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This Crowdfunding Effort Pays D.C. Area Asian Restaurants to Feed Their Communities

Woks for Washington has raised more than $11,000 worth of meals for hospital workers and an emergency youth shelter

Catherine Shi and Grace Shi deliver a cart full of meals to a hospital worker
Cathleen Shi, 13, and Grace Shi, 22, have raised more than $11,000 to buy meals for hospital workers and a youth emergency shelter
Courtesy of Grace Shi

Woks for Washington is already achieving something the FEED Act has only proposed: paying restaurants to feed people who need support during the novel coronavirus crisis. But in this case, the government isn’t responsible for funding; two sisters are.

Grace Shi, 22, and her 13-year-old sibling, Cathleen Shi, started Woks for Washington in June. Using money raised through GoFundMe, the Shi sisters purchase meals from D.C.-area Asian restaurants and deliver them to community partners. In that way, the siblings are following a similar model to national programs like the Power of 10 initiative and World Central Kitchen’s Restaurants for the People program.

The FEED Act, which chef José Andrés helped introduce in May, has stalled in Congress. In less than three months, the Shi sisters have raised over $11,000. So far, they’ve supported BAB Korean Fusion on H Street NE, Neisha Thai in Fairfax County, and Sichuan Jin River in Rockville. The charitable effort also recently added Gourmet Inspirations, a Cantonese dim sum restaurant in Wheaton, to its group of partners. Woks for Washington has sent meals to three hospitals: Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, where the sisters were born; Suburban Hospital in Bethesda; and Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. Youth emergency shelter Promise Place has also received meals in Capitol Heights, Maryland.

The sisters founded Woks for Washington as a response to a rise in anti-Asian racism fueled by the rhetoric of the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also felt moved to act amid national uprisings and protests for social justice following the police killings of Black men and women such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. From the beginning, Grace Shi wanted the organization to be rooted in solidarity.

“I was thinking about how we as part of our community, and also as Asian Americans, could do something,” she says.

In late February, weeks before D.C. temporarily banned dining at restaurants, local Chinese restaurants were already reporting a decline in business. In July, the Pew Center for Research released results from a survey showing that “four-in-ten Black and Asian adults say people have acted as if they were uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity since the beginning of the outbreak.” The coalition that formed Stop AAPI Hate counted 2,583 reported incidents of harassment against AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islander) individuals nationwide from March 19 through August 5. Over 38 percent of those incidents took place inside businesses, and 9 percent of the reports included a physical assault.

Neither Grace, who recently graduated from Cornell University with a degree in applied economics, nor Cathleen had any experience with philanthropy before starting Woks for Washington. Before the sisters launched the initiative, they did extensive research to build a network of partners and implement best practices for charitable giving. Donations are tax-deductible through a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund, a Maryland-based certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides administrative oversight for charitable groups.

“Grace was so impressive in the vetting process,” says Eleanor Shriver Magee, Players Philanthropy Fund’s director of communications and compliance, over email. “She had a clear vision.”

At Neisha Thai, manager Pimmie Jungtranggur says the restaurant is “honored” to work with Woks for Washington. “We just have to ... channel all our energy to get everyone through this together,” she writes over email. According to Jungtranggur, the pandemic has reversed Neisha’s sales breakdown. Carryout and delivery have replaced dine-in sales as the main source of revenue.

Due to COVID-19, Sichuan Jin River closed for three months before reopening for carryout. Co-owner Judy Yu hopes the partnership with Woks for Washington engenders empathy for the Chinese American community.

“We are in this community and want to be a part of the community in whatever we do,” she says. “We want to help, and we want people to know the Chinese are good people.”

Woks for Washington worked with BAB Korean Fusion to provide meals for all 15 residents of Promise Place, which gives young people with unstable housing a place to stay.

“In the early parts of the pandemic, we literally, literally had no meals for lunch,” program coordinator Eddie Hall says, explaining some people had to ration part of their dinner for lunch the next day. Since then, a few nonprofits have helped provide food. Hall is grateful Woks for Washington was able to provide meals when it did.

“They have been so supportive of our vision,” Hall says. “We had a need, and they stepped up to the plate and provided.”

The Shi sisters anticipate that in 2021, the world will be still reeling from the pandemic. By summer of next year, they hope to deliver 5,000 meals.

BAB manager Justine Choe has enjoyed working with the Shi sisters, praising the “passion” she’s seen in their leadership.

“It feels good to be part of something that creates change,” she says over email. “We are glad there are more ways for us to keep serving the community.”