Everybody has a different story. I came here as an immigrant to the United States two weeks before 9/11 as a Palestinian refugee, right before the Iraq War. Clearly, the vilification of Arabs and Middle Eastern men had become a thing. And I was actually talking to Michael the other day about how when a population is being vilified their food becomes a thing before they are accepted fully. So hummus and falafel took a skyrocketing rise after 2001, and the Middle Eastern diet came about. And a bunch of hookah bars started popping up all over New York and the culture became a thing. And I would say that, when I first started working in the Bronx selling phone cases on the street and that's where I met the brother of our executive chef today. You're working for $300 a week, you're paying $200 for you rent, what are you going to buy with $100 for food? Outside of the fact that most immigrants have to help out their families. I mean, I was sending money to my parents back home, because they were both unemployed in the Palestinian territories at that time. I mean, it was a little tough. And the only reason I started working in restaurants is because Chef Lee's brother, Carlos, was working at a bread and basket café shop. And he told me that there's something called family meal. So I looked for a restaurant to work in and it was Dallas BBQ, out of all places, where I started my culinary journey. Because we needed to eat.

And then, at that place, I discovered the dynamics of socioeconomic classes and what happens inside the restaurants. And you would have somebody that's a good runner and he's an indigenous, Puebla, Mexican food runner, but he's a doctor, but his degree doesn't mean anything in the United States, because he just graduated from Mexico. So not only do you experience the world, not only do you learn new languages, but you experience the struggle of people who need access to employment and have to make the migration into the United States so that they can find work in a restaurant that has easy access. But at the same time, when I became a citizen in 2008, it was my first time that I voted. And I grew up in the Middle East, there is no such thing as democracy in the Arab world. And when we did it, we failed miserably at it. So the point of what I'm trying to say is, I never really got to vote until the 2008 election, and that made me feel like I'm part of the process, that made me feel like I have a stake, ownership in the decision that is happening on the political scale, and I don't think any American should take that for granted, at all. Because if we don't vote, then we only can blame ourselves for what's to come next. Right? Because the people that do vote, they want to vote the people that they like. And then, when we're upset with it, then we have nobody else to blame but ourselves.

Feed the Polls is trying to make waiting in line to vote on November 3rd more bearable for Americans — and much tastier
Migrant Kitchen NYC
Haroun:
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Thanks for sharing that. So from when you started in September until the election next week, what are the different cities and polling locations that you're focused on?

Stang:

We've sort of now shifted into execution mode. We spent the last however many weeks trying to raise money and get the word out. And what was great about that is the first thing we saw, immediately, was just that people, as soon as they heard about this and heard about what we were doing, immediately it resonated, people were so enthusiastic about the idea and I think it just made sense. So we were so fortunate to see donations roll in from all around the country and we had people like Lady Gaga post about it. But even more impressive, we've had people donating $3 and you can just tell that those are just people who are literally trying to contribute whatever they can, and that's so meaningful. We worked with a bunch of local organizations and tried to, basically, find what we thought were the markets that we could make the most impact in.
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Stang:

This thing, from the first moment, has resonated. And it becomes very easy to market something that resonates. You don't just get Lady Gaga to post about your thing. It happens, because it's the right thing at the right time and it makes sense and that's definitely what this has been. And partly, to sort of mention, when Dan's talking about places that probably wouldn't be the first places we would imagine going like Rutland, Vermont or some town in Montana. What's been so amazing is that, even yesterday, we were still getting emails from people like the New Jersey Food Truck Association, which I have no idea what that is, but I'm really glad it exists. And they reached out and they were like, "We'll put our food trucks to work." And that's what's been so incredible, is the reason we're in Rutland, Vermont, is because someone said, "Hey, look, I can do this here." Or somebody in Pittsburgh says, "Hey, I've got a catering company, let me do this here."And it gets us excited about the future and thinking about when we have more time to plan these things. I mean, there are elections that are local elections and state elections. All those things keep happening, not just every four years. So yeah, now we're in execution mode and what we know is that that part is well handled by the Migrant Kitchen team, but it's pretty surreal to be saying that we're, what? Five days away from election day, and here we are.
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Jaber:

And I do have to say, I have to thank the Infatuation team, really, for making me a hero to my mother, because she told her whole village, "Lady Gaga is now working with Nasser..." Nothing else mattered except the Lady Gaga part. [Laughs.]

Haroun:
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Could you talk to me a little bit about how Migrant Kitchen and the employees of Migrant Kitchen are playing into this project?

Durado:

Yeah, at the beginning of COVID, we were ramping up our production in support of food insecure communities. So we were looking at massive kitchens that we were working out of over here in Queens. We have other restaurant kitchens that are activated as we need them throughout the city and other parts of the boroughs and everybody, essentially, were workers that were unemployed and didn't have access to any type of unemployment insurance. At the end of the day, the hospitality business here in New York City shut down, and a big part of this, for me anyway, was getting these people that I have worked with in restaurants for the past 20 years in the city something, some work, something to do, because they have their families at home. Had a couple of friends that just had kids. You know what I mean?
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I had a baby, she's now eight months old. She arrived two weeks before we shut down here in New York. I couldn't imagine that, and no unemployment insurance and no savings and no ability to provide for your family. It was definitely one of the most heartbreaking things that I had ever encountered. These are people that I work side by side with for 20 years. So to be able to get them back to work, get them employed. And, once again, I talk about this all the time, it's a drop in the bucket, right? This is a city whose hospitality business is built on the backs of immigrant labor, immigrant labor that everyone wants to say, "Yay, rah, rah. $15 an hour minimum wage." What the fuck in $15 minimum wage going to do for anybody at a 40 hour work week? There's a long way to go in this town until we get to some place where New York City is livable for the masses.

So it was personal project, in many respects, I think, for Nasser and I. But to put as many people back to work as we could, because this initiative and this project, what was started, was not about making money, it was about getting people back to work and getting people fed. And I think we're pretty proud that we've been able to do that throughout and hopefully we can continue that work.

Jaber:
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And, I mean, I have to add to that, I mean, you mentioned the refugee dinners that we were holding three years ago before starting the Migrant Kitchen. I mean, we were running small dinners employing refugees as cooks while I was a waiter. There was nothing to gain from this. However, we learned along the way, that for profit businesses can also be impactful and scalable if the owners decide that the bottom line is not more important than the employees and the welfare of your company. So after many trips to different types of places, the gastrodiplomacy project for the state department took me to Sweden and everywhere else. I realized a lot of companies actually care about these kind of initiatives to make sure that they empower them and Infatuation does that a lot with their staff.

I mean, the decision here to take on, Feed the Polls, rallied the entire company across all their outposts across the city. And it makes them that they're engaged as part of the process, it's a team mission. And it's like that on our end, too. And it's important for us to make sure that we have, as the Migrant Kitchen, access to employment for people who want to have growth and all these kind of stuff, and at the same time, impact the community, as I mentioned.Haroun:
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Where do you see Feed the Polls and the civic and social partnership between the Migrant Kitchen and the Infatuation going post- election?

Stang:

I mean, look, we really want to stay focused on Tuesday before we get too far ahead of ourselves in terms of what happens next. But I think that, unfortunately, food insecurity is a problem that is not going to go away soon. And I think Dan mentioned that we're going to play some small role. But it's a big problem that lots of people need to focus on and, really, our government needs to focus on and we need to think about how we can make real change that lasts. I think, also, that's true for voting and voter access. I mean, also to Dan's point, it should not take this long for people to vote and it should be easy for people to vote and we should be encouraging people to vote and those are not problems that will go away after November 3rd. So, I don't know, I think we're all going to have to come together and make some decisions about what we want this to become moving forward, but I do think that I would like to see us get involved in helping shape policy and just helping to make bigger impacts over longer periods of time, so that we can look back on this some day and say, "Hey, we really, really did make a big difference." But we'll get to work on that part as of November 4th.
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Jaber:

Everything is now being focused on November 3rd and after November 3rd. I just wanted to mention that even though all of us here are men on this panel the entire actual execution of this project and the management of it, on our side, and also on Infatuation's side, has been led by women. Jaclinn Tanney has been in contact with every grassroots organization, our head chef, Chef Lisselly Brito, is with her wife Ramona in Miami right now working, so we're very, very, very proud that at the core of it is a women-led initiative.

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