New Program with World Central Kitchen Lets Pandemic-Affected Students Order Free Meals from Fave NYC Restaurants

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The Lehman College Food Bank, an essential resource for many students, particularly during the pandemic, is partnering with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide qualifying students with free ­­­­­­­restaurant meals starting this month.

Lehman’s student food bank, which is open to all Lehman students and has provided thousands with free, nutritious meals since 2017, offers groceries, fresh produce, and gift cards that can be used to buy staples. Up until now, however, it has not supplied prepared meals.

That changes under the new partnership with World Central Kitchen. Eligible students will be able to use the organization’s text-messaging service WCK Direct to order daily meals for their households from participating local restaurants. WCK Direct offers takeout—a welcome feature for those who may be juggling work, school, and family schedules—or delivery for mobility-impaired households. What’s more, several of the restaurants—like the Latin-Mediterranean restaurant Barcha—specialize in cultural foods that reflect the diversity of Lehman students.  

“It’s an ideal service for our students right now,” said Office of Campus Life Director Suzette Ramsundar, who worked with student leaders to establish the food bank in 2017 and with World Central Kitchen to unveil the new program. “Many of our students don’t have access to kitchens or time to cook their own meals because they’re busy with jobs, children, and classes, and some are even struggling with homelessness. Thanks to WCK Direct, they’ll be able to get at least one hot meal for the day.”

The arrangement benefits neighborhood eateries, too. Participating restaurants, many of them still reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic, are reimbursed by World Central Kitchen for each meal—and ensured a steady stream of customers.

Founded in 2010 by chef José Andrés, World Central Kitchen provides meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises. The organization developed its model of working with local restaurants to meet community needs during the early days of the pandemic, serving millions of meals around the country, including more than 9 million in the New York metropolitan area. 

It introduced WCK Direct in July 2020 to give people the flexibility and convenience to order meals on their own schedules. Working with community-based organizations, WCK Direct now serves food-insecure populations in nine cities, including New York.

Lehman’s partnership with World Central Kitchen was kickstarted by star chef and food justice advocate Kwame Onwuachi, an advisor to the Herbert H. Lehman Food Security and Sustainability Initiative and member of World Central Kitchen’s Chef Corps. In the summer of 2020, Onwuachi teamed up with World Central Kitchen to cook and distribute free meals to CUNY students—including those from Lehman—who needed support. Onwuachi and Lehman College Foundation board member Elias Alcántara helped connect Ramsundar with WCK Direct’s program head Kristi Katz last December to discuss bringing its text-to-order services to Lehman.

“WCK is grateful for the opportunity to serve hardworking Lehman students as they balance their pursuit of higher education with the demands of being a working student,” Katz said. “We hope that WCK Direct helps students to focus on their education and not worry about where their next meal will come from.”

To be eligible, students must come from a household that has experienced economic hardship due to the pandemic; they may apply for the program here. After submitting the form, students attend an information session to learn how to use the program. Shortly thereafter, they will receive a welcome text from WCK and can begin ordering.

For Tameka Ridley, a graduate student at Lehman studying business administration, WCK Direct will be a vital addition to what the food bank has provided her and her family. Currently recovering from surgery, she can’t walk long distances or carry bags home from the food bank, and her local choices for inexpensive meals are limited.

“I can’t just get a dollar slice of pizza or a hamburger from McDonald’s,” she said.

Now she won’t have to worry about getting a nutritious dinner on the table. “WCK Direct is not just about having access to food, but access to healthy food,” she said. “My children need that to do well in school, and as a full-time student, I need to have that too.”