How to feed the hungry while helping struggling restaurants survive

After lining a kitchen utility table with rows of food trays, team members at MadeMeals, a meal preparation service in Kearny, NJ, take their next steps cautiously and quickly.

They carefully place sliced ​​blackened chicken breasts and herbed roasted chicken thighs on platters with salads, roasted vegetables or green beans and brown rice pilau. Once all the platters have a protein, they are covered, bagged, and wrapped. Then the meals, about 300 in total, are refrigerated overnight, ready for delivery to New Jersey residents the next day.

MadeMeals is one of hundreds of restaurants and meal delivery services across New Jersey that are paid for by local nonprofit organizations through a new state program called Sustain and Serve. The program has awarded millions of dollars to nonprofits to partner with restaurants to feed New Jersey residents who struggle to eat regularly.

The program is seen as a “win-win-win” for nonprofits, food insecure residents, and small businesses that may be struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s definitely something that I’m passionate about is being a business that makes a profit, but also has a way of giving back to the community and making an impact,” said Jesse McBride, owner. by MadeMeals.

So far, $ 34 million has been awarded to 29 state organizations in partnership with restaurants and meal delivery services. Governor Phil Murphy announced an additional $ 10 million for the program this month.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which launched the program last November, said nonprofits are given $ 100,000 to $ 2 million each to purchase meals at qualifying restaurants, which are then delivered to residents for free. from New Jersey.

“All restaurants need to have 50 or fewer employees, so we can really focus on small businesses,” said Tara Colton, the agency’s executive vice president of economic security. She said the program was on track to serve 3.5 million meals by the end of January.

MadeMeals is paid for by the Coalition for Food and Health Equity, a nonprofit organization that has received $ 1.2 million to serve weekly meals to approximately 400 people eligible for its meal subscription service, The Hunger Project.

“The majority of those we serve are people over the age of 65, the homeless and people with disabilities,” said Leeja Carter, founder and executive director of the association.

“We don’t just do some kind of blanket meal,” Dr. Carter said. “If someone has a peanut allergy, or if they have a particular health problem, we personalize these meals according to their particular needs. “

The Sustain and Serve program was created as another element in the fight against food insecurity in New Jersey.

“Food insecurity in New Jersey was a huge problem before Covid and it only got worse,” Ms. Colton said. “And in many cases, the hunger has really hid in plain sight.”

Before the pandemic began, about 700,000 people in New Jersey were food insecure, said Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, one of the state’s largest food banks. He predicted in a September 2020 report that up to 1.2 million people would struggle to eat regularly at the height of the pandemic last year.

“Today, as many as 800,000 people are food insecure,” Rodriguez said.

Mr Rodriguez said meaningful employment and an affordable cost of living for all were ways to help end food insecurity in the state.

“We have to make sure that families have the financial access they need to be able to shop and have access to food,” he said, “so that people don’t end up exchanging their rent. for food. “

The Newark University Hospital Foundation has received more than $ 1 million through the program. It provides hospital patients and their caregivers with meal vouchers to use towards free meals at nearby restaurants.

Jess Backofen, executive director of the foundation, said it was not unusual for people to show up to the emergency room and then be referred to the hospital’s social work team, as doctors determined that they did not ‘may not have had a medical problem but were looking for shelter or food.

“They almost want to be admitted so they can feed themselves,” she said. “Now we are able to feed them a meal and really avoid going to the emergency room for someone who doesn’t need medical attention. “

A wide range of factors contribute to the high number of food insecure people in the state, and experts said common perceptions about who actually struggled for reliable access to food were misleading.

“It’s so much deeper than just being homeless,” said Niki Graham, community engagement manager at Rescue Mission of Trenton, an organization that helps people get back on their feet by offering shelter and programs such as professional development and addiction treatment counseling.

“We recently opened a pantry at the end of July to meet this need because you have families, you have students who need regular meals,” she said. “It’s not just someone who has nowhere to live.”

Rescue Mission received $ 200,000 from the Sustain and Serve program and partnered with local restaurants to serve three free hot meals to over 100 people per day.

“Just imagine someone who has been unlucky or who is homeless or who has been in the prison system and has not eaten at a restaurant for God knows how long,” Ms. Graham said. “Then you have this program that allows you to support local restaurants that were about to close, and also feed the homeless Chicken Marsala.”

Michele DeLury, 54, has been living at the Rescue Mission shelter since December, she said, after a legal situation forced her to leave her home. As she struggled to get back on her feet, she said she appreciated everything the shelter has done, including providing “quality” food for people like her.

“It’s not my home, but having all three meals a day makes the day a little easier,” she said.

The meal program was also designed to help struggling restaurants keep their doors open during the pandemic.

Dana Lancellotti, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said that 20 months after the start of the pandemic, restaurants were still facing challenges, such as labor shortages and problems with supply chain, but initiatives like Sustain and Serve were helping many places keep their doors open.

“There are people who have come back who we didn’t know would be able to do,” she said of the companies that Sustain and Serve had been able to help. “It was all unpredictable.

Jenny Leon, owner of Spanish-Italian fusion restaurant Trentini’s, said the program had kept her from closing her doors for good. The restaurant, which is also in Trenton, has partnered with Rescue Mission.

When Trentini opened in 2002, Ms. Leon ran it alongside her brother. When he passed away seven years ago, Ms Leon began to feel like she was fighting to stay open.

“I was actually working alone,” she said, referring to the early days of the pandemic. “In the front, in the back, take calls, clean up, do all that because I couldn’t pay anyone. My children came and helped me.

With the money the restaurant earned through the meal program, Ms Leon said she was able to bring back 12 employees.

“I’m so grateful for this,” she said. “Most of my employees were waiting for this call.

She added, “After my brother passed away, it’s more than just a business. It’s my house.”

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