Melissa Harnden has a little time before her next shift at St. Joseph Hospital. Her light brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she's already in a set of black scrubs with black and white trim as we chat over Zoom, the neat, neutral-toned walls of her home flashing past as she carries her phone from room to room.
From 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. she'll be in the labor and delivery ward, where she says it's been busier than ever. "It's what I love to do. I knew when I was in sixth grade it was what I wanted to do. My grandma was a nurse's aide and I saw pictures of her in her little uniform," she says, adding she's always been "a natural caretaker." And it was nursing and her helper instincts that led her to start the Humboldt To Go Facebook page at the start of shelter in place. Now 9,000 members strong with some 100 businesses posting their offerings, it's grown into a hub of local restaurant updates, commiseration, small business boosting and occasional conflict.
At the start of shelter in place, Harnden and her fellow nurses, who frequently rely on takeout, were eating a lot of fast food, unsure what else was open. She also worried whether her favorite independent places would last through the shutdown. A friend told her about Anchorage To Go, a Facebook group for restaurants and diners in the Alaska city that started in March "to support local during these hard times, and to share our delicious food with our neighbors." Harnden, who'd made and been active on other pages to get supplies to areas affected by fires or to help out community members in need, thought, "We could do this."
She reached out to chambers of commerce to invite restaurants to share their menus and hours. By March 22, the group was live, open for people to join and posting safety information about COVID-19. Soon members were sharing food truck locations and recommendations, and chatting with restaurant owners about posted photos and menus.
The group grew steadily until April, when it was posted on the Humboldt Foodies Facebook page, where more than 15,000 members share the meals they've cooked, purchased or are dreaming about, and it took off into the thousands. While Harnden was thrilled at the page's popularity, it came with drama.
There was the usual comment sparring and Harnden found herself frequently reminding members the page was meant to uplift and not to critique restaurants. However, maintaining the page's local-only focus proved contentious, especially when Harnden removed posts about chains. It wasn't about putting down fast food, she says, she simply felt they didn't need word of mouth from the page like mom-and-pop places.
"To be honest, it was really hard to get that stuff," says Harnden of the angry and insulting messages she got. "I was called an elitist at one point," she says, tossing her hands up and laughing. But, she admits, "It was hurtful."
In the early days of the shutdown, for nurses in particular, Harnden says, "There was something we were all going through and it was really emotional and really hard. ... We were scared to go to work and terrified to come home," worried they might be endangering their families. It left her without the usual thick skin she'd developed working in a hospital for 10 years and as a server in restaurants before that.
Watching restaurants struggling and closing was hard, too. "During this time it was really hard to see [negative comments]," she says. The rest of her social media feed and news consumption was rife with conflict, and Harnden didn't want that energy in Humboldt To Go. "It had to stay positive." So she moved to zero-tolerance and started banishing people for offensive behavior. "I have a local succulent page and people are not that rude over succulents," she says, adding that the pandemic has brought out a new level of nastiness on social media. Five months later, she's feeling steadier. Plus she has help.
Tyler Pitts has been working in Humboldt restaurant kitchens for more than 15 years and in his downtime, he's been an administrator on the Humboldt Foodies page since 2014. When the fighting over keeping the Humboldt to Go page local blew up, he saw that Harnden was overwhelmed and offered to jump in and help. "I'm just kind of the enforcer who doesn't care how many people DM me and talk craziness and want to fight," he says, chuckling into the phone. A couple, he says, have even tried to get him to meet up for a physical fight. Because of a takeout Facebook page. In such situations, Pitts recommends muting and blocking. "Just don't engage. You can read the first message they send you and you know how it's gonna go. Either they're gonna be an asshole and talk shit and be rude, or they're gonna be respectful and those are the ones you respond to."
In the end, Harnden settled the locals-only controversy with a poll, confident the majority of members would want to stick to the original parameters. And they did, with easily twice as many people wanting to keep it local as not. But other posts brought drama, including debates over masks and dining in at restaurants. A post crowd sourcing a running list of Black-owned food businesses to support in the midst of national and local Black Lives Matter protests drew both helpful input and anger. "We as admins totally approved that post and some people didn't like it," says Harnden. According to her, it was one of the most reported posts, meaning members contacted the admins to remove it. She says she doesn't get why people were offended and has kept the post up.
Pitts recalls the post as a period spent busily muting, blocking and deleting. "We've worked hard to keep politics and anything like it off of the Foodies and To Go pages," he says, "but to have so many people having a problem with our community wanting to support our local Black-owned businesses really exposed some of the uglier parts of our county."
It was only after Pitts started helping out that he and Harnden realized they lived blocks apart in Blue Lake. So does Jessica Jones, a former high school classmate of Harnden's who also volunteered to pitch in and now spends around eight hours a week on the page. Jones, who works at the Arcata Post Office, was grateful for the help finding takeout after work, as well as for how it boosts restaurants. "You're trying to survive in this weird time in our lives. ... I'm glad to see people making the best of it. ... I feel like our local restaurants have just killed it with their food ... and comfort food is a great way to make people feel normal."
Harnden says the feedback from grateful restaurant owners — via appreciative posts and messages, and once in person — has been a happy surprise. "I kinda realized it was worth it," she says. She's pleased her caretaker instincts seem to have led to a way for members to help each other, perhaps even after shelter in place ends. "It's been this weird, cool way of making something fun out of something that's been such a hard time for some people."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.