When Austin public schools closed in March because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) continued serving free breakfasts and lunches to its students. Then, starting on May 19, AISD teamed up with local restaurants to extend that program to parents and caregivers, now running through the end of August.
The program works for both parties: families are being fed, and restaurants are able to stay open. Participating restaurants are fast-casual spot Henbit, bakery and sausage spot Easy Tiger, Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro, casual Southern restaurant Colleen’s Kitchen, and New American/Texan restaurant Contigo.
“It’s such a win-win,” Mike Stitt, the CEO of Easy Tiger, said to Eater. Each participating restaurant receives a stipend of $5 per meal. “That helps us keep people in jobs and keep the restaurants viable and sustainable,” he continued, “in addition to feeding all the families. When we’re viable, sustainable, and keeping people in jobs, the tax base continues to sustain itself, and even grow. It creates this virtuous cycle.” Easy Tiger is using the money it receives from AISD to help fund its South Austin expansion.
For general funding, the school district relies on the local tax base and the Austin Ed Fund. To further fund teaching programs and needs related to the pandemic — including these meal services — the district started a separate donation fund, AISD Crisis Support Fund.
For restaurants, the biggest challenge is both making this a profitable program while also serving healthy, complete meals. Easy Tiger also wanted to make sure it is crafting a different meal every day, according to general manager Ari Romano, matching the district’s own policy for students. AISD is particular about the nutrition, requiring vegetables alongside protein and bread.
“We’re able to produce our breads, like our focaccia, and involve those into the lunches,” said Romano. So far, Easy Tiger has donated 72,000 meals.
Colleen’s Kitchen co-owner Ashley Colleen Fric knew the restaurant had to be able to pivot if it’s going to stay open. “Each operator has had a look at where they could maximize this for their benefit to keep their doors open,” she said.
The funds from the AISD program are helping offset the loss of dine-in business earlier in the pandemic (the restaurant reopened for dine-in service as of mid-June, while still offering to-go orders). During the daytime, when the restaurant sticks to only to-go service, the team prepares the AISD meals.
When it comes to sourcing ingredients, “we’re working with local partners,” said Fric, “to ensure that we’re getting the best products that we can for the best prices. We’re obviously buying in much larger bulk than we were before for certain items.” This also helps support the restaurants’ distributors and farmers.
During AISD’s gap week from July 6 to 10, during which the district didn’t provide meals because it was closed for the Fourth of July holiday. However, to fill in that gap, Fric partnered with local nonprofits to raise money in order to provide meals anyway during that break.
Currently, the prepared restaurant meals are being cooked at the respective kitchens, and then dropped off at participating school locations for curbside pickups and bus stops for in-person pickups for students and families.