Mohamad Fakih built a restaurant empire from the ground up, and COVID-19 has nearly torn it down. Yet, in a surprising contradiction, his kitchens are humming right now.
Three quarters of his Canadian-based Paramount Middle Eastern Kitchen restaurant locations are closed. And virtually all the seats inside the dining facilities that are still open are stacked up, as fear and lockdowns keep customers away. Financial losses are mounting.
But the Toronto-based business leader, with help from about a dozen long-time staff and volunteers, is cooking and packing hundreds of spiced chicken and rice dishes each day. Every one of the meals is given away free to front-line workers in long-term care homes.
“We’re now at 6,000 meals, but each month we want to be doing 15,000,” said the Toronto-based Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur.
Their aim is to get one meal into the hands of every worker in the province over the next three months, and eventually reach workers across the country.
‘These people are our real heroes’
The hot meals are a thank-you to public service workers (PSWs) who have been on the front lines caring for seniors during the pandemic.
Fakih has a long history of donating meals to the community, but said he has most recently been struck by the struggle and plight of workers in long term care homes.
“These people are our real heroes, truly, because they go into these homes and they’re so close to the virus, they’re so close to be at risk,” he said. “I know for a fact that they deserve to be paid better and they need to feel safe.”
Many personal support workers make just above minimum wage and struggle to find full-time work, in spite of unprecedented demand. Many positions are still only part-time, as home operators seek to control costs.
Even full-time PSWs making the average wage in Ontario would fall short of the poverty level for a family of four in Toronto.
Two PSWs living in an Ottawa homeless shelter were recently part of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Though Fakih doesn’t involve himself in the politics of PSW compensation, he said he wants to do what he can to support those who work in the most-likely setting for loss caused by COVID-19.
“Over 3,000 seniors died [in Ontario nursing homes from COVID-19] and the caregivers that looked after them feel so lonely,” he said. So Fakih wanted to send those workers, “a message of love and support.”
The workers face risks to their own health, as well. In Ontario, at least 10 PSWs have died after contracting COVID-19, many in long-term care homes, according to data collected by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. At least one nurse and a cleaner working in long-term care have also died.
Fakih and a handful of volunteers take packaged hot meals to as many front-line workers as they can, delivering to at least two facilities a day. They often provide 300 or 400 meals daily.
Fakih has spent thousands on the meals out of his own pocket. The initiative has also received donations from others, including the Islamic Relief charity, with Paramount producing the meals at cost. It is now accepting donations to help continue the effort, with the goal of reaching every long-term care home in Ontario.
If enough money is raised, Fakih and the others behind the project hope to expand nationally.
‘You melt our heart’
It took three vehicles and volunteer drivers to get the prepared meals to the Harold and Grace Baker Centre long-term care home in north Toronto recently. It was experiencing an outbreak, with COVID-19 confirmed inside the building, so staff there have been especially busy.
Vonetia Reid, a personal support worker, was the first to step out to greet the smiling faces delivering the food.
“I’m so happy to see you guys … you melt our heart, we are so thankful,” she said, as tears began to flow under her face shield.
“It’s not been easy,” said Reid, also a union steward with Services Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU). “It’s really difficult, like for everybody.”
Even before the pandemic, PSW work was challenging and often physical, with many residents needing help to use a washroom, take a shower or to eat and and drink.
Add in the deaths that have occured at hundreds of homes in Ontario alone, and the safety precautions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, and the job can often seem overwhelming.
To acknowledge the risk and responsibility, some provinces introduced wage top-ups for long-term care workers. British Columbia, for instance, added a pay bump of up to $7 an hour and introduced guaranteed hours.
Ontario also announced a pandemic wage increase of $3 an hour, but many PSWs like Reid say months after that announcement, they have yet to see the increase.
Against the fatigue and loneliness, the quick drop-off of free meals — and the smiles that come with them — go a long way, according to nurse Alisa Abdul Qadir.
“When you’re feeling down, such things make you feel inspired,” she said. “To know you have the support. You have somebody to carry you. You have somebody to boost you up.”
Fakih disagrees with her, at least to some extent.
“I believe that you’re supporting us, and we’re here to say thank you,” he told Reid and Qadir.
For all the complexity of the world’s woes and the challenges brought on by COVID-19, Fakih has a simple message: “I think the solution of the world today, with all these problems, is having more people doing good things.”
And he’s not one to sit still. As soon as nearly 150 meals were dropped off at one home, he was on his way to the next. And he says he plans to keep doing the same thing for as long as the group has the funds and the need exists.
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