Food is Love

by Rona Berg

They say it takes a village, but sometimes it just takes a big heart to notice suffering in your community, want to do something, and, barely a year later, end up making a huge impact.

That’s what Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang did, when they launched the nonprofit Heart of Dinner. Their goal was to combat food insecurity and isolation within New York City’s elderly Asian American community during the pandemic, and provide a loving counterpoint to racist attacks in the area. Partners in business and in life, Tsai and Chang were struck by how the elder population of New York City’s Chinatown was the target of racism during Covid. “We were trying to combat the racism in our area,” says Tsai. “Food is an instrument of love.”

Tsai, a first-generation Taiwanese-American chef/restaurateur from San Diego, moved to LA several years ago to open the Michelin Bib restaurant Pine & Crane and San Jose’s first craft beer bar, Original Gravity. There she met Chang, an actor/writer and founder of the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. They planted seeds for Heart of Dinner by running a supper club out of their apartment. The goal? To share home-cooked meals and good conversation with new friends, and collect donations that went to No Kid Hungry.

When Tsai and Chang moved to NYC, they realized their Lower East Side community was in crisis. “Chinatown was shut down due to Covid. People were afraid to come because of the virus. We wanted to provide culturally thoughtful meals, paired with groceries, to help the elders in the community,” says Tsai.

For the first few weeks, they cooked from their apartment. Chang reached out to local social service agencies for help with distribution, and they bootstrapped Heart of Dinner, spreading the word on social media. “It’s ingrained in our culture to not ask for help,” says Tsai. “But people started donating money—and bags of rice.” There was an outpouring of love from the restaurant community; peer to peer donations enabled them to scale. Plus, they were able to offer support to hard-hit local businesses by providing over $200K in revenue through grocery purchases.

Now working with the Chinese-American Planning Council and Hamilton Madison House, Heart of Dinner feeds 500 Asian elders every week. Care packages, delivered by volunteers, include hot meals; “culturally thoughtful” vegetables, says Tsai; buns from Lower East Side Party Bus Bake Shop; soy milk from Foy An, the oldest maker in Chinatown; along with a handwritten personal note to bring comfort and cheer.

“We thought this would be a three-month pop-up. We had no idea that over a year later we’d still be doing this. But,” Tsai continues, “we plan to be here for a long time.”

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