As more cases of the novel coronavirus were being confirmed in her town, Liz Bernich felt an urgent need to help the medical professionals in her community and others who were putting in long hours caring for an increasing number of patients.
The mother from Chatham, New Jersey, also felt concern for many small restaurant owners struggling financially due to the pandemic.
A few weeks ago, when she saw a friend share a Facebook post about ordering food from small restaurants to feed medical staff, she was struck with an idea. Bernich wrote up a Facebook post of her own, asking friends if they would be interested in donating money to be spent at local restaurants on food that would be delivered to local hospitals.
The response she received was overwhelming.
With funds in hand — sent to her PayPal account by others who wanted to help — Bernich reached out to her local hospital, Morristown Medical Center, to ask what they needed. She quickly learned that night shift workers had the most difficult time finding food during their shifts due to limited cafeteria hours.
"It must be so tough to work all night long in the dark with their patients and try to keep their spirits up," Bernich told TODAY, adding that she decided to make lunch and late-evening dinner deliveries to the facility to accommodate all shifts. "I talked to a nurse in the hospital who said to get a warm, yummy meal just brings so many smiles."
Faced with a substantial need in her community, Bernich started a local Facebook group for residents of Chatham to donate. Soon after, Gina McGuire, who lives in the neighboring town of Madison, New Jersey, reached out to Bernich. The two partnered up and created the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) of Chatham and Madison to serve medical personnel in both towns.
Now, the Facebook group has over 3,500 members. As word of the team's efforts stared spreading on social media, people in other towns started to reach out to Bernich and McGuire, asking how they could help their own neighborhood medical facilities.
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Bernich said she now helps support more than 30 FLAG groups, or similar groups which operate under different names, in several states, including Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Minnesota. That's in addition to multiple New Jersey-based chapters, all dedicated to bringing money into small restaurants to feed medical personnel.
Thousands of members have joined their local FLAG Facebook groups as the momentum builds: A Cranford, New Jersey, group boasts more than 2,000 members, and one of the most recently launched groups, located in Central Florida, already has more than 600 people wanting to help.
Here's how the groups work. Those who wish to donate may visit the website Bernich created that allows people to search for their own local FLAG chapter and make a financial contribution. If a FLAG group doesn't exist in your area, Bernich and her team offer instructions on how to start one. Each FLAG chapter has their own guidelines for getting involved, and primarily communicates needs and volunteer opportunities through Facebook groups.
For Bernich's FLAG chapter, donations are accepted via PayPal, Zelle, Venmo and checks. Bernich says her team has contacted every restaurant in their area that has remained open during the health crisis and found out which eateries wanted to be involved.
"Our goal is to ensure they (the restaurants) don't lose any money on the meals we're asking them to prepare, and hopefully make some money but at least keep their employees busy and doors open," said Bernich. "Our orders are up to 190 servings for lunch and dinner so the payment to them is significant and helpful for keeping their lights on."
To get the food from local restaurants to the various medical facilities, Bernich and her volunteers coordinate orders with the health care centers' administration teams. They started out by taking orders directly from specific medical units with staff members who were overwhelmed and had difficulty taking time away from their assigned shifts. Now, they ask for a headcount for each department to ensure they're ordering the right amount of food. Every few days, they check in with the hospital to see if they need to adjust how much food is being delivered.
Bernich's team is now delivering meals twice a day, every day: a lunch delivery in the afternoon and a mid-evening drop-off for those working the night shift.
To date, Bernich says FLAG of Chatham and Madison have ordered from 35 local restaurants; that's over $33,000 worth of food. The group has also collected $110,000 to date.
"They've helped us serve over 5,100 meals," she added. "All since March 20 when I first posted on Facebook about the idea."
Members of all FLAG groups are encouraged to follow the appropriate social distancing measures: Most food is dropped off to one contact at a facility and taken in by an authorized staff member. Restaurants are also asked to provide food items that are not messy and simple to eat, so busy medical staff can eat on-the-go without spilling. Meals must also be individually portioned to avoid the spread of germs.
"Everything is boxed up and ready to go by the restaurant," Bernich explained. "The deliveries are generally made by restaurants, who are operating under strict sanitary guidelines."
Bernich said her groups feeds all types of front line workers, including doctors and nurses in hospitals, as well as urgent care employees and those who staff COVID-19 testing centers.
The need has only continued to grow as the virus spreads.
Monica Toomey founded a FLAG group in Michigan after hearing about Bernich's work, and said she has been amazed at the gratitude and appreciation her team has received from both restaurants and medical staff.
"You can feel (hospital employees') appreciation even through their masks," said Toomey. "And the restaurant owners are incredibly grateful as well. They want to help their employees keep their income and recognize this as a win-win."
As the owner of a small restaurant in Madison, New Jersey, Gino Iossa of Rocco's Tuscany Bar and Grill, said he was eager to give back to the medical community.
"We want to give as many medical staff members as possible the fuel and support needed to help them stay strong and healthy during this crisis," said Iossa. "As a small business owner, I'm grateful to have the opportunity to work together with my community to help fight and overcome COVID-19."
Trish O'Keefe, the president of Morristown Medical Center, said seeing the community rally around her team of health care providers has been a gratifying experience.
"I've always known that we have the most amazing, resilient and compassionate team here," said O'Keefe. "To see our community donate meals and supplies, and show signs of appreciation for what we do has been incredibly encouraging for everyone."
As the pandemic continues, Bernich said that she and McGuire, along with their entire team, plan to keep supporting those on the front lines by continuing to provide them with the fuel they need to get through each shift.
"They are so troubled by the difficulty of this virus," said Bernich. "If we can take one thing off their plate and keep them loved and fueled, that's the least we can do."