ANN ARBOR – When owner of TeaHaus in Kerrytown, Lisa McDonald, began delivering free meals to children at the onset of the pandemic, she had no idea how long her community effort would last.
Fifteen months after making her first delivery, McDonald is still dedicating her time to getting meals into the hands of families who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
“When there were rumors of schools being shut down, I told my entire staff, ‘Look, if they make the announcement that school is shutting down, we will start making lunches that day,’” said McDonald. “Thankfully, I went to Kroger that night and got 20 loaves of bread. For me, it was an automatic gut reaction.
“When I was a child getting free lunches, for some kids that’s the only meal a day they get. My heart went into panic mode.”
McDonald estimates that she has delivered 21,000 meals since she started, averaging anywhere from 300-500 meals a week.
She said as Ann Arbor Public Schools mobilized its free meal plan following the shutdown, she initially started to help fill in the gaps.
“There were some housing units that weren’t getting reached and I know people who work with low income housing,” she said.
She said she preps hundreds of sandwiches a week and makes trays of food that feed from 100-150 people twice a week. A friend of hers who works with homeless individuals has been helping her deliver a week’s worth of food for families in need.
“Because my kitchen is still not open to the public really, it’s just been very easy for us to do it,” said McDonald.
McDonald has partnered with Food Gatherers and the Delonis Center to distribute the meals. She also volunteers at the Delonis Center’s Community Kitchen run by Food Gatherers because of the need for people with food safety certifications.
She, with the help of friends, also personally delivers meals to various subsidized housing communities in the area that are tailored to each family’s specific needs.
When asked how she funds the free meal program, McDonald said her staff agreed to donate all their tips toward the meals.
“It’s literally only the tips,” she said. “I tell people, ‘Look, if you want to keep my free meal program going, you have to shop and buy something and leave a tip because the tips then go directly to that.’”
Though her tearoom has been closed to the public, a converted pickup window and her online store has kept business running throughout the pandemic.
Currently, the TeaHaus team is working on plans to reopen in phases.
“We have the most amazing customer base but they’re getting a little restless,” said McDonald, who said plans are in place to open with partial seating in July.
The kitchen will feature a café menu with take-and-bake scones, quiches and French macarons. Overdue renovations will also take place throughout the summer and fall, with plans to fully reopen by the end of the year.
Still, McDonald was not in a rush to reopen because she found such meaning in giving back to the community.
“The free meal program I found much more important than to cut the crust off of someone’s cucumber sandwich,” she said. “We are a very, very, very privileged town and I think that it’s easy to forget that ‘normal’ isn’t necessarily better for some people. It’s going back to low-paying jobs and not being able to live in the city you work in.”
To learn more about TeaHaus and to its their online shop to support the free meal program, click here.