By Jim Arvantes
Mark Bucher, co-owner of the Medium Rare Restaurant in Cleveland Park, is convinced he has found a way to solve the nation’s hunger crisis while also providing financial assistance to the struggling restaurant industry.
Bucher is the founder and operator of Feed the Fridge, a privately-funded initiative that places refrigerators at various locations throughout the metropolitan area and stocks them with ready to eat restaurant-prepared meals, which are free to the public. People simply walk up to the refrigerators, open the doors and take what they need without any questions or forms to fill out.
Feed the Fridge places the refrigerators in recreation centers and schools located in areas where people are more likely to struggle with food insecurities. The initiative pays restaurants a fee to stock the refrigerators with meals each day, benefiting the restaurants as well as the individuals and families who rely on the meals for food and nourishment. In the last few years, Feed the Fridge has given away more than 700,000 meals, thus playing a profound role in reducing hunger in the Washington, D.C. area.
During a Feb. 21 Tuesday Talk held at the Cleveland Park Library, Bucher discussed the Feed the Fridge initiative, explaining how and why the program works, as well as the unique role it now plays in reducing hunger in many area neighborhoods.
Rethinking Our Approach
Feed the Fridge was created as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bucher painted a grim but accurate picture of life under the ravages of Covid-19. During the summer and fall of 2020, downtown Washington, like many other downtown areas in cities throughout the country, resembled a ghost town. Streets were deserted, buildings stood empty and boarded up, and subway platforms lay vacant, though the subway cars continued to run.
For restaurants, Covid-19 represented a “doomsday scenario,” resulting in a devastating loss of in-dining business, said Bucher, who opened the first Medium Rare restaurant with his business partner, Tom Greg, in Cleveland Park in 2011.
But at the same time, Covid-19 imparted some valuable lessons.
“What Covid taught me is that our current solutions for hunger are inadequate,” said Bucher, former founder and owner of several chain burger restaurants known as BGR: The Burger Joint. “The little dark secret according to me is they have never been adequate.”
The nation as a whole tries to solve its hunger crisis through a “feel-good response,” providing canned goods and other nonperishable items that are often not eaten or even opened, Bucher said. In many cases, the intended recipients of the food lack the necessary items – can openers, pots and pans – needed to pop open lids and cook food.
In some ways, the solution to hunger is a can opener, quipped Bucher.
“Giving (the hungry) pasta and leaving it on the curb every day, and then putting it back on the shelf to give it out tomorrow is a cycle of insanity,” Bucher declared.
It is time, he said, “to rethink our approach to make sure everyone who needs a meal, gets a meal.”
That’s the type of thinking that drives Bucher’s approach to feeding the hungry.
How it Started
Many elderly residents were forced to stay indoors during the pandemic to avoid the Covid virus, and many of them did not have smart phones or access to the internet, leaving them isolated.
And many did not have enough to eat. So Bucher started providing them with free meals from Medium Rare.
He put out notices on social media, asking people to contact him or his staff if they knew of anyone quarantined at home. Before long, children started contacting him about their parents while grandchildren reached out on behalf of their grandparents.
Bucher also called for volunteers on social media to help deliver the meals. Bucher and his staff lined up a cadre of volunteers, sending them out to deliver food to homes in D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
“There were some who just wanted free meals,” Bucher conceded. “But we also got meals to people who really needed them.”
Medium Rare initially ran the program on its own, delivering meals door to door, relying on donations to keep the program going.
Bucher is convinced restaurants serve as “the backbone of communities” so he started buying meals from other restaurants, giving those meals away as part of the initiative, thus resulting in a win-win situation for the restaurants and the hungry.
The idea of placing refrigerators in vulnerable areas and stocking them with food came about almost by accident. Bucher and his wife saw a Sunday morning segment on television, describing the work of a woman in Los Angeles who uses a community refrigerator as part of a local project.
Bucher got in touch with the woman who provided a brief tutorial over the phone on how to run a community refrigerator. That exchange helped launch the Feed the Fridge initiative, which has now placed nearly 70 food-stocked refrigerators at various locations in the Washington area.
Launching the Initiative
Bucher obtained his first nine refrigerators from the Washington Nationals baseball team, which had refrigerators scattered throughout Nationals Park. He now buys refrigerators for Feed the Fridge from a vending-machine manufacturer in Canada, paying $500 for each refrigerator.
The refrigerators are built on a vending machine platform, meaning they are durable and can withstand outside elements. Each refrigerator comes with a five-year warranty.
When Bucher asked to install the refrigerators in certain areas, he encountered resistance from local residents, who told him it would never work. They were convinced vandals would knock over the refrigerators or tamper with the meals, ruining the project.
But nothing has happened. If anything, Feed the Fridge has brought communities together, becoming a unifying force. One of the refrigerators sits in a neighborhood in Southeast, known for drug and gang activity. When there is a measurable snow, someone always clears a path to the refrigerator.
Bucher urged the D.C. police to hand out free meals while patrolling their neighborhood beats as a good-will gesture. The police quickly embraced the idea, showing up every Thursday in front of Medium Rare in Cleveland Park to pick up the meals so they could then hand out the food while walking their beats.
At first, the cops arrived in front of Medium Rare in full tactical gear, prompting the local residents of Cleveland Park to ask, “What the hell is going on at Medium Rare?”
During their first week of handing out meals, the police also arrived at homes in tactical gear, raising further suspicions.
“It looked suspicious – like someone was in trouble,” recalled Bucher.
Bucher eventually convinced the police to shed the tactical gear while delivering meals. In areas where the police hand out free meals, Bucher believes “crime is going down” as a result.
“The original plan was to put the refrigerators in every police station,” said Bucher. “But that was probably not a great strategy – the people who needed a meal the most would probably say, ‘I’m not going in there.’”
How The Initiative Works
Bucher discussed some of the finer points of the Feed the Fridge initiative, explaining, for example, that Feed the Fridge puts out 3,500 to 4,000 meals five days a week, stocking each refrigerator with freshly-prepared meals from Medium Rare and other local restaurants.
“We put out between 3,500 and 4,000 meals five days a week,” said Bucher. “We reimburse restaurants $6 meal. Multiple that by 52 weeks and that’s what we spend.”
Feed the Fridge is able to stock the refrigerators with fresh meals by 10:30 a.m. each morning. Butcher and others keep written track of all of the meals, making sure they meet the program’s high standards. In other words, restaurants are not allowed to skimp on the food.
Mobilizing the Private Sector
Bucher describes Feed the Fridge as a private sector response to hunger. He cited some of the program’s sponsors such as P.F. Chang, Enterprise Financial and various law firms in the area.
“Not a single penny of public government money has ever been used for this project,” he said proudly.
The private sector, he insists, is more efficient at solving hunger problems than the public sector. For example, when the baby-formula shortage hit the country in 2022, Bucher dispatched some of his old fraternity brothers from college to Florida, a state with a large elderly population and an adequate supply of the baby formula.
The former frat boys targeted Florida counties with large numbers of elderly residents, buying as much as the formula as they could without taking from communities that needed it. The fraternity brothers shipped the formula north to the Washington area where it was put in the refrigerators along with the food, responding much faster than any government program.
Like the food, the baby formula was given away free, an important consideration because the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not cover the cost of the baby formula, an expensive product.
“Hunger has no age limit,” said Bucher during an interview on a cable news show. “The unintended consequences are babies are hungry just like parents.”
Bucher said he does not seek grants because of the time and money needed to obtain and administer the grants.
“One hundred percent of every dollar goes to Feed the Fridge,” he said. “There is no overhead.”
Bucher would like to see other parts of the Washington area – and the country as a whole—emulate the Feed the Fridge initiative.
“I will give them a road map,” he said. ‘I will tell them how to do it, how to work with restaurants, how to contract the meals and get it into refrigerators.”
Other parts of the country are following Bucher’s example. Los Angeles, for instance, is rolling out a similar program while Houston plans to put food-stocked refrigerators in every public elementary school starting in the fall.
New York is also considering a Feed the Fridge initiative.
Bucher’s ties to the Cleveland Park area go back to the 1980s when he started attending American University. He also lived in McLean Gardens for 20 years before recently moving to Bethesda, Md., with his family.
The Medium Rare restaurant in Cleveland Park serves as the flagship restaurant for other Medium Rare restaurants in Arlington, Bethesda and Southeast Washington near Nationals Park.
As someone with deep ties to Cleveland Park, Bucher fondly remembered the glory days of the Cleveland Park neighborhood when it was known as restaurant row about 26 years ago. Back then, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs were anxious to open restaurants in Cleveland Park.
But in the last several years, rising rents and property taxes in Washington have discouraged the opening of new restaurants in Cleveland Park. And now the District plans to impose an 18 percent tax on restaurants in the city later this spring as part of Initiative 82, an initiative to increase the minimum wage for tipped employees.
This will further increase the cost of dining out in Cleveland Park and other parts of the city, making Virginia and Maryland less expensive restaurant options.
But Bucher remains committed to Cleveland Park and its residents.
“It has been an amazing community to be a part of,” he said.
Editor’s Note: For more information about Feed the Fridge please go to the following website: https://feedthefridge.org/
Information about Medium Rare can be found at: https://www.mediumrarerestaurant.com/
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