It was as simple as a sack lunch.
In mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to impact everyday life in major ways, Jessica Forkner Tomberlin and her wife, Janessa Tomberlin, worried that there were children in their South Austin community who may go hungry without school meals available.
So the Tomberlins, who own Crema Bakery and Café and have a 9-year-old daughter, came up with an idea for sack lunch distribution — anyone could call the bakery, state the number of meals they needed and pick them up curbside for free.
"It started out being us worried about kids, but there are a lot of people who are actively losing their jobs every day," Jessica Tomberlin said. "It’s about more than just kids. We made it open to everybody, no questions asked."
It’s been a month since the program launched and the little neighborhood bakery on Brodie Lane has now distributed more than 700 meals to people from around the city, ranging from furloughed service industry workers to large families.
"It’s kind of amazing the stories we’ve heard from people," Jessica Tomberlin said. "For a lot of families whose income has been cut, it’s genuinely a financial need, and there are other people who don’t have any kind of a support system now. We have a customer who comes once a week, she’s a breast cancer patient with no immune system. It could literally kill her to go to the grocery store. This is a way for us to reach out and help people. Our job is to feed people, whether or not they have the money to pay for it."
The sack lunches include a sandwich of peanut butter and jelly, ham, or turkey; fruit; a juice box; chips; and a baked good. They are available any time Crema is open, which is 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Because of the many requests from the public wanting to help, the bakery is accepting donations for the lunch fund via its Venmo account, @cremabakerycafe, and on its website, cremabakerycafe.com.
"(People are saying), ‘I may not be able to leave my house and go volunteer at the food bank, but I can donate $10 and make sure that two people get a lunch today,’" Jessica Tomberlin said. "It’s super validating to know that when things like this happen and there’s a crisis that our neighbors can depend on each other."
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Elizabeth Flowers, who runs a bake shop called the Kitchen Elf from her South Austin home, said Tomberlin helped her by ordering a case of butter for her after Flowers encountered limits on butter at grocery stores because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Flowers is returning the favor by giving away batches of cupcakes to Kitchen Elf customers and asking that they instead pay Crema the amount they would have paid her.
"Crema is consistently willing to help us as a community to help each other," Flowers said. "I want to help ‘us’ as a society during this time, and Crema gave me an easy access point. They are always willing to help."
Jessica Tomberlin said she’s surprised by the reach the sack lunch campaign has had — she’s even been contacted by furloughed employees at major hotel chains saying Crema was listed as a food resource.
"The people who are stepping up are not the big chains, they’re not even the big local chains, it’s the small mom-and-pop, or mom-and-mom, in our case, restaurants and stores and other kinds of businesses that are going the extra mile to make sure they have what they need," Jessica Tomberlin said. "I want people to realize that local businesses are the ones that are really the glue that holds our city together, holds our economy together and holds our communities together."
In addition to offering the lunches, Crema is also selling groceries, family meals and baked goods, which are available to order online.
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"If you want to survive right now you have to figure out ways to keep yourself relevant to your customers and make their lives easier," Jessica Tomberlin said. "That’s what we’re doing. You can order online, get the groceries you need for a couple days, get doughnuts for the kids, get a croissant sandwich and coffee for yourself, without having to leave the car."
As for how long the sack lunches will be available, Jessica Tomberlin said she has no plans to stop distributing.
"I actually don’t see us stopping even when this COVID crisis is over," she said. "This has really opened our eyes to the fact that there’s always a need, and somebody who is OK right now might not be OK a month from now. I foresee this being a thing that Crema does from now on. It’s part of our mission, and I’m proud of that. We’ve taken this super stressful situation and been able to find a thing that we can do that makes a difference for people every day."