Heart of Dinner

Fly By Jing is celebrating AAPI Heritage Month with a new HEATSEEKERS series, where we highlight innovators generating exciting energy across diverse realms. Keep following for more kindred spirits who embody the hustle and bustle of RÉ NAO 热闹

Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai have poured their hearts into the community. Together, they are the brains behind Heart of Dinner, a non-profit organization that addresses food insecurity and loneliness among Asian elders in under-resourced areas. What began as a community building supper club in 2015 has since evolved into a widely impactful initiative during the pandemic. In March 2020, the duo launched their first relief efforts through Heart of Dinner #LovingChinatown, through building care packages and delivering hot lunches to elders. Jing (and Fly By Jing!) have been supporters since Day 1, which is why we’re donating all proceeds of the new Pintrill x Fly By Jing keychain to Heart of Dinner.

Photo credits: Dan Ahn, Melora Chang & Alex Lau

Photo credit Dan Ahn

Who fuels you to do your work?

The driving force behind our work with Heart of Dinner stems from a deeply personal place for the both of us: imagining our grandmothers and parents living in America by themselves without the ability to speak English. Knowing the challenges they would face navigating daily life alone in their older age in a foreign country, we would hope for compassionate individuals to watch over our loved ones. 

Give me the hottest take about your industry

Transitioning from the restaurant world into the realm of non-profit work has given me a unique perspective. At first glance, these two sectors may seem worlds apart, but digging deeper, the parallels become more and more apparent. Both industries, at their core, revolve around the concept of hospitality – albeit in different contexts.

In the restaurant world, hospitality is about providing exceptional service, creating memorable experiences, and nurturing connections with patrons. Similarly, in the non-profit sector, hospitality takes on a broader meaning. It's about welcoming and supporting individuals and communities, providing them with resources, care, and compassion.

As a chef crafts a dish for the diners, non-profit professionals work diligently to design and implement programs that uplift and empower those they serve. Both worlds require a deep understanding of human needs, effective communication, and a genuine desire to make a positive impact. Whether we're serving a gourmet meal or advocating for social change, the underlying essence of hospitality remains constant – it's about extending kindness, empathy, and generosity to others, ultimately enriching lives and fostering a sense of belonging in our shared humanity.

What is a life experience that expanded your mind?

Growing up, both of us were fortunate to never worry about having enough food on the table and assumed that all elders had family to care for them. However, when moving to NYC Lower East Side/Chinatown in 2018 dramatically shifted Moonlynn’s understanding. Witnessing older adults in our community outside collecting cans on the streets opened my eyes to the reality of poverty among Asian American elders in NYC. Yin was born and raised in NY so she’s understood this reality, but for the both of us, this became even more clear during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which ultimately inspired us to establish Heart of Dinner.

Describe a meal that changed your life

Any and every meal my Ah-Ma (Grandma) made for me was life changing. Ah Ma’s history of surviving food insecurity in Taiwan ingrained a lifelong practice of zero waste, and she would always whip up something extraordinary with the Asian heritage veggies from her garden and transform even the smallest food scraps into preserved treasures through pickling and fermenting. Even decades after she passed away, I still feel an ache in my heart every time I come across a Taiwanese meal that reminds me of her home cooking.

: The first time I visited a farmers market was with my roommates while living in Orange County when I was about 21. The challenge we set for ourselves was to make a meal from the ingredients purchased at the market and then buy a bottle of craft beer to pair with the meal. Most of us ended up selecting produce we weren't familiar with, and we were surprised by how flavorful the meal was without having to overly season (compared to buying commercially) That experience marked a turning point in my cooking journey and sparked a newfound appreciation for farmers markets that continues to resonate with me today. Whenever Yin and I take trips, we always seek out local markets and try to cook from the fresh ingredients we find there if we're able to!

What are you hoping to spark with your work?

At Heart of Dinner, we strive to spark a sense of connection, community, and belonging for Asian American older adults living in under-resourced and underinvested communities. We recognize that while food insecurity is crucial to address, social isolation and loneliness are equally important factors in their well-being. Our goal is to not only provide nutritious meals, but to holistically address the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of our elder beneficiaries. 

Through our carefully prepared lunchboxes and fresh produce, we aim to spark joy and comfort in the lives of our elders. Each care package is lovingly bundled inside beautifully illustrated packages, accompanied by handwritten love notes in their native languages. These small gestures remind our elder beneficiaries that they are seen, valued, and cared for. We believe that these acts of kindness and thoughtfulness can create a ripple effect, sparking a renewed sense of hope and happiness among our community.

Simultaneously, we hope to reach the broader public and drive storytelling at Heart of Dinner in ways that really allow for them to empathize with the day-to-day our Elder communities have to live with. By shedding light on the realities of food insecurity and social isolation and loneliness, we encourage empathy and a collective responsibility to support and uplift older adults living in neighborhoods that have been long neglected.

What has recently inspired you that you weren’t expecting?

Just recently, we faced a last-minute driver cancellation for one of our delivery routes to Queens. Without hesitation, we pushed our meetings and jumped in to personally handle the deliveries.

During these deliveries, we had the privilege of hearing the stories of these remarkable individuals. One of our beneficiaries, a U.S. veteran in his 90s who had fought in the Korean War, opened up to us about the challenges he and his wife faced in accessing resources and support. When he saw that Heart of Dinner was delivering food that reminded him of his childhood, he couldn't believe it. He and his wife expressed their deep gratitude for our nourishing care packages, as well as the thoughtful handwritten notes and beautiful bags. They rely on our support week after week, and it brought tears to our eyes to see how much of a difference Heart of Dinner makes in their lives.

We also had the opportunity to meet an elderly couple in their 80s who were profoundly touched by our organization. They shared with us that they often feel a loss of energy and strength as they’ve been aging, so they appreciate not only the abundance of our care packages but also the fact that we deliver directly to their door. And they were so excited to share how much they look forward to each delivery to see what kind of artwork and heartfelt notes they will receive that week!

We even had the joy of finally meeting an Elder and her mother, who we arranged for volunteer drivers to deliver to since 2020. After four years of consistent weekly deliveries, we were able to meet them face-to-face for the first time. The Elder shared that she had been caring for her wheelchair-bound mother in her 90s and expressed immense gratitude for our organization and everyone involved. She mentioned how our deliveries provide not only food but also companionship for her and her mother to look forward to each week.

These heart-to-hearts are a meaningful reminder of why we founded Heart of Dinner. Our mission was born out of a deep sense of love and care for our elders, and it is incredibly humbling to witness our purpose being realized. As founders and executive directors, we often find ourselves focused on the broader operations and development of the nonprofit, which means having to step away from the direct deliveries as we grow our team and the org, and it was a rare opportunity for us to meet our beneficiaries face-to-face.