December 3rd, 2021


She began by baking lasagna for her city, and now her kindness program spans every U.S. state

Kyle Melnick

By Kyle Melnick The Washington Post

Published November 24, 2021

She began by baking lasagna for her city, and now her kindness program spans every U.S. state
Rhiannon Menn stands over four metal trays on her kitchen counter as she arranges for the activity that has consumed her schedule during the novel coronavirus pandemic: preparing lasagna.

Menn starts by spreading homemade meat sauce across the bottom of the pans before adding no-boil noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, grated yellow squash and zucchini. Then, she adds a second layer of each ingredient.

"I don't measure [ingredients]," Menn says on this late-October afternoon from her San Diego home. "I've made so many of these at this point, I sort of look at it and know."

Menn has already prepared four lasagna trays, and she's planning to make eight more, including this batch. The next day, they'll be driven to nearby families in need. One tray will go to a senior couple uncomfortable leaving home. Another sheet will arrive at the doorstep for a mother who's depressed after recently losing a family member.

This is Lasagna Love's goal: Volunteers cook batches of lasagna and deliver them free to families struggling with food insecurity or other issues during the pandemic. The project has served lasagna to more than 4,000 people, and volunteers are in every U.S. state, according to Menn, the founder.

"Giving somebody a lasagna communicates like: 'Hey, take a break here. Everybody get together, have that family experience,' " said Menn, 37. "We've had people say after the fact like, 'This is the first time we've gotten to sit down together as a family in a long time.' Any meal could feed somebody and give that love and joy, but something about lasagna is very community and family-oriented."

Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

The idea for Lasagna Love came about when Menn wanted to help people who were unemployed or feared leaving their homes to obtain groceries. One day, she ordered buckets of food at Costco, made about seven lasagna trays and inquired on local Facebook groups whether families needed extra meals. While some people took her up on her offer, others asked if they could assist with cooking. By the end of the month, Lasagna Love had about 10 volunteers, whom Menn called "lasagna mamas and papas."

As word about Lasagna Love spread across Facebook, more requests for meals arrived. Menn visited the grocery store daily and cooked between 20 and 30 trays of lasagna each week. She cooked throughout the day, starting the sauce around 6 a.m. She drove around San Diego in her white minivan delivering the meals. She taped the same note on each tray, describing the ingredients and how to reheat the lasagna.

Food has always been a central part of Menn's life. Her first cooking experience when she was 5 or 6 years old didn't go well, as she tried to bake brownies in a metal pan in the microwave. But that didn't halt her desire to cook. She volunteered at bake sales at her local library in Williamstown, Mass. Her mother, Renate Kopynec, was the operations manager at Wild Oats Market, where Menn helped out from the time she was a child.

"Food in general, in my family has always been something that has brought us together," said Menn, who works remotely as a principal for Labrador Real Estate in Massachusetts. "To me, food has always been this thing that's full of warmth and love and we're all eating together and we're all gathering."

One of Menn's most meaningful experiences came in early May when she delivered lasagna to a family and found its refrigerator broken in the front yard. The family couldn't afford a new one and was eating only ramen noodles before Menn arrived.

San Diego resident Laura Maturo is another mother who has benefited from Lasagna Love. Her husband lost his job right before the U.S. went into lockdown, and she struggled finding work as a birth doula due to hospital restrictions. She was also taking care of her mother-in-law and her 4-year-old daughter.

Maturo, 35, said she used money reserved for her student loans to put enough food on the table. In July, Maturo requested food from Lasagna Love, expecting to receive a microwaveable Stouffer's lasagna. Instead, a volunteer dropped off a tray that could feed a party of 20. Maturo cried when she saw the food that would last her family a week.

In September, she requested another lasagna tray because she wanted to put together a nice meal for her daughter Coral's birthday. Along with a tray of lasagna, the volunteer left fresh vegetables, canned foods and a stuffed unicorn (a birthday gift for Coral).

"If you can imagine how much a week's worth of food costs, and especially in a high cost-of-living area like San Diego," said Maturo, "you know that was such a breath of fresh air to be able to get something so important."

After the "Today" show featured Lasagna Love in late-September, the project's volunteer base quickly ballooned from 500 to 2,000. Menn is considering expanding the project outside of the U.S.

Ashley Hatsiopoulos, from Brockton, Mass., joined as a volunteer before that surge after she saw a post about Lasagna Love on Facebook. Hatsiopoulos said that when was growing up, her mother battled Stage 4 breast cancer for seven years. During that period, she remembers the nicest gesture others performed for her family was cooking for them. The 34-year-old wanted to give back. She said she has served lasagna to five families.

With coronavirus cases rising nationally, Hatsiopoulos, Menn and other lasagna mamas and papas believe their jobs are more important than ever.

"We'll be here for as long as people need support," Menn said. "And I think even after that, even if people aren't struggling because they've lost income from the pandemic, there's always going to be people who need food or love or kindness, and I think there's always an opportunity to make our community stronger. So, while this started because of what's going on currently in the U.S. and in the world, I'm happy to continue leading this group of people for as long as people want to sort of make food and spread kindness."