In early March of 2020, as the United States began to see the impending impact that the Coronavirus would have, 2019 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Natalie Guo was getting to work. As a graduate of Harvard Business School and a current Harvard Medical School student, Natalie was thinking of not only her health care colleagues serving on the frontlines, but also of the economic hardship that restaurant workers would feel from the massive shutdown of businesses. To help on both fronts, Natalie started Off Their Plate (OTP), a growing national movement that provides healthy meals and groceries to hospital personnel working on the frontlines of the crisis.
Within hours of coming up with the idea, Natalie rallied friends and colleagues to join the cause. By the end of the day, she had four Boston restaurants who were on-board. By the end of the week, they had run two pilots with several restaurants taking part in Boston and San Francisco. Within two weeks, they had raised enough donations to serve 9,500 meals, pay $38,000 in wages to restaurant workers, and launched teams in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and New York City, and signed a partnership with World Central Kitchen, a global food access non-profit, through which OTP achieved 501(c)(3) status.
“We started this with two goals in mind: to help provide income continuity for some of the 4M+ workers who have been laid off in the last week (the most vulnerable of which do not qualify for unemployment) and provide meal support for the our brave and overworked healthcare staff,” Natalie wrote in an e-mail to the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows Boston and Cambridge listserv. “The idea is we can help donations touch lives in the community twice: first funding restaurant worker wages to put meals together and second by providing healthy, nutritious, comforting meals to hospital workers at the front lines.”
Off Their Plate uses donations to fund “local restaurants to employ a lean staff to provide nutritious, comforting fare to hospital workers at the front lines of COVID-10 testing, triage and care,” Natalie wrote. To care for their staff whom many chef-owners see as family, restaurants have been eager to work with the initiative and even donate their overhead costs to the project.
“Not only are we scaling rapidly to serve as many as we can in an immediate crisis, we are also operating in a rapidly evolving ecosystem. The food and healthcare industries are amidst an upheaval so policy, safety, and needs change on a daily basis,” Natalie explained.
Despite the immense health and economic needs of the time, the importance of a program like OTP is clear.
“I had concerns that our impact on healthcare workers or the restaurant workers would be small relative to the greater need of PPE, ventilators, and universal basic income. We still are very much secondary to those, but from the overwhelming response, it’s clear how far a warm, nutritious meal can go to soothe morale. And how empowering earning a wage for what you do well and love can be,” Natalie noted.
Natalie, who was born in Zhanjiang, China and was partially raised in Sweden and then the United States. Her parents, both researchers, inspired Natalie to pursue science. At Princeton University, where she received her undergraduate degree, she received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for her research in infectious disease.
As her study of the healthcare system deepened, exposure to vaccine shortages and drug pricing incited Natalie’s fascination with the economics of healthcare. She spent her early career with Goldman Sachs and TPG advising and investing behind management teams of hospitals, insurers, and biopharma. These experiences gave her insight into how balancing mission and profits can both conflict and converge within organizations that affect millions of lives.
Central to Natalie’s work is the recognition that the effective collaboration of physicians, innovators, and business leaders is critical to transforming how we care for our healthy and our sick. Her hope is to accelerate the delivery of the next generation of healthcare innovation by leveraging both the compassion of human experience and the objective power of data-driven inference. ∎