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Mangia! Volunteers for Non-Profit ‘Lasagna Love’ Bake and Deliver to Strangers for Free

Lasagna Love Founder and Board President Rhiannon Menn is pictured making a gift lasagna for a family in need. The national and global volunteer nonprofit will make and give out a lasagna meal to those in need upon request. Menn founded the organization in 2020 out of a simple desire to help others in her San Diego neighborhood with an act of kindness during the pandemic.

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May 6, 2024

By Laurie Hanson

Lasagna Love is a volunteer organization with a simple mission to feed families, spread kindness, and strengthen communities through a simple act of love and kindness, providing lasagna during times of uncertainty and stress.

Volunteers deliver an average of 3,500 lasagnas every week to all 50 states in the U.S.A, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia. Since its establishment in 2020, Lasagna Love volunteers have positively impacted the lives of more than 1.8 million families by delivering more than 430,000 meals. 

Their journey began at the start of the pandemic, when a mother aimed to assist others in her community.

San Diego resident and founder Rhiannon Menn and her daughter began making and delivering meals to families in their neighborhood. Some were struggling with pandemic hardships, while others were contending with income or job loss. All were fearful and overwhelmed. What was most needed was comfort and kindness and what better comfort than a big ol’ pan of lasagna?

Menn started preparing extra meals and offering to deliver them to neighbors’ doorsteps (contactless) to provide a small break from everyday worries while assuring them that someone cared and was looking out for them. This small act of kindness was an easily replicated approach that crossed all language and cultural barriers. 

Menn’s acts of kindness quickly moved others into action. 

Several within her social circle initiated what became a viral movement that gained momentum throughout the country. During the pandemic, Americans were looking for a safe and thoughtful way to stay connected to one another during a time of disconnect. 

Today, Lasagna Love still spreads selfless acts of kindness, one lasagna meal at a time free of charge, to the doorsteps of local families who request one. Families can privately sign up to receive a meal, no questions asked. Once a family is matched with a volunteer, the volunteer coordinates preparation using the contact information provided, and schedules a day and time for contactless meal delivery. Even families with dietary restrictions are accommodated.

The nonprofit has more than 52,000 volunteers from all walks of life. They are united by a shared purpose regardless of gender, age, race, political standing, or socio-economic background. The movement is made up of women, men, couples, families, community clubs, and organizations such as Girl Scout troops. 

One volunteer, Dennis DiPlacito, first learned about Lasagna Love after watching a morning news show on which Menn was being interviewed. 

“I had been making and freezing meals for my elderly parents who lived in Northern California as well as other friends who were ill or needed some culinary assistance for years,” he explained. “So, deciding to become involved with this caring organization was a natural combination of my interest in helping others with my joy of cooking.”

He has repeatedly heard from recipients saying how a prepared meal helped them feel like all was well with the world despite their hardships. 

DiPlacito is retired from working 33 years for the University of California, Irvine (with 25 years in Student Housing and the remaining eight in the Office of the Ombudsman). He has volunteered for Lasagna Love now for 2.5 years. 

One day, he encountered a woman living out of her car, a single mom with a teenage son who was working long hours to afford her daughter’s college tuition. The woman’s daughter would be the first in the family to attend college, and nothing would get in her way to ensure that her daughter’s expenses, not covered by a scholarship, would be paid. 

“On her request form, she simply said, ‘I’ve made the last tuition payment, and now there is no money available for food.’ DiPlacito said. “Over texts, I told her about my career at UCI, and we talked about college life,” he explained. “It was clear she was beyond proud of her daughter, and having a home-cooked meal meant the world to her.” 

So far, DiPlacito has made and delivered 78 lasagnas, including others for those living on the streets or in their cars, renting rooms at cheap motels, for families who have lost their jobs, those who are working but having difficulty making ends meet, and to people juggling work while taking online classes and dealing with serious illness. He also helped single moms struggling to put food on the table, and even families living behind wealthy gated communities. 

“One thing I’ve learned is we just don’t know what goes on in people’s lives behind closed doors,” he said.

Another encounter he had was also with a woman living in her car for over a year after fleeing an abusive relationship. 

“Her car and dog represented safety and security,” he explained. “when I learned of her situation I realized I needed to prepare her food differently.”

“She told me she had an ice chest, and a local grocery store allowed her to warm up food in their microwave even if she hadn’t purchased it there,” he said. “I decided rather than make a lasagna; I would make and freeze a couple of small containers of a pasta bake that she could thaw and warm up in the microwave when needed.”

While Lasagna Love only asks that volunteers supply their family matches with a pan of lasagna, DiPlacito typically adds items to make it a full meal, such as bread, salad, and dessert. 

“Due to this woman’s special circumstances, I felt compelled to do more to help her,” he said. “I also froze a couple of soups and twice baked potatoes.”

When he met her in a parking lot to give her the food, DiPlacito was shocked because no one would have guessed that she was living in her car. 

“She was clean, wore nice clothes, was clear-headed, intelligent, and had a great sense of humor,” he said. “She said she was unemployed and was seeking counseling to help. For days after our meeting, she would text me telling me how much she enjoyed my food.”

DiPlacito said that many recipients send lovely “thank you” and “God bless you”‘ texts once they have received their food. Each comment warms his heart and spurs him on to do more. 

“Those comments of appreciation bring on feelings that last much longer than the time it took to shop for the ingredients, make the lasagna, and deliver it,” he explained. “However, many do not respond at all, and that is okay. Their needs are more important than mine. Their struggles are real, and I am satisfied knowing I was able to make them a meal.”

“At times, the hardest part is getting a glimpse into people’s lives but not knowing how their story ends,” DiPlacito said. “I just hope this single act of kindness teaches them that someone out there cares about them and their situation. And maybe someday they will pay it forward.”

He remembered a favorite saying Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed 100, then just feed one.” He hopes others remember a time when someone brought them a homecooked meal. 

California Regional Director Bethany Williams has been with Lasagna Love since October 2020. A technical editor by trade, she joined out of a need to support others safely and feel connected to her community during the pandemic. Like DiPlacito, she witnesses every week how one meal makes a world of difference to someone in need.

“People don’t believe Lasagna Love is real because who brings a total stranger a delicious homemade meal, all for free?” she said. “The volunteers of Lasagna Love do! And it is incredibly heartwarming to see, hear, and read how that kindness moves people.”

“Every week, I deliver a lasagna and meet some wonderful people [like] an elderly widower who can’t cook for himself, a family of eight dealing with the loss of their single income, a new mom overwhelmed with that new life, or a cancer-stricken household desperately looking for the bright side,” she explained. 

One recipient powerfully impacted was ‘Yvonne,’ who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and could not cook for her 88-year-old and 90-year-old parents. Her daughter and son-in-law also suffered from health problems, according to Williams. 

“Yvonne nominated both households for a lasagna, and after hearing rave reviews, she decided to pay it forward and become a volunteer,” Williams explained. “She started crocheting ‘lasagna sweaters’ to deliver meals in. [And now] Yvonne and her pattern have become an Internet sensation. Several of our requesters have become volunteers, whether to pay it forward just once or as cooks delivering regularly.”

According to Williams, Lasagna Love has served 1.8 million people globally. In the Gateway Cities of Southern California, they have served about 3,388 people. Still, only 67 percent of the people who request a lasagna receive one due partly to only 13 volunteers in this area. 

“People in need here wait an average of 172 days for a meal, and some we don’t get to before the requests expire,” she said. “We need more people making and delivering hot homemade meals to their needy neighbors.” 

“Science tells us that giving is the secret to happiness, so anyone who wants to add some kindness to this world while feeding their happiness can join us in this most flexible volunteer gig ever,” Williams said.

Demonstrating kindness by fulfilling a basic need is also important to Debbie Ceitin, a director of customer service for a computer company based in South Carolina. The company specializes in IT needs for large chain restaurants. 

Ceitin came to Lasagna Love in 2021 after seeing a social media post from another lasagna chef. After looking into the nonprofit, she knew immediately that this was something she could do. 

“I actually have a sign on my desk I look at every day that says, ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind,'” she said. 

“I firmly believe in giving back and helping whenever possible,” she explained. “I may not be able to help everyone with everything they need, but if someone requests a hot meal, that I can do!” 

She added that the Lasagna Love mission of spreading kindness is contagious and fun. 

“I have interacted with some of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Ceitin said. “It is hard for most people to ask for help. The people asking for lasagna are facing something in their lives that has them ask for help in the form of lasagna. How can you say no to that?”

Ceitin, who lives in Laguna Niguel, has taken this year to fill lasagna requests in North Orange County. She has delivered to people who have lost their jobs, who are going through medical challenges, the homeless, and those who cannot make it on Social Security and food stamps and are overwhelmed by life.

“These noodles, sauce, and cheese creations are met with awe and delight,” she added. “I hope the lasagnas I make and deliver bring a moment of joy to the recipients, so they know they are not alone and someone – even a stranger – cared enough to cook them a nice meal. Kindness is contagious!”

Like all the lasagna chefs, Ceitin has many stories to tell. Once, she delivered a hot lasagna to a woman and her 72-year-old mom, who were also homeless and living in their car. They arranged to meet at a convenience store, where she delivered a hot lasagna that she packaged differently than she normally would.

“I made lasagna rolls and put them in individual, microwavable containers, which I had piping hot,” she explained. “I wrapped them in a foil bag and made a small picnic basket with plasticware, bowls, and napkins. They were utterly delighted and sent me the nicest text. It was the best lasagna they had ever had, and they asked for the recipe so they could make it for themselves when they were settled.”

“I also delivered to a family of five and was met by the mom at a bus stop,” Ceitin said. “The mom approached me and said, ‘My husband wanted me to tell you something. His brother died 2 years ago and one of the things they used to do together was watch wrestling and eat lasagna. When I told my husband this morning that you were delivering lasagna for us today, he stopped cold in his tracks and said ‘please tell the lady my brother sent her. There is a wrestling match on tonight I did not tell you about and when we have that lasagna, my brother will be here with us.'” Ceitin said she gets chills thinking about this one and misty at the same time.

“Cooking and sharing food is a universal symbol of kindness that’s easy to do,” she added. “Lasagna Love is the epitome of kindness with no judgment. The idea of lending a helping hand through cooking is a simple act of kindness. I may be unable to make a difference in my family’s challenges, but I can cook a lasagna for them – especially if they did the hard part and asked for help. Life can turn on a dime, and any of us can be faced with a situation where we need to ask for help.”

Interested volunteers need only sign up at www.lasagnalove.org/volunteer, complete a brief online training on food safety and preparation, and share how often they wish to participate. Volunteers can participate as much or as little as desired—whether one-time, weekly, every other week, or monthly, allowing volunteers to give when and how they wish.

Lasagna Love can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.