Photo: Fuel Hope Kitchen
Photo: Fuel Hope Kitchen

It’s unclear exactly how it started or when, precisely, it stopped. Few people still engage in the early-pandemic ritual of cheering from windows and clanging pans to honor healthcare workers. Yet more than a year after the first COVID-19 cases were detected in the United States, hospital staff around the country—from janitors and security staff to emergency room nurses and physicians—continue to risk their lives by showing up for work every day.

It was to nourish those workers that Colorado billionaire Ken Tuchman came up with the idea of Fuel Hope Kitchen. Tuchman and his philanthropy, the Tuchman Family Foundation, teamed up with Birdcall, a popular “fast casual” restaurant group, to create Fuel Hope Kitchen last spring. With Tuchman Family Foundation support and Birdcall staff’s expertise, the kitchen provided 50,000 meals to hospital workers in the Denver area.

When COVID surged once more in the fall, the kitchen powered up again. But this time, administrators at Centura Health, a nonprofit health network with hospitals around the state, urged Tuchman and Birdcall to shift the effort’s focus to underserved, remote areas of the state. As IP has reported, many philanthropies provided support for healthcare workers in the early days of the pandemic, but Fuel Hope Kitchen is one of the few to focus on hospitals outside big metropolitan areas.

Meals and wheels

In 1982, Ken Tuchman started TTEC, a global technology and customer service company that operates on six continents, and still serves as its CEO. He established the Tuchman Family Foundation 25 years ago, but the foundation has maintained a low profile and its website is a work in progress.

The foundation’s programs cover a range of funding areas that reflect the interests of its founder. Education is one of those areas, particularly innovations in kindergarten through fifth grade, which too often go underfunded, Tuchman believes, even though that’s when students acquire key foundational skills. The foundation also funds medical research on cancer, respiratory illnesses, eye disease and brain disease. Foundation staff are planning a new program rollout for later this spring, about which Tuchman and the foundation director, Emily Eikelberner, aren’t providing details for now.

About his philanthropy, Tuchman said, “It’s very low-key, and it’s my intention to stay low-key and under the radar.” But low-key doesn’t mean ineffectual. “My goal is to manage my wealth so it can have a deep impact on society,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fuel Hope Kitchen is planning to serve 200,000 meals to hospital workers in outlying areas of Colorado this spring, and as of early February, it was over halfway there. The meals are nutritious and brightly packaged, and are ample enough for hospital staff members to take home and feed their families. (An example of one dinner: pork loin with herbs served with rosemary parmesan potatoes accompanied by fennel, apple and cranberry coleslaw.)

Tuchman is frank about bringing a business lens to his philanthropy. “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, and that influences my approach,” he said. “I think philanthropy is often extremely inefficient. I like to work with people who share my philosophy about giving in a way that incorporates qualities like impact, efficiency, leverage. I’m always asking: How can we leverage our dollars to make sure they go as far as possible?”

Fuel Hope Kitchen incorporates many layers of such leverage. Centura Health came in and supplemented Tuchman Family Foundation dollars, and the project also receives donations from food suppliers as well as in-kind support from partners like Shamrock Foods, which provides trucks to deliver the meals to the hospitals. Meals are prepared in TTEC’s industrial kitchen and delivered to hospitals in Pueblo, Summit County, Colorado Springs and Canon City. Birdcall chefs design the menus, and Birdcall employees—some of whom might otherwise be unemployed—prepare, package and deliver the meals.

Caring for the caregivers 

As a businessman, Tuchman always looks for evidence that his foundation’s investments are having an impact. Depending on how you measure it, ROI is quite evident in the case of Fuel Hope Kitchen. “The outpouring of gratitude has been unbelievable,” Tuchman said.

The hospitals that Fuel Hope Kitchen serves are located in food-insecure areas of Colorado, and for low-wage hospital workers in particular, a hot meal can be a welcome supplement to a modest family food budget. The meals also offer hospital workers a little respite. Virginia Maes, a patient care technician at St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo, Colorado, cares for her mother, daughter and grandsons at home. “These meals make it possible for me to go home, relax and enjoy the time with my family instead of having to worry about cooking and doing more work.” she said. “It’s such a relief.”

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have ticked downward and more people are getting vaccinated. But those toiling in the healthcare trenches are still out there, even if we’ve stopped cheering them on. “The truth is, people aren’t paying attention to front-line workers the way they were at the beginning of the pandemic,” Tuchman said. “But for them, the work has only become more intense and exhausting as the months have worn on. This isn’t just about providing a warm meal that can feed a whole family, it’s about showing people respect and gratitude, and giving them a reason to come back to work the next day.”