La Morada Oaxaca Restaurant has been a staple of Willis Avenue in the South Bronx for a decade now, since opening in 2009. In the second week of April 2020, the family-owned and operated restaurant, shuttered to flatten the curve of Covid-19, morphed into a soup kitchen. This happened after friends started a GoFundMe page to help the restaurant survive until it could open its doors again. Its owners have mixed immigration status and therefore were ineligible for any government financial assistance. “We met the donation goal within a week and we wanted to give back to the community,” said co-owner Yajaira Saavedra. “Within an hour of opening our soup kitchen, our food was gone.”
For a while, the number of meals La Morada made for the community daily doubled. “The highest number was 1230 meals in one day during the first week of quarantine,” Saavedra said. These days they’re still doing 800 a day. Saavedra attributes the decline to the fact that the city has opened up some, and people have gone back to work, while others have moved, are hospitalized, and have even died.
La Morada is working now to prepare for a second wave of Covid-19 should it happen and to meet increased demand that may accompany the end of the extra $600 weekly checks from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program which ended on July 31. They’re preparing additional meals and making things that can be stored, like jam and fermented items. “If matters come to worst, we will have additional food available,” said Saavedra.
LA MORADA’S REACH
Since April, La Morada has been serving food all over the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, partnering with three shelters and sixteen different non-profits, including churches. Prior to Covid, Saavedra and her family were already active in the local tenants’ rights community. This has enabled them to quickly locate and provide hot meals to community members with no means of cooking; they live in buildings with infrastructure violations including no gas for stoves. They have also been able to feed people who cannot cook in shelters or run down hotels and who have recently been released from detention centers and jail. Shelters are often strict about meal times, which means many hungry people miss their window for food. “That’s where we came in. We are organizing with shelters who can hold food or arrange for us to drop in at times to benefit the folks living there,” said Saavedra.
She’s quick to point out feeding a community is a collaborative effort, not work that can be done alone. “Sometimes when the city donates food, it’s like thirty boxes of tomatoes to one place, while the North Bronx Collective has an excess of eggs.” Through coalition building, community groups are able to swap materials so they can all benefit.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
“When the uprising started in favor of Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutality, we were very involved in our community,” said Saavedra. So they easily jumped right in to help people organizing and to empower the community with meals. “One way for us to care for each other is to make sure there’s always a hot meal at the end of the day of rallying.”
Finding food to make into such a high volume of community meals has been tricky. Saavedra has run into purchase limits at nearby Hunt’s Point Produce Market. And everything has become more expensive during the pandemic. “The spices are double right now,” she noted. Friends have been helping. She called an old friend and fellow activist Katherine Chiu, farmer at Asian Vegetable CSA in High Falls, to ask to see if she could grow food for the soup kitchen. Chiu then reached out to other Hudson Valley locals to see what they could spare. (This is how Applestone learned about La Morada’s incredible community work.)
While La Morada the restaurant is now permitted to be open again for delivery or pick up, the family’s focus remains on feeding the community. “Right now it’s our responsibility to make sure our community is taken care of. As a small business, it would be very irresponsible for me to just put up tables in front knowing that we have one of the highest rates of Covid in the city. That’s exposing us and our customers. We are trying to be extra cautious,” she said.
Even prior to Covid, La Morada served one of the poorest professional districts in the nation that had one of the highest asthma rates in the country. “It’s very under-resourced. If we had the tools we have now prior to Covid, I think the unemployment rate and hospitalization rate in Bronx could be lower,” said Saavedra.
Everyone needs to do their part. “It’s upsetting—in the restaurant world—seeing how a lot of major franchise are getting bailed out and how many of them are doing nothing. There needs to be more accountability within everybody,” said Saavedra. “If you receive aid, give back to the community! I see how many people didn’t do anything during quarantine and now that the city is open are acting like it’s over. It’s not!”
Here are some ways to get involved.
*Donate to La Morada’s GoFundMe to help them continue their soup kitchen. You can also help them upgrade their kitchen, which has taken a beating churning out these meals. They seek everything from cutting boards to new appliances.
*Organize a materials drive for La Morada. Anything they can’t use—food, medicine, clothing, shoes—they pass to shelters or other mutual aid kitchens. Nothing goes to waste. It can be mailed to the restaurant, or a volunteer can pick up goods near New York City. Maybe you’re interested in becoming that volunteer?
*Grow food if you have the space and use what you grow to help your neighbors. It’s going to take all of use to move forward.
*Volunteer with a soup kitchen near you.
*Prepare now for a second wave of Covid: Start or join a donation drive for neighbors.
*Take care of yourself so you can do the work. This can feel selfish when so many people are suffering. But it’s important. Saavedra cuddles with her baby, takes precaution to minimize Covid exposure, and prays.