Marcelo Butron carries boxes of chicken to be donated.
In the middle of a recent weekday, Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown D.C. is pretty deserted. Restaurants and offices are dark. The fast-casual restaurant Leon has its doors locked; inside, chairs are up on the tables.
Marcelo Butron unlocks the door and greets Darren Smith from a distance. "Nowadays people don't want to shake hands anymore," says Butron.
When restaurants and office cafeterias shut down this week, many of them, including Leon, had kitchens full of perfectly good uncooked food. At the same time, there has been a spike in demand at food banks and organizations that feed the homeless.
Butron has just emptied the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator and pantry. Smith is a volunteer with the nonprofit Food Rescue DC, here to pick up the food and shuttle it to a nearby homeless shelter. The two men start carrying everything out to Smith's car.
Marcelo Butron and Darren Smith loading the car.
There are two 50-pound sacks of quinoa, three 8-pound jars of mustard, a 60-pound box of raw chicken, and big crates of veggies — arugula, spinach and cauliflower.
It's everything that was in stock when, on Monday, D.C. officials ordered restaurants to shut down or switch to takeout only. Food Rescue is a national organization — volunteers sign up to collect extra food from restaurants and other businesses, and take it to places like meal kitchens or shelters.
The load from Leon is much more than a normal pickup, says Smith. Often, it's just a few boxes. On this day, Smith's small SUV is completely stuffed.
"We've had a huge uptick in donations," says Kate Urbank, Food Rescue site director in D.C.
She says it's been a roller coaster. First, donations from regulars started drying up. But then, when businesses started closing, there was a glut of food: Places like the World Bank and Boeing shutting down cafeterias, a caterer in Prince George's County with a 500-meal order, abruptly cancelled.
"People are texting me pictures of warehouses of food, and I'm trying to figure out where to direct it," said Urbank, flustered by the barrage of texts and emails.
Restaurants all over the city — and the nation — closed their doors this week.
One of the places Urbank directs donations to is Food For Others, a food bank in Fairfax County. Amy Turner, the non-profit's executive director, says there's a huge amount of need right now. In the past few days, more than double usual the number of families have been visiting the facility to pick up food. Many are people directly impacted by closures related to the pandemic.
"People who have just recently been laid off, or with their children being home from school, they're having difficulty keeping their pantry stocked," Turner says.
The restaurant donations are helping meet the demand, but one of the biggest sources of donations has suddenly dropped off: grocery stores.
"Because the grocery stores are running out of food, they don't have the excess that they typically have to give us. So our volunteers or staff members are pulling up and there's nothing for them to bring back," says Turner.
Grocery store donations make up a huge portion of the food that food banks and food kitchens take in. Last year, Food For Others received 800,000 pounds from grocery stores — about 40 percent of total donations. In recent days, community food drives have also slowed way down.
Back in D.C., Darren Smith finishes loading up his car outside Leon — stuffing a huge tube of ground beef into the front seat. He drives to Central Union Mission — a homeless shelter nearby.
Smith says he has been working from home since last Thursday, but his life is relatively unaffected so far. He's glad to be able to to help out in some way during the coronavirus crisis.
Joe Mettimano, president of Central Union Mission greets Smith with an elbow bump.
"We're doing elbows these days," Mettimano says. "Thank you for the donation."
Unloading the food at Central Union Mission.
The shelter is in a precarious situation, men packed together in dormitory-style rooms. They're taking health precautions, like screening everyone's body temperature and sanitizing surfaces multiple times each day. But Mettimano is worried about food.
"Just here in this shelter, we have 170 men each night that we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to," Mettimano says. Plus, others who pick up lunches — altogether more than 400 meals a day. The organization also runs a food pantry for families that serves 4,000 people a month. Mettimano says he's seen a huge drop in food and cash donations.
"The longer it goes on the higher the risk," says Mettimano. "Obviously the folks that we serve at the shelter already are homeless, and we are committed to making sure that they stay sheltered and that they're fed."
He says right now — really at the beginning of the crisis in the United States — they still have plenty of food. But he says he's very concerned about being able to feed everyone for the duration of the pandemic.