Hard-hit restaurants feed COVID doctors, nurses to survive

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Brittney Caldera

This photo provided by Brittney Caldera shows, from left to right, Oregon Health & Science University nurses Nick Greenwood, Callie Harling, Derrell Wheeler and Orion Meredith as they eat a meal delivered to the hospital's frontline COVID-19 health care workers in a break room, Jan. 10, 2021, at Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland, Ore. The program that provided the meals, funded by a grant from an Oregon-based insurance fund, recently expired but the hospital is hoping for new donations to reboot it as COVID-19 variants could cause a new surge of cases. (Brittney Caldera via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. – It was the week after Christmas and coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations were soaring in Portland, Oregon.

At Oregon Health & Science University, the state’s largest hospital, morale was low. Doctors and nurses caring for the most critically ill were burning out just when they were needed the most.

Then, the food started coming: hot and delicious individually wrapped meals from some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, a buffet of cuisines from Chinese to Italian to Lebanese to Southern comfort food. For staffers who only took off their N95 masks once to eat during a 12-hour shift, the meals were more than just food — they were emotional sustenance.

“It’s almost like having a weight lifted. It’s like getting a surprise dozen roses or something,” nurse Alice Clark said. “We’re so grateful.”

But the meals, paid for by a wellness grant from the Oregon-based insurance fund SAIF, also served another purpose: They kept struggling restaurants afloat. As fall and then winter set in, eateries were folding under the strain of a monthslong indoor dining ban. The hospital orders — sometimes 150 or 160 meals at a time — were a financial lifeline.

“It’s kept the doors open and a small workforce employed. It’s been the most heartfelt catering we’ve ever done,” said Kiauna Floyd, third-generation owner of Amalfi’s, a Portland institution that’s been serving up Italian cuisine for 62 years.

Floyd’s staff has prepared around 500 meals for OHSU, allowing her to keep a core crew employed after laying off three-quarters of her employees. The restaurant is currently limping along with seven tables on an outdoor patio in the height of winter, as well as takeout orders and pre-packaged meals-to-go.

Amalfi’s focused on manicotti and lasagna dishes for the COVID support meals — and the restaurant’s deliveries have proved to be among the most popular with the recipients.