(Photos courtesy of Leigh Adel-Arnold, pictured in front.)

Last week, Starbucks began offering free coffee to frontline workers, which was an amazing idea — an amazing idea that Leigh Adel-Arnold had already put into action. “It’s fantastic that they’re doing that,” says Leigh, who definitely isn’t competing against Starbucks. “Especially because now there are coffee places on every corner that are closed.”

At 3pm Wednesday, Leigh was in the midst of food and coffee pick-ups and deliveries. But she has nothing to do with the food industry. A legal department worker at a financial institution during the day, Leigh has also been a hospital superhero during the coronavirus crisis. “These are the people that we really need to keep healthy,” she says of hospital workers. “I’m just trying to throw in as much protein as possible.”

With the coronavirus outbreak dramatically affecting New York City, frontline workers are stacking shifts on shifts, and only get a few brief breaks during the day. Hospitals are all too busy. Right outside of them, though, the city is silent — there are almost no people in sight, shops are locked up and most restaurants and coffee shops are closed indefinitely. What before was a simple matter of getting coffee at the corner store is now mostly a dreamy passing thought during that marathon shift. 

When Leigh saw that a pizzeria downtown was donating pizza to hospitals in a “buy one, donate two” kind of fashion, she had an idea. On March 20, she started a GoFundMe, called “Coffee to the Front Lines,” and set the initial goal to $500. Word got around on social media and today the fund has passed $7,700 (and the new goal is now $10,000). “Every cent of this goes to the food and to tipping delivery folks,” explains Leigh, who is proud to also be helping out local eateries through her project. “Not only do we need them to stay open during all of this, but we need them to still be open when this is over.”

It’s illegal for hospital employees to give recommendations for food. “No places they frequent, nothing, even if I am requesting it,” says Leigh. But as often happens, there was a workaround to the law. Leigh got a friend at Weill Cornell’s ER to ask her doctor and nurse network and then passed on the message. From fresh coffee, to kosher or gluten-free pizza, to chicken fingers and vegetarian sandwiches, Leigh rounded up the information, and started putting in the delivery orders. 

If the shop only offers pick-ups, Leigh helps with the deliveries. Armed with a mask, hand sanitizer and a good amount of social distancing, she drives her car to the shops, and then to the hospitals, where employees are waiting for her outside with small carts and big smiles.

Starting at Weill Cornell, Leigh broadened her reach and managed to successfully get coffee and food to 13 hospitals in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. While it might seem like a straight-forward process, food delivery to hospitals isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes coordination, and patience. “I always call the hospital first,” says Leigh. “Especially to try and get the path of least resistance for the delivery person, because I obviously don’t want them to be walking into an emergency room situation.” There’s a lot of calling, and staying on the line, and calling back, and being called back, and talking to the delivery person, then again to the hospital. But in the end, they’re all helping one another. “Any hospital has been just wonderful, and gracious, and kind, and also surprised,” says Leigh. 

When Leigh personally does a drop off, she leaves a little thank-you postcard with the hashtag #coffeetothefrontlines and the Instagram handle in hopes of reaching more people and more hospitals, “especially ICUs.” ICUs are now extremely busy, and Leigh knows they must really be needing food and coffee. “I don’t know the frequency of them leaving the hospital before their shift is over,” she sighs. “But I’m guessing it’s not very high.”

Every day, Leigh sends out an email with updates to her GoFundMe supporters, where she includes the amount of money raised and the names of the local eateries she’s ordering from, as well as big thank you’s and smiley faces. As she forwards to me all the previous update emails, she leaves a note. “Since it’s still the first week, which is wild, I’m keeping it daily,” she writes. “Next week, probably only a few updates a week.” But hopefully, though the updates will decrease, the coffee orders will keep growing.