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In times of need, Lasagna Love delivers

Sally Pasley Vargas

Hope and kindness can come in many different forms — even a pan of cheesy pasta. In December, Auburn resident Meghan Gulbicki was feeling overwhelmed. Her son had broken his knee, necessitating intensive surgery and a long recovery. A co-worker nominated Gulbicki to receive a meal from Lasagna Love. The program organizes volunteer cooks to make and deliver lasagna or another meal to someone in a challenging situation — whether that be financial, emotional, or physical — often a perfect stranger or perhaps someone right in their own neighborhood.

“One of the chefs connected with me and brought the lasagna right to my back door,” Gulbicki recalls. “It took one thing off my plate, one dinner I didn’t have to plan and cook. It was a blessing at a time of a lot of stress.” She was so grateful for that nourishing gesture of kindness that she and her 13-year-old daughter are now providing meals for others through Lasagna Love.

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“I signed [us] up to pay it forward,” she says. “I want to teach her how to give back and help others. It feels good, really heartwarming.”

The brainchild of founder Rhiannon Menn, Lasagna Love began as a modest grass-roots initiative at the beginning of the pandemic. Menn, a graduate of Berkshire Community College, Brown University, and MIT Sloan, as well as the mother of three young children, was living in San Diego when massive pandemic closures hit. She explains, “I was hearing from moms around me and [on] Facebook groups that people were stressed — having kids home all the time, the uncertainty of what was going on, losing jobs, trying to figure out how to pay for groceries and wondering how long is this going to last.”

Menn, who is a passionate cook, decided to take the opportunity to help her community into her own hands. (“Cooking is my happy place,” she adds.) “I put a [Facebook] post out saying, ‘if you’re struggling, no questions asked, I’ll bring [extra meals] to your door.’ And it grew really organically from there.” Not only did the idea take off, women also reached out to Menn and volunteered to help cook.

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She remembers one early experience that clinched the motivation to formalize her efforts. A single mom with a 6-month-old reached out saying she’d lost her income, her fridge was broken, her mother and sister were living with her, and they had been eating ramen noodles for two weeks.

“I made her lasagna and remember driving up and saw the broken fridge outside that she couldn’t afford to fix or replace,” Menn says. “I just sat in the car and cried. That was the moment I said I just need to keep going.”

She adds, “We don’t necessarily move the needle on food insecurity, but we do move the needle on how people feel, that someone cares about them. It’s so much more than one meal, both for the people who receive and those of us who cook.”

In less than two years, Lasagna Love has gone from personal project to viral phenomenon, with more than 25,000 volunteers from around the world joining in what Menn calls “an international movement of kindness.” Families can sign up online or be nominated for outreach. The project also works with a variety of groups, service organizations, and food pantries to help facilitate connections to those in need, including people who are isolated or have limited social resources and supports. Integral to the program’s vision is eliminating any stigma associated with asking for help.

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It is a highly organized yet flexible system. Regional leaders work to match recipients with available volunteer chefs in the area, considering distance, frequency of need (which can range from one time to once a month), family size, and dietary requests.

Reading resident Andrea Scullin, Lasagna Love’s volunteer regional director for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, says, “Chefs are free to offer an alternative dish, but we like lasagna. It’s very forgiving and adaptable — gluten free, low carb, dairy free.” Recipients can also request the meal arrive ready to pop in the oven, frozen for later cooking, or hot and ready to serve. Chefs reach out to coordinate with recipients on time and location for drop-off.

Scullin says for any given week, there are 500-1000 area cooks available to provide meals. “Last year, we delivered just over 11,000 lasagnas,” she says. “There’s been an uptick in January, and we’re now delivering over 500 a week.”

Stoneham resident Joyce Doherty signed on as a Lasagna Love volunteer over a year ago. She now cooks and delivers five to 10 meals a month. “It’s something very tangible, not just donating money,” she says. “Even [with contactless drop-off], it feels personal. You coordinate with the person, so you get to know them in a small way. One gentleman got back to me to say how much he enjoyed the lasagna but that the most important thing is knowing there are people out there that care. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors.”

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To learn more about Lasagna Love, nominate a recipient a delivery, or volunteer, visit lasagnalove.org.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.