The Meals2Medics crew assembles food for medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 crisis began unfolding, Tom and Sheila Kunkel, owners of Urban Pioneer Group (UPG) in Forest Park, knew the state-wide shelter-in-place mandate would take its toll on their event business. Cancellations have left their well-appointed Forest Park event space vacant and their certified commercial kitchen unused. Quick to pivot, the Kunkels began considering ways to use their kitchen to make a difference during the coronavirus outbreak.

As health care professionals began turning to vending machines at mealtime, UPG took inspiration from Spanish chef and humanitarian, José Andrés. Andrés’ World Central Kitchen inspired the concept of “food first responders.” In that spirit the minds behind UPG introduced Meals 2 Medics — a sustainable community-based organization dedicated to providing nutrient-dense meals and snacks to frontline medical workers and other heroes in the Chicagoland area.

“The number of people we are feeding is doubling weekly and we are getting smarter every day,” said Tom Kunkel. “This week we worked in quantities of 500 and next week we are prepared to work in quantities of 1,000, but we’ve got a system now where one person can turn out 250 sandwiches in an hour.”

The Meals2Medics team currently provides meals twice a week to medical professionals across 10 hospitals. All workers in the Meals2Medics kitchen employ proper social distancing practices while prepping and packaging meals; all cooks work at separate stations and wear gloves, masks and aprons.

The tight team of 10 thinks creatively to develop menus from donated ingredients, but also keeps production as streamlined as possible. Packaging side dishes and snacks in clear eight-ounce containers allows hospital workers to see what they are getting. Offering smaller portions of a diverse array of foods allows Meals2Medics to sustain healthcare professionals throughout a 12-hour shift.

“These people never stop moving.” said Kunkel of healthcare workers. “Our menu allows one worker to grab some yogurt with granola in the morning, a container of grapes or strawberries later in the day and a more substantial sandwich or salad when they have more time.”

Sheila Kunkel and Kelly Fleming, a north Oak Park resident, have taken over coordinating hospital deliveries and marketing the service in the community. Meanwhile, Claudia and Maria Liendo of CLaS Chicago, a mobile bar service have taken over management of the Meals2Medics kitchen. Polly Coleman, owner of Chef’s on the Go Go, volunteered to bring her culinary skills to the table.

“I have always donated and volunteered,” said Coleman. “My business is closed, but rather than sit at home I still want to utilize every skill I have.”

Coleman operates her year-old catering business out of The Hatchery on Chicago’s West Side, but she has years of experience in banquet and hotel cooking. Coleman is unflappable in the face of volume cooking and on-the-spot menu development — based on available ingredients Coleman will craft fajita chicken salad and buffalo chicken salad with blue cheese slaw for health care workers next week.

Kunkel said he is aware of the multiple efforts going on locally to get meals to hospital workers and has been impressed with the creative ways people have been showing support for frontline workers during the COVID-19 epidemic. He is quick to point out his team is creating a replicable model that could be utilized under multiple circumstances.

“This isn’t a one and done for us,” said Tom Kunkel. “All the work and learning we are doing now is teeing us up to provide this service during any type of critical event in the future.”

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