How 42 Memphis restaurants came together to help raise funds for Meals on Wheels

Anna Kathryn Word remembers conversations about MIFA partnering with Memphis area restaurants on a fundraising campaign for Meals on Wheels going back as far as 2008 or ‘09. MIFA, or the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, is Memphis and Shelby County’s provider of the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot, nutritious meals to seniors in need, five days a week.

It was her first stint with the Memphis nonprofit organization, where she worked from 2007 through 2011 before pursuing outside opportunities. She would return to the organization in 2020, when she was hired back as Chief Development Officer. Her return, surely from her perspective, was all but inevitable.
Anna Kathryn Word, Chief Development Officer at MIFA.
“I was glad that I was joining MIFA again, knowing about the work and how important it was in the community. I always wanted to come back; that was always my end goal,” says Word. “It’s pretty much the culmination of a dream.”

Word’s enthusiasm for the MIFA mission – “supporting the independence of vulnerable seniors and families in crisis through high-impact programs,” as MIFA itself puts it – is deeply shared amongst MIFA staff and their band of dedicated volunteers. Of the many programs MIFA offers at-risk seniors and families throughout Memphis and Shelby County, providing solutions to issues of senior food insecurity is at the top of the list. And they’ve got their work cut out for them, with the greater Memphis area ranking third in the nation for senior food insecurity rates.

Each year, MIFA prepares and delivers more than 737,000 hot and nutritious meals to more than 4,400 at-risk seniors. And as impressive as those numbers appear, there’s a lot more work to be done; it’s MIFA’s goal to increase capacity and deliver one million meals to 5,000 seniors each year.

That’s where Spring for a Meal comes in, the fundraising campaign that MIFA hopes will help the organization reach its goal. Spring for a Meal takes place at participating restaurants from Friday, April 5, through Sunday, April 14. Promotional table tents are placed atop the tables of 42 restaurants throughout the Memphis area, with QR codes enabling diners to visit the MIFA website and make a donation to further fund the Meals on Wheels program. Restaurants with the highest amount of donation referrals will receive prizes for their staff.

See the sidebar or visit MIFA online for complete list of participating restaurants >>>

“This is our pilot year,” says Word. “We started small; we have 42 restaurant locations, which is almost exactly what we said we wanted when we started planning. We're hoping to grow it to 100, 200 locations in the next few years. But we really wanted to get it right this first year. And so having 42 locations and working with some really committed people who have been amazing partners to MIFA, and in many ways over the years — they're helping us. They're helping us with this experiment and we're doing it together.”

'It just makes sense'
Ashely Robilio, president of the Hueys Restaurant company and a member of the MIFA board.
Among those very committed people Word references is Ashely Robilio, president of the Hueys Restaurant company and a member of the MIFA board. There are eight Huey’s locations participating in the Spring for a Meal campaign, found in Collierville, Cordova, Downtown, Germantown, Midtown, Millington, Poplar, and Southwind. For Robilio, making the decision to partner with MIFA on their campaign to help feed more seniors in need was easy as pie – or hamburgers even.

“It just makes sense – we're all restaurants feeding our customers. And it just made sense to try to do the same thing and help feed the seniors in the Memphis area that don't have the luxury of eating out,” Robilio says.

“We have a lot of seniors that are on the waiting list for Meals on Wheels, and that should not be happening. It just breaks your heart to hear it.”

For as natural a pairing it is to partner with Memphis restaurants on a fundraising campaign for the Meals on Wheels program, it didn’t happen overnight. As Word recalls, talks of a joint effort between MIFA and area restaurants go back more than a decade. MIFA put in the work and had an iteration of Spring for a Meal ready to debut in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to rear its head here in the western hemisphere. 

“We knew that we were going to have to delay the campaign,” says Word. “And in 2020, we naively thought, Oh, we'll have it in 2021. And then in 2021, we said we’ll have it in 2022 – but we just couldn’t yet. Restaurants weren't recovered enough for us to ask them to do more, they were struggling so much. At the same time, MIFA was working to serve more seniors. We were serving more people than we had ever served before during those early pandemic years.”

The need for what the Meals on Wheels program provides became all the more apparent during the pandemic. It’s about food, but it’s also about a whole lot more.

“This is just me saying this, but I think our work took on a new level of urgency. Because during the pandemic, we weren't just feeding people. We were also providing a link to the outside world for so many people. I think we all learned what it felt like to be isolated during the pandemic. And a lot of people realized that the clients that we serve felt that isolation before the pandemic, because in so many cases, our volunteers are the only other person that our clients will see that day.”

Tech savvy

One bright spot in the delayed launch of Spring for a Meal is that the technology has caught up to make such a program easier on just about everyone involved. Or, should we say, it allowed for the general public to catch up to the technology.

While QR codes have been around for decades now, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that forced much of the public to start using them more often, or even for the first time. Point your smart phone’s camera at a QR code and allow technology to whisk you away to wherever it is you’re trying to go. Restaurants’ adoption of QR code-based menus at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic demanded that everyone go contactless helped push QR codes further into the mainstream.

It’s also made pulling off such a fundraising campaign easier on the restaurants themselves, which didn’t hurt when the Memphis Restaurant Association – an organization that both Word and Robilio attest to being integral to the fundraising campaign’s success – began to recruit and organize those restaurants participating in Spring for a Meal.

“Back in the day, when we've done fundraisers for other organizations, you literally had to write in the check what you were giving; you could add $1 or $3 or $10, or whatever. And then the servers and the bartenders had to keep track of it all, and then the manager the next morning. So these QR codes that are happening now, it really should make it easy,” says Robilio.

“All the restaurants and restauranteurs that are participating this year obviously already care a lot about the city. It’s a natural partnership and I just really hope it continues.”

Visit MIFA online to learn more about Spring for a Meal and the participating restaurants, Meals on Wheels, and more.
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