By Lisa Kava
In February 2020, Upper West Sider Isabella Di Pietro was a senior at Harvard, getting ready to enjoy springtime with her classmates and looking ahead to graduation. One month later, like college students everywhere, Isabella found herself abruptly removed from her life at school and suddenly at home, as the harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in.
Within two weeks of her return to the UWS, Isabella’s family established Feed the Frontlines NYC, a nonprofit organization which initially provided free meals to ER and ICU workers, and later expanded to serve shelters and supportive housing residences. Recently, the organization has been active in securing vaccine appointments for restaurant workers from all over the city, having scheduled 100 appointments so far. Luca Di Pietro, Isabella’s father, owns Tarallucci e Vino on Columbus Avenue at 83rd Street, as well as four other locations.
Isabella, who took a leave of absence from Harvard to work full time with Feed the Frontlines NYC, has been at the helm of the organization since day one. With the help of a classmate, she built the website in 18 hours. She took charge of social media. She established relationships and partnerships with hospitals and supportive housing residences. And she has personally delivered hundreds of meals to those in need. When restaurant workers became eligible for the vaccine, Isabella put together a resource guide to help them. Lately she has been hard at work scheduling vaccine appointments for workers.
West Side Rag sat down recently on Zoom with Isabella Di Pietro to learn more about her experiences over the past year.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
WSR: Last spring was a difficult time for students everywhere, but particularly for high school and college seniors who were on the verge of celebrating their accomplishments when the pandemic hit. How were you able to quickly spring into action to do this important work during such an emotional time?
Isabella Di Pietro: Harvard was one of the first schools to shut down. On Tuesday March 10th, I woke up to the sound of my roommate crying. We had to pack up everything and leave by Saturday. I had just turned in my thesis and we were getting ready to celebrate and bond as a class. We were all feeling sorry for ourselves, mourning what was about to be our senior spring. Then I returned to NYC and really saw with my own eyes what was happening. The day Mayor de Blasio ordered restaurants to close, my dad laid off 95 staff members. Everybody was anxious. Feed the Frontlines NYC began with an act of generosity by a family friend who reached out wanting to help. She purchased food from Tarallucci e Vino to deliver to a hospital emergency room. Our first delivery was March 19th, my birthday. That night, my father and I talked through how we could bring in more generous people to support restaurants while feeding the hospital workers. We reached out to friends and family, and people immediately responded to the idea. Everyone was feeling helpless. This was a way to help. For me, there was no world in which I wouldn’t have jumped in that way. The need felt so immediate.
WSR: At what point did you decide to take a leave of absence from school?
IDP: When we launched Feed the Frontlines NYC, it was my phone number on the website. I was fielding calls from doctors, nurses and restaurants, while simultaneously trying to do my Zoom classes. It became impossible. Even though I loved all of my classes, the work I was doing with Feed the Frontlines NYC felt much more urgent. It was a very tough decision. My teachers and advisors were supportive.
WSR: Feed the Frontlines NYC has evolved along with changing needs during the pandemic. How was the organization able to adapt, shift and figure out what was needed next so quickly?
IDP: Literally seeing it with our own eyes. I’ll never forget walking past West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) and seeing the lines for the food pantry growing. I read about food insecurity, which was on the rise. Contacts at hospitals told us the curve had started to flatten, but it became clear that more people were struggling to put food on the table. We are a small, nimble organization and we were able to pivot quickly. I got on the phone with people and established community partnerships.
WSR: How have you been able to help restaurant workers schedule vaccine appointments?
IDP: When the announcement came out that restaurant workers were eligible, we wanted to provide workers with as many resources as possible since the system was incredibly difficult to navigate. We put together a resource page for workers, which is on our website. Alternatively, restaurant workers can fill out a form giving all of their critical information and we will make the appointment for them. So far, we have made 100 appointments. We have gotten really good at it!
WSR: What is next for Feed the Frontlines NYC?
IDP: We are expanding upon a program we set up last summer with the Borough of Manhattan Community College to provide meals to students experiencing food insecurity. Students who are not currently studying on campus will soon be able to pick up meals from restaurants in their home neighborhood. Our goal is to expand the program to even more neighborhoods and ultimately help other local community colleges bring this model to their students.
When we started Feed the Frontlines NYC, we focused on the dual crisis of people in NYC needing food, and helping struggling restaurants and restaurant workers. We have learned that restaurants do a fantastic job feeding their communities. Restaurant owners in the past might have been unaware that there was a shelter right around the corner that could use support. Now we have those relationships. Additionally, restaurants can be part of disaster readiness in the future.
WSR: What message would you like to send to other young adults who are finishing their college years? What advice would you offer?
IDP: There is a lot of pressure now — much of it internal — for students to know exactly what they want to do, and to have a five-year plan. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and that was a real source of anxiety. If you had told me last February that I would be running this organization, I would have thought that was far-fetched. To people who can identify with not knowing what they want to do or not having the confidence to do it, if you see an opportunity that seems exciting, go for it. Don’t let the voice in your head that says you can’t do it prevent you from pursuing something you think you might be interested in.
Isabella Di Pietro plans to return to Harvard in the fall of 2021 to finish her degree while continuing her work with Feed the Frontlines NYC.
To learn more about Feed the Frontlines NYC, please visit www.feedthefrontlinesnyc.org