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When Brad Jagher was young, his family fell upon hard times.
“We lost everything,” the Livermore resident said. “We ate mostly eggs because they were cheap.”
Which is why when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he began thinking about all those who might be struggling too. He wondered how he could help. But, he wondered, how do you help when the need is so vast?
Jagher had some relatives in Chicago who had been featured in the news for their participation in Lasagna Love, a grassroots campaign to bake lasagna for people in need. He found out there was a Lasagna Love chapter close to him and signed up.
“I wish there had been something like this when I was growing up,” he said. “I think that during such a crazy time, it’s such an amazing way to give back to your fellow man, as cheesy as that sounds.”
Lasagna Love was started by Rhiannon Menn, a San Diego mom and small business owner, as a way to help people, especially struggling moms, one lasagna at a time. As the project’s origin story goes, Menn had just gotten a huge grocery order and felt that making one extra lasagna for a hungry family was a small way she could make a difference.
She posted a message on a Facebook group for local moms, asking who might need some extra help.
Not only did she get responses, but she heard from people wanting to help, as most volunteer opportunities were closed in the early days of COVID, she said.
“It’s really easy for someone to commit to making one lasagna a month,” Menn said, adding she chose the pasta casserole both because it feeds multiple people and is a homey, comfort food kind of dish. It also can be left for someone in a contactless fashion. (Some volunteer chefs are making many more than one lasagna a month; it’s up to the chef to decide). There are now over 18,000 people cooking and delivering lasagnas across the country, delivering, on average, 4,000 meals a week.
Lasagna cooks and recipients can even specify preferences; some chefs will only cook vegetarian, for example, while some eaters may want gluten-free. And recipients do not need to prove that they’re financially in need. While a request could come from an individual who doesn’t have the means to pay for food, it could also come from a busy mother, who just doesn’t have the time to come up with dinner between juggling working from home, child care and homeschooling.
When Sheila Cavanaugh of Oakland saw Menn talk about Lasagna Love on “Good Morning America,” she immediately signed up to cook. During the first few weeks, she didn’t get matched with a local recipient, but there was a backlog of requests coming from San Francisco, so Cavanaugh delivered her lasagnas there. With no one organizing efforts in the East Bay, Cavanaugh volunteered to be a regional leader. Then, another East Bay resident, Meghan Weiss of Orinda, joined her. Now, Cavanaugh is coordinating half of Oakland through Richmond and El Cerrito, while Weiss is handling the other half of Oakland down through San Leandro as well as Contra Costa County.
At the time of this interview, Weiss said she had 101 chefs making around 120 lasagnas in her area. Cavanaugh herself has made and delivered about 40 lasagnas. Most of those that Cavanaugh has delivered to have been adversely affected by the pandemic.
“I cooked for one household with four adults, and they all had COVID,” said Cavanaugh, adding she has cooked for some unhoused people as well as those who haven’t had COVID-19, but have lost their jobs because of it. “It’s a very wide spectrum,” she said.
Dane Lamoray of Concord said there was something in the name “Lasagna Love” that made her reach out and request a meal. “It’s just so heartwarming,” she said.
Lamoray said she was moved by the project — that someone would go to the trouble to make a hot meal for a stranger in need.
“It was made with love, and you can’t get anything better than that,” she said. “It changes your whole perspective while you’re eating it, it makes you forget about everything going on around us right now. It takes a lot of time and effort and patience into making a dinner like this, and it just made me forget about all the difficulties I’m having right now.”
“One nice thing about this is that it’s not a shelter that caters to one specific type of family or person in need, this really could be your neighbor,” said Weiss. “I’ve delivered to some nice-looking houses with nice cars outside, but you never know if they are suddenly having trouble putting food on the table. They might be embarrassed to go to a food bank, and this feels like a mom helping another mom out.”
People without cooking skills or time to cook lasagnas can help out too. Cavanaugh said people can sponsor a chef by paying for his or her ingredients.
“It’s an incredibly kind concept,” said Cavanaugh, with Weiss adding, “It’s a great way to give back in a really achievable way.”
Visit the Lasagna Love website to volunteer,request a meal or sponsor a chef.
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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is a contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s Nosh, her writing can be found in The San Francisco Chronicle, Edible East Bay, and more. Alix is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is producer/writer of a documentary in progress called “The Lonely Child.”