As record numbers of voters turn out to cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election, many have faced a major obstacle: long lines that stretch down city blocks and take hours to get through.
In some areas of the country, the wait time has exceeded 12 hours, leaving potential voters hungry.
To fill stomachs and encourage voting, chef Jose Andres' not-for-profit non-governmental organization World Central Kitchen began "Chefs for the Polls," an initiative that recruits local restaurants and food establishments to bring meals to voters. While the initiative planned to only work on Election Day itself, World Central Kitchen CEO Nate Mook said they sprang into action after seeing long lines when early voting started.
"We had to shift our model and respond almost in real time to what's happening right now," Mook told TODAY Food. "Once we saw the lines, we immediately mobilized. As an emergency response organization we're used to that, right? It was very natural for us to move quickly in response to the lines that we were seeing."
Local restaurants step up to the plate
All of the restaurants and chefs that TODAY spoke to said they were serving hundreds of meals each time they went to the polls.
"I think people are really excited to vote in the election, and they're surprised that there's people there to give food away," said Dan Raskin, the fourth-generation owner of Manny's Deli, a Chicago staple. "The lines have been very long at the polling places, and I think that even if people knew the lines were long they didn't think to bring a meal. People are very appreciative."
Mook said that the goal of the initiative was to make it just a bit easier for voters to make their voices heard. The organization is also feeding poll workers, and stresses that the effort does not have any political angle: Meals are offered before people even vote.
"We thought, 'How can we use food to bring folks together and make the experience a little bit more doable?'" Mook explained. "Food is something that really is about bringing us together as communities. When we sit down to eat, we all come together, and as a country we're all coming together to participate in this great moment of democracy."
Comfort food is the name of the game
Raskin and his staff are serving their classic corned beef sandwiches and a vegetarian meal. In the suburbs just outside Chicago, catering company Soul + Smoke is handing out hundreds of servings of gumbo, mac and cheese and pulled pork sandwiches.
"We serve food I grew up on, things that make you feel good," said D'Andre Carter, one of the co-founders of the company. Soul + Smoke has its own food truck, which makes bringing hot food to the polls even easier.
"It's cold in these lines," said Heather Bubeck, the other co-founder. "(The lines) go around the block several times. People get to us and they say they've already been in line for an hour."
Some restaurants say they're doing everything they can to make the experience better: Smooth and Groove, a smoothie and sandwich food truck in Georgia that names all of their products after popular dances, is using music to try to life voters' spirits while they wait.
"You have a good time when our truck is in your vicinity," said Keon Davis, the owner and operator of the truck. "Being in a space where people are waiting in line, waiting to vote, waiting to make their voice be heard, we want to give them some type of entertainment and some good food."
Recovering from COVID-19
The restaurants that have partnered with World Central Kitchen said that the initiative has been especially beneficial to them amid the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down restaurants around the country and wreaked havoc on the industry. The organization has been paying eateries for materials and time using donations.
"We pay them per meal for all the work," Mook said. "We're not asking them to do anything for free. We want to support local businesses ... Folks donate to us. It's all powered by people donating."
Marcio Florez, who co-owns the food truck 2 Peruvian Chefs in a Truck with business partner Roberto Bernabe, said that the initiative has had a positive impact on their Nashville business.
"It's helping us a lot to recover a little bit from the pandemic," he said. "It is helping people as well. These are very hard times, and we're happy to do this. As long as we're providing food for people that need it, it's awesome for us."
Raskin, who has not been able to open his dining room due to the pandemic, said that he and his staff have hugely benefited from the community engagement.
"To involve the restaurants has been an amazing opportunity," he said. "Restaurants have been hit very hard and these programs have been very unifying."
World Central Kitchen has offered multiple programs to try to help restaurant owners and employees this year. Chefs for America connects restaurant workers and drivers with food services school meal programs and food banks to help get food to people in need, and Restaurants for the People provides nutritious meals to vulnerable families.