Crowdfunding Project Brings Free Meals to Corvallis
What happens when three volunteers set out to support both local restaurants and community members that could use a good meal? The founders of “It’s On Us Corvallis” leverage the gift economy to do this in a way that is both practical and idealistic.
“It’s on Us Corvallis” (IOU) is a volunteer-led project that uses crowdfunding to pay restaurants to make meals for the community. It operates on the hope that anyone can have a free meal and may choose to contribute later on, or in any way they can.
IOU is “based on trust and nourishing people. We work together to support local businesses and to make sure people are employed,” said co-founder Ashley Relf. “It’s a really beautiful circle of trust in the community where people are paying it forward and people are receiving nourishment.”
Dream to Reality
Relf, along with other co-founders Elizabeth Jones and Aliza Tuttle, met while volunteering for the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition’s Food Action Team.
Inspired by the COVID-19 “Stay At Home” order, Jones said she had an idea about a way to support local restaurants as well as community members who could use a “boost” during these uncertain times.
The three brainstormed ways to utilize their experiences and local connections. They used the Sustainability Coalition’s “Local Eats Week” as a basic framework, and with the backing of an anonymous donor, they were able to launch the first “It’s On Us” community meal within just a few weeks.
IOU currently runs twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The organizers say they plan to continue this schedule through early June, and possibly well beyond.
IOU uses crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe to raise money to pay restaurants in advance for the meals. Currently, they are giving their partner restaurants a few weeks’ notice so the businesses have time to source ingredients and work out logistics like staffing for the event. Donations collected on their GoFundMe page also help fund future meals.
IOU orders and pays full price for meals from the featured restaurant. Some restaurant owners generously opted to sell the meals at their cost instead of full retail rates.
As of May 1, IOU announced that they paid $5,811 directly to the local restaurants who made and gave away meals to the community. Participating restaurants included Tried and True Coffee, NY Bagels, First Alternative Co-op’s Catering, Sam’s Station, Kinetic Bagel Institute, Bodhi Bakery, Pita Pit, New Morning Bakery, China Delight, and Las Delicias Valley Cafe.
On operating days, any community member who wants a meal may order one from the restaurant for takeout, or through the delivery order form on IOU’s Facebook page.
“There’s no catch and no barrier,” explained Jones. “If they come in and say they need eight meals because they have eight people to feed, that’s what they get.”
“That aspect is really fundamental to what we are trying to do,” Jones continued. “I also think that we are trying to get at a population or demographic in Corvallis that is perhaps newly insecure. People who may have been fine, say two months ago, but who have become unemployed, laid off, or their hours have been changed. We are trying to offer those people some kind of safety net and comfort.”
IOU recently teamed up with “Dial-a-Bus” who delivers free meals to people at their homes during the community meal events.
“They have been absolutely amazing,” said Tuttle. “The first delivery was seamless because they basically held our hand through the process. I know that they’ve drastically expanded their services throughout this entire pandemic and are doing things completely out of the box.”
The first IOU community meal happened during the week of April 12 and featured New Morning Bakery.
“It’s on Us Corvallis contacted us pretty soon after the shut down with their idea,” recalled New Morning Bakery owner Tristan James. “And [they were] also seeking feedback and ideas of how to make it work, and what size and frequency order would make a difference. We were their test run to get the thing started.”
James explained that the project enabled New morning Bakery to give a few staff members more paid hours that week.
Early IOU events originally focused on a selected community group in addition to the open community meals. The volunteers worked out the logistics with each group for contactless delivery.
Over the first few weeks, IOU provided over 332 free meals to groups including Lincoln Health Center Staff, Lincoln Health Center Staff, The Room at the Inn Women’s Shelter, Merry Maids, Benton County Health Department, Corvallis Main Post Office, OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, and the Willamette Valley Toxicology Lab – the labs involved in the door to door COVID-19 testing study.
“We just tried to think of people who are dealing with the epidemic in different ways but are not less visible,” said Jones.
Rapid Growth Leads to Quick Changes
The meal on Friday, May 2 featured Bodhi Bakery who made 100 pre-packed meals.
“Our experience with It’s On Us Corvallis was really amazing!” said Bodhi Bakery owner Cody Utzman. “We prepared 100 meals and they were all given away within 30 [minutes]. The families that picked them up were very grateful and you could tell the need in the community is far greater than maybe some expect.”
Organizers Relf, Tuttle, and Jones were equally surprised at how fast the meals ran out. Tuttle said she started calling restaurants to see whether any others could provide more meals. The first five couldn’t on such short notice, but New Morning Bakery said yes.
“They called us Friday around 4 p.m. asking if we could put together more meals for people to pick-up,” according to James. “Since we have staff working on projects here at the bakery, we were able to quickly put together several dozen more meals for the community to pick up right away.”
Relf carried the sandwich board from Bodhi Bakery to New Morning Bakery and they started directing people to the second restaurant. Utzman commented that next time they participate, they will make more meals.
Jones, Tuttle, and Relf have each spent at least 20 hours a week launching IOU between the fundraising, liaising with restaurants, publicizing the program, and running the events. In the process, they’ve become close.
“I knew these two people from volunteering but now they’re my friends,” said Relf.
What IOU Hopes to Accomplish
Since the project is now a part of the Corvallis Sustainability Project, donors can receive a tax deduction for their contribution to IOU. The co-founders hope the program has the longevity to continue in some form long-term even after restaurants reopen.
“There isn’t a time in the foreseeable future in my mind that there will be a lack of need for nourishment,” said Relf. ”Part of our food action team goal is to reduce that significantly by 2040 so maybe in 20 years, we will hit it.”
To the three co-founders, IOU is offering more than a free meal to community members and support for local restaurants. They see it as building trust and reinforcing resiliency in the community.
“We are also trying to get people used to the idea of gift-giving and gift-receiving without strings attached,” said Tuttle. “We think this idea has staying power and that this idea is also scalable. If there’s anyone who wants to start one in their own town, they should get in touch!”
Impact on Restaurants
“From talking with these restaurant owners, they see it as a chance to give back,” explained Jones, who liaises with featured restaurants. “Not just the food, but also the community building. It isn’t just food from a restaurant to a recipient, It’s much more of a web we are building and that has been the most rewarding part.”
“The restaurant owners have been really, really grateful for the business and the income,” Jones continued, “because many of them are really in dire straits. But also some of them have given us meals at no cost.”
“For us as a local small business that has been shut down since March 17th, this provided us an opportunity to simply get back out there, do what we love to do, and provide a much-needed service to the community,” Utzman from Bodhi Bakery commented.
James from New Morning Bakery shared a similar experience. “It’s On Us Corvallis is a group of wonderful people who really care about both the Restaurant industry in Corvallis and the food needs of the population right now. They are doing a nice job combining these two needs with the generosity of many community members to both boost restaurants and meet a need.”
“It’s creative ideas like what “It’s on Us Corvallis” has come up with that give establishments like ours a fighting chance to pull through this thing and still be there for the community when it is all over,” he continued. “Without our customers and long term staff, we are nothing.”