Remembering the Food Workers We’ve Lost to COVID-19 Part 6
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an incalculable toll on the food industry workers of America, from restaurant servers and meat plant workers to the farmworkers who toil in fields. According to research from the University of California, San Francisco, food industry workers’ risk of dying went up by 40 percent from March to October 2020. For Latinx workers, deaths increased by 60 percent in the sector.
In this six-part series, we’re honoring the lives of those we have lost to COVID-19. This week, we have tributes to a Nebraska McDonald’s worker who loved animals, a New Jersey man who converted an old laundromat into a pizza restaurant, and a director of food services at a nursing home in New York City.
Hope McGraw loved to spend time with her nieces and nephews. Born and raised in York, Nebraska, she accompanied them to the park often and spent every holiday with them. At Christmas they baked cookies and for Halloween they painted pumpkins—she was there for it all. Her sister, Brittany Hindal, feels grateful that her children and McGraw were so close. “It was awesome. I’m so glad she rubbed off on my kids,” says Hindal. “My kids are very much like their aunt, Hope.”
McGraw worked at the York McDonald’s as a crew leader. Hindal, who worked at the same restaurant with her sister for three years, says McGraw took pride in her work and strived to keep team morale high. “She was always trying to make us laugh,” says Hindal.
McGraw also had a great love for animals. When she wasn’t at home tending to her own two cats, Jeb and Josie—given to her by her brother—Hindal says McGraw loved to stop over at her house to play with her pets as well.
To keep up with the animals and her nieces and nephews, Hindal says McGraw was committed to being active and following a healthy lifestyle. Hindal says McGraw was doing extremely well, and was the healthiest she had seen her, until she contracted COVID-19. After a tough battle with the virus, along with pneumonia, McGraw died on January 17. She was 22.
Hindal describes McGraw as wonderfully unique and unapologetically herself. “She was the example of how a human being should be, that’s how I think about her,” Hindal says. “She was very friendly, never vicious to anybody. She always gave everybody the benefit of the doubt. She was Hope.”
When Frank Volpe set a goal, he couldn’t stop until he achieved it. His determined nature served him well when it came to opening his Hoboken, New Jersey pizza joint, Napoli’s.
Raised on Staten Island, Volpe grew up in the pizza business, helping with his family’s pizzeria, Lombardi’s. At age 24, he headed to Hoboken to start his own eatery. According to his wife, Jocelyn Volpe, he opted to convert a laundromat into his restaurant, a process that took more than two years. Despite being told to give up and cut his losses, Volpe persevered. “He believed in it and opened those doors and I think he graced Hoboken with something really special,” says Jocelyn, who worked with him at Napoli’s.
Volpe channeled that same determination into his relationships, says Jocelyn, making him a fiercely loyal husband and engaged, supportive boss. When the pandemic hit, Jocelyn says they took extra care to look after their employees. They shifted around workers’ roles so they could all keep at least some hours and the restaurant provided meals for frontline workers.
Jocelyn says her husband was always “on to the next endeavour” and never slowed down. She remembers once when the restaurant needed merchandise, Volpe decided to buy a T-shirt press and create the goods himself. “He was a jack of all trades. He was great at everything he did from making pizza to running a business to being a people person,” she says.
But after getting the restaurant through the worst of the pandemic closures, Volpe contracted COVID-19 himself. He fought the virus for months, then on March 30, he died due to complications from coronavirus. He was 42.
Jocelyn says she and Volpe spent nearly every minute together between work and home, and they liked it that way. Some of her fondest memories with him are as simple as running errands together, blaring loud music in the car along the way. “I miss those moments of us just walking our dogs or going to the supermarket,” she says. “He was my person. We were in it together.”
Louis Torres always had an appreciation for food. Born in the Philippines, Torres and his brother Lloyd Torres grew up surrounded by their mother’s cooking. As an adult, after the family moved to Queens, New York, Torres channeled his culinary interest—paired with an appreciation for healthcare from his parents’ work in the field—into a career in food. He was the director of food services at a nursing home in Queens.
At work, Torres took pride in the meals he served to the residents, his brother says. On holidays, when family members came to the home for visits, he would work tirelessly to ensure their meals were fit for the celebratory occasions. “He always had a really personalized approach to working with residents and patients of his facilities. He really cared for them,” says Lloyd. “He was always out of his way, going in early, staying late. He was really dedicated to it.”
Torres was a “foodie” outside of work as well, says Lloyd, and loved going out to restaurants and tasting new things. In his own kitchen, he was particularly skilled when preparing a rack of lamb and fried chicken—the latter a favorite of the nursing home’s residents. Torres was especially fond of sushi, says Lloyd. One of the last times Lloyd saw his brother, the two attended a sushi class in Brooklyn.
At the onset of the pandemic, Torres continued working, making sure the residents were still well fed. He worked until March 30, 2020 when he started to feel ill. After a COVID-19 diagnosis, he was admitted to the ICU. He died on April 8, just one day after his mother—whom he lived with—also died from the virus.
“I remember the last thing he said before he went on the ventilator was to take care of mom,” says Lloyd. The scenario was especially heartbreaking, Lloyd explains, as Torres was unaware his mother was in bad condition in the ICU at that time. “He was very selfless,” he says.