Love is in the oven as the Mother Lode embraces a nationwide movement that began as a response to food insecurity during the pandemic, but is still going strong in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
Lasagna Love is a nonprofit global grassroots movement that began in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, with a simple act of kindness, according to founder and CEO Rhiannon Menn.
Lasagna, the quintessential comfort food, is a one dish meal that can feed a family, freezes well and several can be made at one time, which made it the perfect choice for Menn when she decided to reach out to families dealing with food insecurity in her community.
The lockdown fueled uncertainty as jobs were lost, schools were closed and learning went virtual.
“Nineteen months ago, I decided to make extra meals and deliver them to families in my community who were struggling,” Menn said. “I had no idea that today, we would be 25,000 volunteers strong, in three countries, and would have fed over half a million people.”
After seeing a segment on Lasagna Love in September 2020 on The Today Show, Marcia Duggan, of Mountain Ranch, a former chef and retired restaurant owner, knew she had found her calling.
“I was the first person in our area to sign up and there were no families that had requested meals, as people didn't know about it,” Duggan said. "I was anxious to cook and so I ran off some flyers that were provided on the website and posted about Lasagna Love in a couple of local Facebook pages and people finally started to sign up and request meals.”
The goal of Lasagna Love is to positively impact communities by connecting neighbors through homemade meal delivery and to put an end to the shame associated with asking for help when it is needed most. Their motto is: Feed families, spread kindness and strengthen communities.
“She is my hero,” Duggan said of Menn. “She is the founder, at the top of the organization, yet she is approachable. She is wonderful.”
Four months after volunteering to be a Lasagna Love chef, Duggan became a regional leader. Her area is expansive and covers seven counties: Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, El Dorado and Alpine.
When Duggan began her new leadership role, there were just six volunteer cooks in her vast area. Now, there are 73.
It took her roughly five months to establish “decent-sized” crews in all of the counties Duggan leads. Volunteer chefs create their own cooking schedule and can make meals every week or once a month, whatever works for them.
Like Duggan, Sonora resident Betty Cones first found out about Lasagna Love when she watched an interview with Menn on television in 2019. Cones went online after the segment aired to learn more about the founder and the Lasagna Love movement.
“I can tell you that I was the first and only volunteer in this area for a while," Cones said. "It really makes me feel as if I am doing something for my community and my neighbors. I am a wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother and a helper to whomever needs me.”
For the past two years Cones’ grandson, Levi Cones, 13, of Sonora, has kept his grandmother company, helping her prepare and then deliver the meals to those who request one.
Betty Cones, who retired in 2003 from the Tuolumne County Recreation Department, currently makes four lasagnas a month and delivers them on the same day.
With volunteer cooks in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia, resources for the chefs are numerous and include the nonprofit’s website, as well as an exclusive Facebook page only Lasagna Love chefs can access.
The page offers money saving tips including information on which grocery stores are having sales on lasagna ingredients. Volunteers are responsible for buying their own food, the containers the lasagnas are delivered in and the gas necessary to drop the dinner off, so any money-saving tips are welcome.
According to Duggan there are some clever ways to garner assistance, if a chef so chooses.
“I have friends who have donated money and supplies to me, and many cooks have Amazon Wish lists that they share with their friends for supplies, '' she said. “Sometimes people will approach me, as the regional leader, wanting to donate to someone in their area that is cooking and I have matched up some people that way.”
In addition to the website and Facebook page, volunteers are also given access to videos and articles to aid them in preparing, baking, delivering and food safety, which is a priority when preparing the Italian staple, with medieval roots.
The Book of Cookery, or Liber de Coquina, a 14th century cookbook, contains what is believed to be the earliest written record for lasagna, spelled lasagne in the text. The city of Naples, in the southern Italian region of Campania, is believed to have been the birthplace of lasagna.
The original recipe from the 14th century has evolved over time, region and with each chef’s preferences. Easier to make than the original medieval recipe, lasagna is still a several step process with a list of ingredients that resembles a short novel which can be intimidating even for people who love to cook, like Kate Sills, of Sonora.
The recipe seemed too time-intensive to prepare, and the numerous ingredients backed up Sills’ assumption, until she began volunteering for Lasagna Love in October after reading about the group from a local Facebook post.
“I honestly had never made a lasagna before this,” Sills said.
In her second week of volunteer baking the recipient, or match, of Sills’ lasagna, never responded, so she did what she had to do.
“I ‘Lasagna Loved’ myself, and I gotta say, lasagna is delicious,” she proclaimed.
Repeatedly making lasagna, along with varying the ingredients for those with dietary restrictions,has made Sills a better che, she said. Being a part of the movement has also made life sweeter for the software engineer.
“I get a lot of joy from making someone's life easier, and from letting them know that someone cares about them,” Sills said.
Sills’ enthusiasm for helping others in her community has rubbed off, and now her sister and her mother both want to start baking for the Lasagna Love movement.
“I like that Lasagna Love has no expectations of neediness or thankfulness from recipients. Anyone can request a lasagna once a month, so there's no concept of whether someone ‘deserves’ my efforts,” she explained. “I like this, because everyone deserves a lasagna!”