Few dishes are more comforting than lasagna. And these days, comfort is as valuable a commodity as toilet paper. So when Rhiannon Menn posted on a local San Diego Facebook group at the beginning of the pandemic to see if anyone needed a hand, she could hardly predict that her neighborly gesture would grow into a national movement.
The grassroots organization known as Lasagna Love now has over 18,000 volunteers nationwide delivering an average of 3,500 meals a week to more than 1,000 cities across the U.S. As of November 2020, it officially earned its 501(c)3 status as a non-profit.
The impetus for Lasagna Love stemmed from a happy accident that “just kind of happened,” according to the self-proclaimed “accidental founder.” Menn said she was heartbroken hearing stories of women struggling to feed their families. So much so that, after delivering her first group of lasagnas, she sat in her car crying, thinking about the struggles these moms were going through.
The messages of thanks she got – mostly from texts and one from giant chalk letters on the sidewalk in front of her home – kept her going. What motivated her even more? The radio silence she often received. “I realized how hard it could be to ask for help and how many people felt embarrassed.”
As word got around on social media, other moms (and dads) became interested in joining her cause. “People who saw my initial posts reached out, asking if there were enough families and could they help make lasagna,” recalled Menn. “I thought, sure. Why not? Then their friends saw, and their friends’ friends saw, and all of sudden we had this incredible group of people across the country all doing the same thing.”
Soon the small operation running out of Menn’s kitchen expanded to hundreds and then thousands, lovingly dubbed Lasagna Mamas and Papas. Menn believes word spread fast because so many traditional volunteer opportunities had closed down. “People wanted something to do, but didn’t necessarily know where to go,” she said.
“Making a lasagna and dropping it off at someone’s door, contactless? That’s easy, and it feels safe. We’re already cooking, why not make a little extra?” she explained. “Besides, that one-on-one connection – even with a stranger – is something I think we’re all craving right now.”
Another plus to the program, says Menn, is that it allows Lasagna Mamas and Papas to spend time in the kitchen with their families. Menn, who often cooks with her 3-year-old daughter Cimorene, noted that “family bonding was built into the very fabric of Lasagna Love from day one.” Her goal, she said, was to build Cimorene’s memories of the pandemic to be more about what they did to help than what they lost or the struggles they went through. Lasagna Love, she stressed, is about more than delivering food. It’s become a movement of kindness. Lasagna just happens to be the vessel.
As for the dish itself, Menn said her lasagna recipe has been tweaked and perfected over the years, but her favorite thing about it is the hidden veggies. “I grate zucchini and yellow squash and mix it in with the mozzarella cheese layer,” she said. “There’s no obvious chunks and no real change in texture, so kiddos who ‘don’t like veggies’ get all the goodness.” Because she loves making her sauce from scratch, she said she’s up early chopping and simmering and relishing in the aroma that fills her house. While hers is the “official” Lasagna Love recipe, a lot of her lasagna chefs have their own family recipes and Menn enjoys seeing the differences.
“Team béchamel vs. team ricotta, vegan and gluten-free lasagnas, lasagna rolls, ravioli lasagna – we have a lot of creative lasagna chefs in our mix,” she said. Some have been shared on Instagram but, said Menn, who knows? “Maybe one day there will be a Lasagna Love cookbook.”
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