The COVID-19 pandemic has left many restaurateurs struggling just to keep their businesses afloat. But the staff of Dearborn's M Cantina is also working to ensure that the less fortunate in their community don't go hungry during the crisis.
The restaurant has donated over 200 meals to low-income families in need since the pandemic hit, relying on a purely word-of-mouth system.
"People have actually been actively seeking us out," says M Cantina manager Heidi Merino.
Merino says the initiative started when she offered to provide food for her neighbor's family if they needed it. Her neighbor said her family was all set, but others in her extended network would appreciate the offer. Merino encouraged her neighbor to connect her to those individuals.
"I feel like maybe the Arab community is a little too proud. They're kind of like Latinos. They're just too proud to actually come out and want help," Merino says. "So I just told her, 'If you have any family members or if you hear of anybody [who needs food], let us know.'"
In addition to referrals through that neighbor, Merino also found grateful meal recipients through her church. As with her neighbor, she asked her church leadership if they knew anyone who needed help; they said their congregation was well provided for, but referred her to another church whose congregants needed food assistance. Merino's staff have also recommended people in their networks who needed help.
"They would call us directly and be like, 'Hey, I know six families who do not have a meal today. Can we help them?'" she says. "Of course. Come pick it up and it'll be ready."
The restaurant has also served seniors who once found food at the Detroit nonprofit Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED). Merino had collaborated with LA SED before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer forced the organization to close its doors.
"They were telling me this story about how they had 10 seniors who would come every day and eat there," she says. "This was the only interaction they were getting because these were seniors whose families either abandoned them or were deported, but they stayed behind. And my heart just went out to them."
Merino stresses that food requests are made anonymously, to protect recipients' privacy. The restaurant has delivered meals in most cases since many of the recipients have limited access to transportation.
"Any time someone's reached out, we've been there to just give them food," Merino says. "We're a restaurant. We have so much – not the same quantity as we used to, but I'd rather give it to someone who truly needs it."
Merino says the restaurant will continue to provide meals for anyone who is "truly in need." She's received calls, letters, and social media messages thanking her for the free meals, which she says is "amazing." But she sees the service as simply doing a neighborly duty, in keeping with values she learned growing up that have only been solidified since she moved to Dearborn.
"At the end of the day ... your neighbors are family," she says. "You spend even more time with your neighbors than you do with your own family if you think about it. You see them every day. So it's just really important for us to be there for them at a time that they need it."