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Interview: Feed the Fight’s Elena Tompkins

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How a healthcare lobbyist offers a needed — and tasty — bridge between Covid healthcare workers and restaurants.

feed the fight's elena tompkins with car and food delivery meals at hospital
Elena Tompkins, left, with Feed the Fight teammate Sarah Cannova [Photo courtesy Evy Images/Washingtonian]
At the height of Washington, D.C.’s spring Covid-19 lockdown, Feed the Fight’s Elena Tompkins was working an 80-plus hour week. Founder and principal of lobbying firm Tompkins Strategies, Elena worked full-time as a lobbyist while also heading a rapidly-expanding nonprofit that bridges support for local restaurants and the healthcare community. To date, Feed the Fight has provided over 33,000 meals (and counting) from dozens of restaurants to numerous hospitals, medical staff, and first responders.

I talked with Elena about food, her background, Feed the Fight’s founding, and how it quickly scaled up from an email among friends to an inspiring, nationally-recognized nonprofit.

You may also like: Interview: A Hospital Dietician During Covid-19 and Interview: New York Times Reporter Amelia Nierenberg

feed the fight elena tompkins healthcare workers receiving meals
Photo by Feed the Fight

Interview: Feed the Fight’s Elena Tompkins

This interview took place on June 19, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland: I want to start with getting to know your background a little bit. Where you grew up and  how you grew into your career. This is actually not your day job! 

Elena Tompkins: I grew up in New York and went to Vanderbilt. I moved to D.C. for “one year” right after I graduated college, but fell in love with D.C. and politics and just never left. So I’ve been here now for 28 years, which is frightening. I worked at a small, politically-active law firm, and then worked on the [2000 Bush vs. Gore election] recount, and then in the Bush administration in the Labor Department, and then at a small lobbying firm that got bought out. 

About eight years ago, I started my own lobbying firm. I specialize in healthcare issues and focus pretty much on the Senate. So that’s me in a nutshell. 

I read that the idea for Feed the Fight occurred to you in the middle of the night. There are so many ways people are trying to help during the Covid-19 crisis. Can you talk about why this particular way, the intersection of restaurants and medical workers/first responders, spoke to you the most?

So to be completely candid and honest, the reason this came to me started from the restaurant perspective. I love eating at restaurants, and I have a dear friend who owns [D.C. restaurants] Surfside and Millie’s, and another friend who owns Peacock Cafe. The day everything shut down, I thought I’d get some people to buy gift cards to support them. But an owner told me, “That’s great, but we need volume.” 

So the first email was to about 20 people, like “Hey, let’s buy taco box lunches for the nurses at Sibley [Memorial Hospital],” and everyone was like, “Oh that’s a great idea!”

And then by the time I got back to my inbox from dropping off lunch [about 30 meals to nurses at an area hospital], my inbox was full. By the end of the week, I had over $10,000 in my Venmo. My husband –he’s a lawyer — said, “You have to figure this out.” So I called the lawyer I work with in my real job and said I needed help. The IRS wasn’t taking applications for 501(c)(3)s, so he found the Greater Washington Community Foundation and asked if they could house us. 

So things scaled up really, really quickly from there. I wanted to talk about Feed the Fight’s evolution, the scaling up process. 

In the beginning, out of the first email, one of my friends jumped out and wanted to help. And another friend of a friend connected me with someone else who wanted to help. So I quickly had people. The biggest challenge was figuring out where to send it: How we were tailoring it. Which hospitals have Covid cases. 

At first we were doing Covid testing centers. Then we got a big donation from the U.A.E. embassy. Their ambassador had just funded the testing center at Children’s National Hospital, and asked if we could start working there. Chef Geoff’s was one of our original partners. Geoff is married to Nora O’Donnell, and she called about how she wanted to do a piece on the CBS evening news. So we had that story on the first day we delivered food to Children’s. Then people started coming from everywhere, like different hospitals. 

There must have been so many logistical aspects to figure out. 

It was a lot of trial and error figuring out the different systems of all these hospitals: How do we get in touch with the hospitals? How many people are there who need meals? How often? And, the restaurants needed to know by late in the week what they needed to order for the next week.

Then everything had to be individually packaged. There are also some dietary restrictions to account for — vegan, gluten free, all of it. So we had to find restaurants that could accommodate that. And we tried really hard to stay with smaller, local restaurants. We were introduced to his wonderful organization called Open Kitchen that works with all immigrant-owned restaurants. And then there is delivery.

What about keeping all of this at the fore. People’s attention spans can be short. I wonder if as we become more “used” to Covid, people will be less active with contributing.

We have scaled down a lot. Fundraising has gone down. I will say, and this will sound way more obnoxious than I mean it, we were the first ones out of the gate. We were the only ones doing this, and we had the only restaurants participating. We were literally the only game in town.

Now there are a lot more people and restaurants doing this, like Sweetgreen. Plus, restaurants got their game up and running a little bit more, like figuring out takeout and opening for patio seating, so there are more options now and less sense of urgency. But I think there’s also a little Covid exhaustion, and I think, frankly, fundraising exhaustion. And thankfully, there just aren’t as many cases in the area right now.

At the height of everything, how many hours per week were you working?

About 80. The problem was that on any given day, starting around 11:30 to noon, my phone would be blowing up. It was a delivery person who couldn’t go through the gate, or a nurse at the hospital. It was just the logistics. 

In our biggest week, we delivered 12,000 meals, so the logistics of that was huge. We were also booking for the following week. You had press, which was great, but you also had [Kevin Bacon’s] 6 Degrees Foundation and other donors, so there’s a lot you had to do there, too. In the morning, I’d work my real job from like 8 a.m. until noon, and I’d do Feed from 12 to 3 p.m. Then it was back to my real job.

Where is Feed the Fight going now?

We have scaled back a lot. We are actually doing meals for families who have Covid-positive medical staff at home, and some first responders who are quarantined at local hotels who don’t have access to meals. And I think we’ll probably pause for July and August, and we’ve let the hospitals know that we have a nest egg if they have a resurgence in the fall or winter. But now we have the system in place. 

A lot of what kept it going were our partners. The restaurants were so phenomenal and appreciative, and the workers as well. There was an infectious disease team at Georgetown Hospital who sent the nicest thank you note that had me crying. There was a little girl who made $1,200 by selling Mother’s Day cards and donated it, and her parents matched it. There are so many good people out there. 

That is what kept me going, the community in this town and how everyone supports each other and loves each other.

Beautifully stated.

Want to support Feed the Fight’s mission? Donate here.

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