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Age of Coronavirus: ‘Food is Comfort’

A Lawrence diner fills a need (and bellies) amid COVID-19 shutdowns

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“Free sack lunches start Monday.” Signed, Ladybird Diner in Lawrence, Kansas.

In two days, this Facebook post reached 4,000 likes and the same number of shares. This was their note to the public in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19)-related shutdowns at area schools:

“We all need something to do with our hands and hearts right now. We can’t personally reach everyone who needs help in our community, but lots of you probably know someone who could use a sandwich. We can’t do a lot, but we can do that much.”

Meg Heriford, the owner, is a Lawrence native known for her pies and the vintage whimsy she injected into her downtown diner. She’s even been dubbed “Mama Meg.” She decided that somehow, someway she’d give out free lunches when Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced school closures. 

But her plan crystallized during a busy Saturday rush. The crowd didn’t feel safe, so she closed up shop. She couldn’t focus on how the gravy tasted or whether the coffee pots were full, only on the health of her staff, her customers and her family. And she worried about those who would soon lose access to food. 

She devised her plan, a classic brown bag lunch. She pulled together everything she had in her pantry, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and threw in an apple and a cookie. 

“You know sandwiches always taste better when someone else makes them,” she said with a laugh. 

‘This is What We Do’

A pillar in the local restaurant scene, Heriford said service industry workers are some of the most hard-working and calm people during uncertain moments like these. 

“(The service industry) is our industry. This is what we do,” she said. “We work when we’re overwhelmed, we work through chaos and disorder and find solutions to problems quickly.” 

And even though she doesn’t know what OK feels like right now, she knows she can do something. She sighed, adding that she feels busier now than she did this time last week. And she knows she needs community support to keep it going.

What began as a small community effort has now turned into a full-fledged program, garnering donations left and right.

Take Jim Martin for instance. Without telling his wife Andrea, Jim Martin, the owner of M&M Bakery, donated 20 loaves of bread. The concept of giving has been ingrained in Martin’s life since childhood.

Jim and Andrea Martin stand in their bakery, M&M Bakery, in Lawrence, Kansas
Jim and Andrea Martin stand in their bakery, M&M Bakery, in Lawrence, Kansas. (Contributed)

“Growing up my dad was the eldest of 13 so our cupboards were always stocked. When people came over that’s the thing we did, was feed people,” Martin said. 

He’s been a chef for about 28 years now and although he briefly worked in Kansas City, he was drawn to the sense of community in Lawrence, which he calls an “oasis.” People help each other here. For instance, M&M Bakery supplies products to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and a nursing facility in Topeka. And last year, M&M Bakery donated 400 pounds of bread to Just Foods.

So when he heard about the virus prompting closures around town and how Ladybird Diner was helping, he didn’t hesitate.   

“To me food is comfort,” he added. “You can’t let kids go hungry just because all of this is going down. It would break my heart.” 

Though his kids are already grown and out of the house, he’s sensitive to kids going hungry. For that reason, Martin told Heriford that if they run out of bread, he will donate again. 

It appears the petite diner on 721 Massachusetts St. has begun a sort of ripple effect. 

Since the start of this grassroots program, another Lawrence business pitched in: Eileen’s Colossal Cookies

The support is “tremendous,” Heriford said.

And she’s not done. “Mama Meg” has other things in the works. She has another idea – a virtual food bank. Her goal? Help local restaurants sell the produce sitting in their fridges for an indefinite amount of time and get it to folks in need. 

Younger people, she explained, may not go to a food bank. 

For now, she keeps making sandwiches and packing them in small brown, paper bags. To keep things safe, she sets them right outside the diner’s door for anyone to pick up. She does mean anyone. A neighbor, a family or a friend. 

“I’m a business who’s out of business, and I have the capacity to help unburden some,” she added. “I know that I have to keep moving forward, whatever that looks like. I have the ability to make food and get it to people, and there are people who need it. 

“So that’s what forward looks like.” 

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