For MoonLynn Tsai and Yin Chang, it started with a simple question — what could they do right now to help their community?
MoonLynn Tsai, a restaurant entrepreneur and chef, knew one thing: “For us, that has always been through food.”
The concept for Heart of Dinner (@heartofdinner) originated in the couple’s LA home in 2015, by inviting others over for a delicious meal. When the pandemic hit last March, they quickly got on the phone with social services to find out how they could help support their Lower East Side community. Once the ball was rolling, they were shocked by the overwhelming need within the elderly Asian community, many struggling for food while trying to remain safe from COVID-19.
“[Food insecurity] has been a long standing community issue. Covid 19 has really revealed the gaps in the system and how long people have been hurting,” Yin Chang commented.
With the help of social services, the duo was able to create a list of elders in need spanning all five boroughs. Their numbers only grew as out of state family members of elderly New York residents began to call asking for meals to be delivered to their relatives.
“Family members who are out of state [would call and say], ‘Hey my mom, or my grandma, she’s in this neighborhood and she’s unable to go out for food or for groceries are you able to help her?’ And we were thinking about it, and what if we were still in California and these were our moms or our grandmas that were still in New York. They don’t speak english well. What if they weren’t able to get any access to food? And then on top of that worrying that if they do end up going to the market, cause they’re going to have to at some point, what if they get attacked on the streets? So being able to do this for all of them. We find it rather healing,” Tsai shared.
Originally, Chang and Tsai thought two hundred meals would be enough, with media reports indicating that the pandemic would quickly be over. Now, more than 60,000 meals later, they’re inspired by how much the community has rallied around them in the last year in order to keep the meals coming.
“Honestly we didn’t think so many people would join in. It just shows how much this community wants to come together,” Chang said.
Local restaurants, like Partybus Bakeshop (@partybusbakeshop), Cervo's (@cervosnyc), Fong On (@fongon1933), and Essex Market (@essexmarket) donated space and resources. Some even originally, making free donations to pass onto the elderly. Partybus Bakeshop collaborated with Heart of Dinner to create a special bun that would not only be delicious and nutritious for the elders, but would also bring some semblance of home. Community volunteers donated their time and means. After a year of giving back, Tsai and Chang are grateful for the outpouring of love they’ve received, especially in recent weeks with the uptick in Anti-Asian hate.
“[The community was] really gravitating to what we were doing. Feeling like, 'I can put my energy into something that’s productive that really counters what’s been happening with a lot of love and warmth and comfort for those that are being targeted,'” Chang commented.
“It definitely made this time less lonely. And more hopeful. And allowed for community building and healing,” Tsai added in.
Each meal is more than just a food delivery. Growing up, Chang remembers that in the moments when her mom couldn't be around, she would leave love notes. For Chang, it was a beautiful example of how much her mother cared. It became the inspiration behind every hand written note and painted bag accompanying a Heart of Dinner meal.
Back in March 2020, "working like a pop-up shop" Chang recalls “pulling all nighters just to write on hundreds and hundreds of to go containers. Saying, 'We’re thinking of you and we love you.'”
“We just didn’t want our elders to feel like it was this random meal. We wanted them to feel the love and care. So we would write them thoughtful letters and notes on each to-go container in the very beginning to say we were thinking of them and that we love them. And it’s grown into something like a movement,” Chang said.
Through the power of Instagram, the world has answered the call. Boxes of decorated to-go bags and hand written love notes have been mailed in to accompany every Heart of Dinner meal. And the elders are more than appreciative.
“We received notes that some of our Elders were cutting out the fronts of the bags each week and putting them away in binders,” Moonlynn said.
Now Heart of Dinner has enough painted to-go bags to see them through July. They’re hoping to gain the funding and team foundation to keep the initiative alive for years to come as volunteers and contributors go back to work.
For bringing a community together with hope, healing, and a little happiness; Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang are our New Yorkers of the Week.