Quiet ingenuity: 120,000 lunches and counting

Inside the Commons, Microsoft’s bustling hub of cafés and stores, quiet now for weeks because of COVID-19, there is a daily ritual of hope, and determination. On a recent morning, as the biggest and brightest moon of the year—the Pink Moon—disappeared behind an empty playfield, a small army of dedicated volunteers filed in to take up their posts on an otherwise deserted Redmond campus.

They’re here to lend a hand, and to do something productive in uncertain times.

Microsoft campus wide angle shot
A quiet Microsoft Commons in the time of COVID-19.

As so many good ideas do, this one started with a problem: How to make sure kids and families, who depend on school for daily meals, but are stranded at home, still get the sustenance they rely on?

How does Microsoft continue to support our suppliers, many of which are local, while most of the food services on campus are shuttered with the majority of employees working from home?

The answer? Repurpose some of Microsoft’s food for schools and families during this time of crisis and magnified need.

Volunteers from Dining and Eventions at Microsoft, managed by Compass Group USA, arrive to assemble lunches.

Every day, 60-65 volunteers from Microsoft’s dining and catering services arrive before dawn. They’ve devised a makeshift assembly-line system to organize and distribute the lunch components and pack them for shipment. Using the open spaces usually bustling with campus lunch-goers or reserved for meetings and conferences, they pack with care, in about three hours, 6,420 lunches for delivery.

Shouts of hello and good morning fill the otherwise vacant hallways. A camaraderie bolstered by a shared feeling of doing something useful fills up the cavernous space.

The effort is both serious—and scrappy. Last month, as closures mounted, the team had to quickly repurpose menus from more than 25 onsite cafes, with the help of Microsoft’s dietician, who herself once worked for a school district. The menu thoughtfully takes into account the needs of growing bodies (and follows the National School Lunch Program guidelines).

Lunches packed in takeout boxes
Lunches are carefully crafted with a nutritious balance in mind.

On this day the lunches are being prepared for local Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA, Hopelink and Northwest Harvest. They include: a sandwich (from Molly’s in Seattle), fruit, vegetable, snack, dessert and milk.

Kris Valencia is a fixture on the scene, greeting the day’s volunteers, and organizing workflow. Valencia is the executive chef for Eventions, Microsoft’s onsite catering and event production department, managed by Compass Group USA.

Man standing in parking garage
Kris Valencia, executive chef for Microsoft Eventions, near the loading dock where the lunches are packaged for transport.

“Every day, people are making a lot of sacrifices, with kids at home and other struggles. If I’m going to be a leader for this program, I want to be there for my people,” he says. “They are here because they want to do something in this time of crisis. To give something back and because Microsoft has been so gracious to provide pay for associates while the cafes have been closed.”

On a recent weekday, a flyby of an empty Microsoft Redmond campus.

In March, Microsoft announced that it would continue to pay wages to its hourly workers, including 4,500 who work in Puget Sound facilities. Of that total, 1,300 are foodservice employees of Compass Group, Microsoft’s onsite foodservice partner.

“It has been truly inspiring to see how our teams have come together during this time,” says Jodi Smith Westwater, senior services manager for dining operations.  “Hospitality is in our nature. It’s what we do. And it matters now more than ever. I’m so very proud of our team’s dedication and energy.”

The positive energy is palpable, and in some corners, as the morning light streams in, so does lively (and loud) dance music. People are happy for the opportunity to be productive. There’s also a persistent sentiment of gratitude.

Female volunteer in apron packing lunches
Rebecca Carney-Bravemen, a Compass Group employee, adds the milk. She typically works as a lead catering cook at Microsoft.

“It’s a pretty stressful time,” says Rebecca Carney-Bravemen. “But we still have our jobs. I wanted to do more for others who aren’t as privileged. Coming here in the morning makes me feel like I’m doing something.”

Valencia rotates the volunteers, most working three days on, and two days off. The current plan is to extend the program until the end of April, but that might change, given Washington state’s recent school closure extension.

Female volunteer packing lunches with health advisory sign visible
A Compass Group employee preps the lunch boxes. Signs displaying safety guidelines appear throughout the space.

Safety is paramount, and Compass Group has refocused its Quality Assurance team to ensure the proper protocols, including strong requirements for social distancing, are in place. Volunteers must wash hands every 25 minutes. Each station has 6-8 people to ensure everyone can stay 6 feet apart. Only two people can ride in the freight elevators at a time. Masks are available, but voluntary, for now, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Each day, everyone must sign a Health Reporting Agreement, and attest to being symptom (and fever) free, to participate.

Male volunteer placing bags of chips into lunches
A catering cook with Microsoft Eventions, Chester Cullers puts the finishing touches on a line of lunches

“School kids need these. If we weren’t here, they wouldn’t be getting lunch,” says Chester Cullers, as he fills a line of white boxes with barbecue chips. “I know how tough it is out there. A lot of people can’t be out in public.”

Soon, the boxed lunches make their way downstairs where they are packaged into bigger boxes and onto pallets and loaded into refrigerator trucks for delivery to Building 125. They’ll remain there overnight in a refrigerated space before being picked up before dawn the next day and transported to communities in need.

Female volunteer saran-wrapping shipment boxes
A Dining at Microsoft employee wraps a pallet of lunches for transport.

Even without the typical bustle of humans on what today is a very quiet Microsoft Redmond campus, the human spirit—and a quiet, but determined, ingenuity—lives on. The team has other big ideas, too, building from a continued desire to use resources wisely, to stay safe and to help others.

Published on April 10, 2020.

Words by Aimee Riordan.

Photos by Brian Smale.


Read more stories on COVID-19 and our attempt to make sense of its effects, alone and together.