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Gloved hand handing a boxed meal to voters from the window of a food truck.
Chefs for the Polls feeding voters in Orlando.
Photo: World Central Kitchen

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The Race to Feed Voters at the Polls

Voting is often a long, frustrating, and hungry process. What if it didn’t have to be?

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When Juliette Vincent arrived at her polling place — a public library branch in Antioch, Nashville — on October 14, the line for early voting already stretched out the door and along the wall of the ice rink next door. It was close to noon, and she hadn’t eaten anything all morning, despite being awake since 6:30. As temperatures crept up and the sun rose higher in the sky, she was thankful she had brought a bottle of water, unlike many others she saw around her in the line.

By the time Vincent, a nonprofit worker, had cast her ballot and walked back outside with her partner, nearly two hours later, she was ravenous. They beelined for a food truck they had spotted earlier in the parking lot, hoping to buy a belated lunch. Instead, they were handed meals for free. To Vincent, a self-described picky eater, the chicken and chorizo arepa that she received tasted amazing, and was a welcome gift after the wait at the polls.

“It definitely made my voting experience better,” says Vincent. “Our budget was tight before the pandemic and has definitely gotten worse since, so a free meal was a moment of extra happiness that day.”

The food truck, Delicias Colombianas RR, was serving food as part of Chefs for the Polls, one of several initiatives that have sprung up this year with the mission of feeding people at the polls. By providing free snacks, water, and hot meals at polling places with extensive lines — Chefs for the Polls, which is operated by José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen, has used social media to document early voting waits as long as 12 hours — the organizations say they hope to use sustenance as a way to address food insecurity, improve upon a frustrating voting experience, and celebrate civic engagement and the democratic process.

“Elections are something where our whole country is participating in something together. Food is similar; food is about sharing a table and dishes with other people,” says World Central Kitchen CEO Nate Mook. “The idea was: How do we make this a little more uplifting and positive?”

Technically, efforts like World Central Kitchen’s aren’t specifically or exclusively for voters: Rewarding voters with discounts or food quid pro quo is illegal when federal candidates are on the ballot. Accordingly, generally, these kinds of freebies are advertised as being for everyone in the general vicinity, whether or not they cast a ballot.

Mook is careful to note that Chefs for the Polls’ fundraising is separate from World Central Kitchen’s disaster relief efforts: feeding areas affected by hurricanes and earthquakes, and, more recently, the people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. “I certainly wouldn’t categorize our elections as a disaster, but there are a lot of problems,” he admits. “When we see a huge turnout — especially coupled with the restrictions around COVID, because you have fewer polling places and poll workers — you end up with long lines. And so that’s where this idea came from: Let’s tap into this incredible network of chefs, restaurants, and food trucks that we’ve built to respond to the pandemic, and support some of these communities where we’re going to see long lines now.”

There is evidence that events like free food near polling places can get more people in line to begin with, and thus help increase voter turnout. Donald P. Green, a political science professor at Columbia University and the co-author of Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, has studied the effect of “election festivals” — featuring attractions like food, music, and games — held near neighborhood polling sites during early voting or on Election Day. In four randomized experiments held between 2016 and 2018 (building off earlier work in 2005 and 2006), the events drew in a higher average turnout increase of 2 percentage points. “These festivals do seem to attract crowds,” Green says. “They pull in people who would have otherwise sat it out.”

Food could play a significant role in that, depending on where the festival is held. During a trial held between 2005 and 2006, Green noticed that in lower-income urban areas, “there were legitimately hungry people,” and food did seem to draw more people. One reason, Green suggests, is “the instrumental value of the food itself”; another is “by making the election site more attractive socially.”

Encouraging voter turnout is an implicit part of many current feeding-the-polls efforts, although some organizations shied away from explicitly naming that as the primary goal. For some, addressing hunger is a major motivation. While food insecurity isn’t a new issue in this country, “the pandemic has obviously accelerated a lot of those problems,” says Chris Stang, the CEO of Infatuation and Zagat, which has partnered with nonprofit the Migrant Kitchen on the initiative Feed the Polls. The group plans to serve 50,000 people on Election Day by paying local restaurants, caterers, and food trucks to prepare thousands of meals each, at the cost of around $10 per meal.

“It’s important for us to make sure we’re fighting hunger and allowing you to continue your constitutional right to vote,” says Nasser Jaber, co-founder of the Migrant Kitchen. Hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that 17 million people in the U.S. could become food insecure as a result of the pandemic, on top of hunger levels that were already at 37 million people in 2018. High-income earners often don’t understand the struggle of working for $10 an hour, as a lot of kitchen staff — including large numbers of undocumented immigrants and people of color — do in New York, says Jaber. “The idea is to encourage people to come out, to register, to take food home, and to make that grueling process, especially on a cold November day, much more tolerable.”

Voters lined up to receive free food and water from mask-clad volunteers in front of a Louisville polling location.
Chefs for the Polls distributing free food and water at a Louisville polling location.
Photo: World Central Kitchen

Bad experiences at the polls can affect whether or not voters keep turning out to cast their ballots year after year. A recent study by Stephen Pettigrew, director of data sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, found that “for every additional hour a voter waits in line to vote, their probability of voting in the subsequent election drops by 1 percentage point.” He also notes that long lines disproportionately depress turnout among minority voters, particularly Black voters, who are much more likely to face lengthy wait times at the polls.

“Long lines have a negative impact in many real ways, besides being annoying. We know that they’re limiting, especially in majority-minority precincts,” says Adelaide Taylor, co-founder of local grassroots coalition the Georgia 55 Project, which seeks to increase voter accessibility in Metro Atlanta. In Georgia, employers must provide workers with at least two hours of paid time off to vote, but that often isn’t enough time, even during early voting, especially in a state that has been called a “hotbed for voter suppression tactics.”

The Georgia 55 Project — which owes its name to the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as to the 55,000-vote difference that lost Stacey Abrams the gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp in 2018 — plans its line-warming initiatives as part of a holistic effort to improve the overall voting experience, in the hopes of encouraging people to stay in line and to keep showing up. The group began as a handful of people raising money to bring pizza to Atlanta voters in 2018, and recently expanded its focus to encompass all phases of the voter registration and election process. But food still remains key to its outreach methods. “Not only because it’s a facet of Southern hospitality and culture, but we believe … that it’s one of the best ways to find common ground with others throughout the community,” says Taylor. “It’s about having someone walk away feeling like they participated in democracy, and they’re excited to vote the next time, and it was a fun experience.”

What that looks like in practice differs slightly for each initiative. For Chefs for the Polls, it means first using data to identify geographical areas where there could potentially be long lines. Next, World Central Kitchen reaches out to local restaurants, food trucks, and chefs — including high-profile names like Hugh Acheson, Ashley Christensen, and Ed Lee — in order to mobilize people on the ground who can prepare meals in the hundreds and be ready to report to polling locations as needed. (Mook notes the best food options are “handheld,” things like tacos or sandwiches.)

It’s a lot of complicated logistics, but for World Central Kitchen, the whole operation — including scouting, constantly monitoring, and adapting in real time — is practically second nature, says Mook. “In a place like California, a wildfire might break out, and we have 12 hours to get a kitchen up and running and food out the door. So this is very normal for us.”

Pizza to the Polls, an established presence compared to the relative newcomers on the block, is trying something different this fall. In addition to the polling-place pizza deliveries it has been facilitating since the 2016 election, the volunteer-run organization has hired a handful of staff and is working with foundations, consultants, Uber Eats, and restaurant partners to launch a food truck program for the first time. Between October 24 and November 3, more than 250 trucks will be “deployed as roving voter support wagons,” stopping by poll sites across the U.S. to dispense free food and promote voting rights resources, according to Pizza to the Polls co-founder and director Scott Duncombe.

But just like it did in 2016 and 2018, the organization will still accept reports of long lines at polling places. Those submissions go to volunteers (there will probably be 50 to 100 this election, Duncombe estimates) who then validate the claim, look up pizza places around the poll site, and place an order for approximately six to 15 pizzas to be delivered. “I try to order a variety because you never know what people will like,” says Los Angeles resident Erin Haglund, a Pizza to the Polls volunteer since 2018. “Always classics like veggie, pepperoni, and plain cheese, but if the place has unique specials, I get one of those, like a white pizza or Buffalo chicken or super meat lovers. And if they have vegan options, [I] definitely throw a couple of those in.” More than 15 pizzas per drop, though, Duncombe says, and the pizzeria often can’t produce the order in time.

For this election, the Georgia 55 Project has come up with a model in which businesses and companies “sponsor” a local restaurant, which will then be able to use the funds to prepare meals for Election Day; the food is then picked up by volunteers, who bring it to a centrally located hub from which the food can be distributed. Taylor says her fellow organizers realized early on that restaurants wouldn’t be able to donate food for free, given the difficult financial position that the pandemic had put them in: “A lot of restaurants are financially strapped, but now more than ever, they want to be more involved with voting rights.”

According to Mook, these efforts not only help support restaurants, but can also highlight the crucial spot that restaurants can occupy in a community, especially in times of crisis. “The restaurant industry is so important to our communities,” he says. “I hope this can be another example of how important that industry is and the role it can play in supporting our neighbors.”

Masked person giving away free boxed food to voters.
Chefs for the Polls in Nashville
Photo: World Central Kitchen

None of these initiatives, which brand themselves as “nonpartisan,” were particularly keen to directly name President Donald Trump as a raison d’être behind their efforts. (As Mook puts it, somewhat ironically, on behalf of Chefs for the Polls, “No politics involved, just tacos.”) Yet the specter of his presidency is difficult to extricate from the context behind issues like long lines, voter suppression, and the COVID-19 response, and from organizers’ explanations for why this election, why now?

“This has been a really hard year for all of us, with the pandemic … and people losing their jobs, it feels like a lot of people can’t sit on the sidelines,” says Duncombe, pointing out the number of people — as well as corporate brands and businesses — that appear to be more civically engaged this year. Another organization he’s involved with, Power to the Polls, has far surpassed its goal of signing up a quarter of a million people to volunteer as poll workers for this election. He can’t accredit the momentum he’s seen — from the ongoing protests against racial injustice to intensity surrounding local mayoral races — to the top-ticket race alone. “Everyone wants to make sure they’re part of this,” he says.

Stang attributes the mobilization this year to the pandemic and what may be “a heightened sense of empathy,” as people have seen colleagues, friends, and family members suffer and lose their jobs. Moreover, he says, “I think more and more you increasingly understand how your elected officials and the policies that are in place affect the outcomes for all of us.” What remains important, he adds, is making sure that “this isn’t just about November 3.” Beyond the election itself, he says, Feed the Polls is thinking about how it could potentially help effect legislation in the future.

Taylor concedes that the Georgia 55 Project’s efforts and the public’s broader involvement can’t necessarily be divorced from “the current political climate,” but she believes that it was inevitable that people would start to demand more from their elected officials. “We rarely talk about the president when we’re organizing and planning for our efforts; we are just so focused on helping Atlantans, people in Georgia, and our community vote, especially because voter suppression is so bad,” she says.

While her organization is still all volunteer run, and she and her co-organizers all have day jobs, she says she can’t imagine “just now tuning out,” after ramping up so much this year. Even beyond this election, there will be local races, as well as other efforts to reduce voter suppression. Per Taylor, “That is a goal and a mission that will withstand the latest vote, sweatshirt, or messaging from advertisers.” Where there are lines, there will always be hungry voters.

Eater is part of Vox Media. Find more coverage of the 2020 election across its other 13 networks: how to vote, in-depth analysis, and how policies will affect you, your state and the country over the next four years and beyond.

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