Feeding the Elderly in New York City's Chinatown
Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang are sustaining Chinatown’s most vulnerable through Heart of Dinner.
Moonlynn Tsai, New York City–based chef and restaurateur, and Yin Chang, actress and host of the 88 Cups of Tea podcast, didn’t plan to spend most of 2020 serving 20,000 meals to the elderly in Chinatown, Brooklyn, and Queens. But as they watched and experienced horrific displays of racism against Asian Americans, as well as the colossal hits in business local restaurants were suffering due to COVID-19, they felt it was a critical time to launch their community relief initiative, now known as Heart of Dinner.
At first, the couple planned to run donation-based recurring food tours led by chefs and food writers to bring visitors into Chinatown. “Literally the day after we got everything set up, COVID was declared a pandemic,” says Tsai. “We were hearing news of food insecurity and about the elderly being harassed on the streets here in Chinatown. So we thought, OK, instead of sitting around, what can we do with the resources we have? After finding out that there was a need for food for the elderly, we bought ingredients to start to cook hot meals out of our own savings.”
Months into their effort, Tsai and Chang don’t yet have a permanent space for Heart of Dinner—but that hasn’t slowed them down. Initially, they cooked from their apartment kitchen; later, food stylist Judy Kim lent out her studio space. Hospitality industry partners like Golden Diner (a F&W 2020 Best New Restaurant), Bessou, and Saigon Social have contributed comforting, classic meals like pan-fried tofu and shallots and brown rice porridge with stir-fried eggs and tomatoes. Deliveries often include groceries and dried goods; handwritten notes with illustrated messages of love and support are also a core part of the initiative’s deliveries, with thousands of cards written by volunteers as far as Taiwan, Canada, and Europe. “We just got a letter in right now, and this lady, she drew flowers from all 50 states to show that we’re all in this together. It’s beautiful,” Chang says.
Chang admits that the duo did not expect to be cooking meals long past July. “We thought that the government would step in a little more. But when we were circling back with all the organizations, they were like, ‘Um, actually the demand is even higher now because funds from the government are drying up. Are you able to push through?’” Although both she and Tsai have full-time jobs, the logistics of the initiative—from teaming up with local organizations to identify those in need to matching delivery volunteers with recipients—trickle into every day of the week. Having raised almost $180,000 for meal donations via GoFundMe, Heart of Dinner pushed its goal to $275,000.
Now, they’re working with a lawyer to secure 501(c)(3) status for Heart of Dinner. “We’ll now get an Instagram DM from someone saying, like, ‘Hey, my grandma lives in New York City. I’m in Minnesota and unable to reach her. She refuses my help, but I have a feeling that she may accept your guys’ help. This is her address, and she doesn’t have anyone taking care of her.’ That’s how we’ve taken them under our wing,” says Chang.
Follow Chang and Tsai’s journey to feed Chinatown’s elderly on Instagram @heartofdinner.