Students create nonprofit that aids food insecurity and small businesses

A laptop displays the front page of the Open Meal website, which has an animation of a bowl of Ramen noodles and the words "empowering local restaurants while helping communities affected by COVID-19"
Open Meals is a team of Asian Americans who first noticed how the pandemic hurt their favorite Asian restaurants. (Vincent Leo/ Daily Trojan) 

Restaurants were hit hard by the onset of the coronavirus — but for local Asian restaurants, the struggle was two-fold: not only were they facing the double jeopardy of decreased customers eating out, but many were also facing anti Asian American xenophobia. 

Kevin Su, a senior majoring in business administration at USC, said seeing Asian restaurants closing down because of the coronavirus motivated him to put effort into mitigating the pandemic’s effects. This inspired him to join Open Meal, a service that feeds diners struggling with food insecurity meals from businesses struggling to stay afloat.

“I grew up in the back of a Chinese restaurant, so this pandemic and all the restaurants closing now hit really home for me as someone that kind of grew up in the restaurant,” said Su, a business development team member at Open Meal. 

Open Meal is an entirely online nonprofit organization that allows people in need to purchase meals from partnering small local restaurants using funds provided by donors. As of Feb. 4, Open Meal has received over $20,000 in donations, which has paid for over 3000 meals at 22 participating restaurants in seven major U.S. cities.

Communication and crowdfunding lead Amy Zhou, a senior studying political science and communications at UC Santa Barbara, said the idea for Open Meal came at a hackathon in April 2020, when she was trying to find a solution to food insecurity. At the time, Open Meal was focused on assisting Asian restaurants that were facing the threat of shutting down.

“[W]e’re a team of Asian Americans, and we recognize that a lot of our favorite Asian restaurants were failing; Chinatown was seeing a lot of racist and oppressive violence and attacks,” Zhou said. “[W]e realized if we were all like engineers, product marketers, and people as students like we had the opportunity to build something.”

Open Meal operates by distributing donations, obtained through online event fundraisers and sponsors, to diners who join their platform. Each diner gets $20 a week, and can receive an extra $10 per dependent in their household. Diners use these credits at partnering restaurants, and Open Meal pays the restaurants the money accrued at the end of the week. One of the criteria Su keeps in mind when reaching out to potential business partners is the demographic of the restaurant owners. 

“We favor minority-owned restaurants, because they struggle with the most in the current climate,” Su said. “Their menu items individually also have to be below $14 because we only give our diners $20 in credits per week to use … Also, they need to be able to support our system, so for example, we don’t usually contact franchises, but they already have their own meal ordering system in place, so usually family businesses as well.”

The Open Meal team is confident in sustaining the nonprofit organization long-term, because regardless of the pandemic, food security will always be an issue, and there is “no other platform that works the way Open Meal does,” according to Zhou. In the future, Open Meal is considering partnering with delivery services and supermarkets for people in need. 

For business development team member Bonnie Hui, a USC alumna with a degree in business administration, one of her goals for Open Meal is to figure out a way to make the most of the donations Open Meal receives.

“Our requirement is that a meal is under $16, but I usually look for meals that are around $10, because our diners are given $20, a week in credits so if something’s around $10 then they’d be able to afford two meals,” Hui said. “I’m working in business development, and I think it would be worth looking into more ways to stretch the donors’ dollars in ways where we would still be able to increase restaurants’ revenue, but also provide more meals to our diners.” 

Open Meal has faced the challenge of building trust with non English-speaking restaurant owners who are wary of Open Meal’s legitimacy as a new non-profit, as well as securing enough funding to keep the system running. In particular, Zhou said that it’s hard to inspire donors to donate when they aren’t able to have a face-to-face interaction and have an emotional connection with the person they’re able to financially support through Open Meal.

“We’re currently reworking our mission statement to focus more on the emotional benefits that we are providing to our diners, which is a good shift, because with $20 a week, we’re not exactly solving world hunger. But the emotional benefits … of being able to enjoy the luxury of takeout from a community restaurant that is really dear to you is something powerful,” Hui said. 

Food insecurity is an issue that is directly addressed by other food supply organizations, but Open Meal provides a service that helps bring back some normalcy to diners’ lives, which can be a simple luxury during financially strained times.

“You have food banks and soup kitchens, and those are obviously amazing, but being able to feel like a diner again, feeling like a person ordering food online and go picking it up…the way you want it to look like you have your dietary restrictions, having that process just humanizes yourself again,” Zhou said. “And a lot of diners have shared how impactful and how mentally relieving that it is because that’s something they’re able to experience..”

The experience of having a meal from a mom and pop restaurant you love is one that is often taken for granted, and Open Meal encourages people to participate if they are in need and donate if they can.

“I’m sure a lot of Trojans have a favorite restaurant that they always go to, or they are a kid to restaurant owners … We’d love to support L.A. restaurants since we’re focusing a lot of our efforts on L.A. right now,” Su said. “If you’re also a student finding yourself struggling right now because of [the coronavirus], Open Meal can help take some of that stress off and pay for a few of your meals in a week.”