Vanessa Watts cooks, delivers and coordinates Lasagna Love volunteers in parts of central and eastern Wisconsin.
Vanessa Watts cooks, delivers and coordinates Lasagna Love volunteers in parts of central and eastern Wisconsin. (Photo by John Russell)

Vaccinations are coming, but hard-hit households will need help for some time to come.

Dozens of Wisconsin cooks are spreading the love—Lasagna Love—as they wait for COVID-19 vaccinations that will help life return to normal.

A New York mom and blogger’s idea to help her neighbors during the pandemic took root last May and has bubbled into a nationwide movement. Around 16,000 volunteers have made nearly 20,000 pans of lasagna for families in need of a hot meal.

The effort in Wisconsin so far involves 150 volunteers and 400 lasagnas. Some are amateurs making their dishes from scratch, using recipes from cherished relatives. Others are trained chefs without paid work because of the pandemic. 

Dozens of Wisconsin volunteers are learning how one pan of lasagna has the potential to provide sustenance in multiple ways. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Many are average home cooks who gladly fit some lasagna making into their already busy balancing acts. A few will drive 30 miles to deliver what they cook, boundaries for participation are up to the meal maker as is the frequency of their efforts.

“It makes my heart happy to provide for people in need, people struggling, people who can’t get out” because of the pandemic, says Christine Dukin Hammond of Madison, a work-at-home administrative assistant who became a “lasagna chef” in October, one month after moving back to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania.

She noticed a call for volunteers on the Dane County Neighbors Helping Neighbors Facebook page and began making four pans of lasagna per week. That dropped to one a week as the number of volunteers mushroomed.

“It makes my heart happy to provide for people in need, people struggling, people who can’t get out” because of the pandemic, Hammond says. The work is a reminder of her “100 percent Italian” grandmother, whose lasagna was the go-to dish to bring to others.

“So I make my ‘GG’s lasagna,’” Hammond says. “My grandma made it for me, and I made it for her when she no longer could cook.”

Hammond is “all for the vaccine—my mom is a cancer survivor who just got the first round,” and she cooks for others as she patiently waits her turn: “Teachers, health care and other frontline workers should be first.”

Andy Schoenherr of Sun Prairie joined Lasagna Love this month, making his first delivery to a family of four with a parent who is housebound with late-stage cancer. “Everybody’s trying to figure out how they can help, what they can do during this pandemic,” he says. “I do this because I like to cook and am aware of the ongoing challenges of food insecurity.” 

The marketing pro, who produces the ”What are We Building? Sun Prairie” podcast, wants to spread the good word about Lasagna Love and identify more families in need.

Andy Schoenherr of Sun Prairie is a new Lasagna Love volunteer. (Photo submitted)

In Milwaukee, Nicole Brown coordinates more than 60 volunteers but receives only 10 meal requests per week, so she aims to set up monthly pop-up sites for drive-through pickup of lasagna.

Brown is an out-of-work chef who did event planning before the pandemic. In 2019, she and husband Carl founded the Fresh Coast Jazz Festival, which the pandemic canceled in 2020.

“When you’re in the business of hospitality, you do what you can do. You help where you can,” Brown says. She makes from-scratch lasagna noodles in various colors, depending on the vegetable – or fruit – used. Blue pasta, made with blueberries, is one rendition.

“Food—that’s my love language,” the chef says, and “lasagna is a universal comfort food.” 

Nicole Brown, a trained chef who lost event planning work because of the pandemic, coordinates Milwaukee meal makers for Lasagna Love (Photo submitted).

People need not be impoverished to benefit from Lasagna Love. “I have delivered lasagna to all types of families: single parents, elderly living alone, parents with children, large multi-generational families,” says Frances Kis, regional coordinator for Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties. 

“Almost everyone appreciates a warm meal—busy working parents, healthcare workers, homeschooling moms, people quarantined due to illness, people who have lost jobs. We are really here to help anyone in need with a simple act of kindness.”

Her 24 volunteers—college students to retirees in their 70s—average 10 lasagna deliveries per week. Contactless delivery makes the process safe for all.

The work triggers flashbacks for Vanessa Watts of Chicago, who has worked from her house in Green Lake since the pandemic began. “It’s a good way to give back,” she says, of Lasagna Love.

“I know the difference this can make to someone” said Watts, because she was raised by a single mom who was out of work often. “If me doing this can help ease their mind, give them peace, give them a warm meal, why wouldn’t I do it? We should all look for ways to give back. Delivering a meal is one of the easiest things I can do.”

Watts coordinates volunteers in a big chunk of Wisconsin, roughly Portage to Stevens Point to Green Bay to Manitowoc to Fond du Lac and back to Green Lake. Like her paid work, virtual management in advertising, a part of the challenge is determining “who has what skill set.” 

Recipients of Watts’ own cooking include an elderly woman recovering from surgery and living alone. 

“People can offer another meal if they’d like, but lasagna is by far the most common,” says Erin McGlothlin Selsby of Ames, Iowa, Midwest coordinator for Lasagna Love. “Some lasagna chefs send a full pan of lasagna with freezing and reheating instructions, or they make multiple smaller loaf pans” for households of one or two. 

On the website are portals to volunteer, donate, ask for a meal or suggest someone else to benefit.

“People tend to think others need this more, and there will probably always be someone in a more dire situation, but that doesn’t lessen yours,” Watts says.

Even when the coronavirus vaccine becomes widely accessible, she knows “it won’t be a fast return to work for everyone,” such as the restaurant industry.

And the work of Lasagna Love may well outlast the pandemic.

“Although COVID-19 has made many situations worse, there will always be a need for neighbors to help each other through tough times,” Kis observes.