With fears that food insecurity could spike as layoffs mount around the U.S. due to the coronavirus, private aviation company Wheels Up and NFL star quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks have teamed up for a 10-million meal donation to hunger relief organization Feeding America. The private jet company, which lists many celebrities and athletes among its client base, is now reaching out to more about joining the effort.
The idea started with Wilson and his wife, singer and songwriter Ciara.
“We started doing our research, Ciara and I, and we found out that Feeding America is such a great program. Forty years of doing good in the world and trying to make a difference.” Wilson, a Wheels Up member, said on CNBC’s Squawk Box on Tuesday morning. He and his wife have already donated 1 million meals to Feeding America.
The couple’s philanthropy inspired Kenny Dichter, Wheels Up founder and CEO, to mobilize his own network and resources in an effort to help struggling Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are 37 million Americans that are food insecure on a regular day,” Dichter said.
“The worry is that this may double,” Wilson said.
Nonprofit Feeding America serves about 40 million people facing hunger in all 50 states and Puerto Rico per year, including 11 million children and 7 million seniors. The 40-year-old organization works with food banks and pantries across the country to address food insecurity.
According to Feeding America, 92% of food banks reported seeing an increase in demand for food assistance between March 19 and March 23, and 64% of food banks reported a decline in food donations and volunteers during the same survey period. Food Lifeline, a member of Feeding America, typically sees 500 volunteers per week. Due to coronavirus concerns, it has suspended all volunteer group activity.
Through Feeding America, a $1 donation helps provide 10 meals. Over 98% of money donated goes directly to those in need.
“It really makes a difference,” Wilson said on Squawk Box. “Each dollar is roughly 12 pounds of food.”
Residents receive free food at mobile food pantry near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 26, 2016 in Jacamba Hot Springs, California. The Feeding America truck delivers to the border town’s needy residents twice a month.
“We’re in a John F. Kennedy moment,” Dichter said on CNBC. So far, the Wheels Up CEO has spoken to Houston Texans’ star JJ Watt, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, and Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, about contributing to Meals Up, alongside the rest of Wheels Up’s star-studded membership.
“Every CEO, every entrepreneur, every company out there, anybody in the trading business or the hedge fund business, this is really a call to action,” Dichter said.
Dichter said during the Squawk Box interview that his aviation firm is also ready to help New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who this past week urged healthcare workers to come to his state as Covid-19 cases overrun its hospitals and workers. “Wheels Up, the fleet, will fly medics to where they need to be if they volunteer. Governor Cuomo, reach out to us. We want to help,” Dichter said.
As part of the private aviation industry, Wheels Up stands to receive aid from the federal government as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed into law last week. Fuel taxes and federal excise taxes are waived for private-jet companies through the end of the year. The companies are also eligible for the loans, loan guarantees, and grant payments for continued wages available to the rest of the aviation industry.
The National Business Aviation Association, which represents private-jet companies and corporate jets, advocated its industry’s inclusion in federal relief for civil aviation in letters to government officials written alongside other industry leaders. The letters sent ahead of the House vote highlighted charter operations’ value, stating that those operators “conduct almost all air ambulance flights and are a critical part of the network to deliver organs for transplant,” in addition to servicing passengers.
Wilson is currently in his off season, while every other professional sport in the U.S. is paused or delayed. “I love playing the game, and as soon as I can get back out there and play in a safe way, that will be great. But the reality is, we’re in a global pandemic,” Wilson said. “The best thing that we can do is just love and give and serve, and if we can do that … I think we’ll be back out there.”
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