After filling a kitchen utility with rows upon rows of food tray, MadeMeals’ team in Kearny (N.J.) moves on to the next step with care and speed.
They carefully place sliced blackened breasts and herb-roasted chicken legs onto trays. After each tray has a protein, they are covered and bagged before being packed. The meals, which total 300, are then wrapped and bagged. They are ready to be shipped to New Jersey residents the following day.
MadeMeals is just one of the many restaurants and delivery services in New Jersey that are funded by Sustain and Serve, a state program that pays local nonprofits. The program has provided millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations to partner up with restaurants to provide food to New Jersey residents who are unable to eat on a regular basis.
The program is seen as “win-win-win” for nonprofit organizations, residents who are food insecure and small businesses that may be struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is definitely something I’m passionate about, which is to be a business that makes profit, but also has a way to give back to the community and make an impact,” said Jesse McBride, the owner of MadeMeals.
29 organizations have been awarded $34 million to date to partner with restaurants or meal delivery services. Gov. Phil Murphy announced an additional $10 million for this program this month.
According to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), the program was launched last November. The program allows nonprofit organizations to receive $100,000 to $2,000,000 each to purchase meals at eligible restaurants. These meals are then delivered free to New Jersey residents.
“All of the restaurants have to have 50 or fewer employees, so that we can really target our focus on small businesses,” said Tara Colton, executive vice president of economic security at the agency. She said that the program was on pace to serve 3.5 millions meals by January.
Coalition for Food and Health Equity paid MadeMeals. This nonprofit organization was awarded $1.2 Million to provide weekly meals to approximately 400 people who are eligible for its meal delivery service, The Hunger Project.
“The majority of those that we serve are seniors over the age of 65, homeless individuals and persons with disabilities,” said Leeja Carter, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director.
“We don’t just do kind of blanket meals,” Dr. Carter said. “If someone has a peanut allergy, or if they have a particular medical condition, then we customize those meals for their particular needs.”
New Jersey’s Sustain and Serve program is another tool for combating food insecurity.
“Food insecurity in New Jersey was an enormous issue before Covid and it’s only worsened,” Ms. Colton said. “And in many cases, hunger has really been hiding in plain sight.”
Before the onset of the pandemic, around 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 biggest food banks. It predicted in a September 2020 study that up to 1.2 million people would struggle for food during the pandemic.
“Now, no less than around 800,000 people are food insecure,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
Mr. Rodriguez said that the best ways to end food insecurity in the State were through meaningful employment and affordable living costs for all.
“We need to make sure that families get the financial access that they need to be able to shop and have access to food,” he said, “so people don’t wind up trading off rent for food.”
The program provided more than $1 million to the Foundation for University Hospital Newark. It provides the hospital’s patients and their caregivers with meal tickets to use to get free meals from nearby restaurants.
Jess Backofen, executive director of the foundation, said it was not unusual for people to come into the emergency room and then be referred to the hospital’s social work team, because doctors determined they might not have a medical issue but were seeking shelter or food.
“They want to almost get admitted so that they can get fed,” she said. “Now we’re able to give them a meal, and really avoid backing up the emergency department for someone who doesn’t need medical attention.”
There are many factors that contribute towards the high level of food insecurity in the state. Experts said that common perceptions of who is really struggling to get reliable access to food were misleading.
“It’s so much deeper than just being homeless,” said Niki Graham, the manager of community engagement at Rescue Mission of Trenton, an organization that helps people get back on their feet by providing shelter and through programs like vocational development and addictions treatment counseling.
“We recently opened a food pantry in late July to speak to this need, because you have families, you have students who need regular meals,” she said. “It’s not just someone who doesn’t have a place to live.”
Rescue Mission received $200,000 through the Sustain and Give program and has partnered up with local restaurants to provide three hot meals for more than 100 people each day.
“Just imagine someone who’s been down on their luck or homeless or been in the prison system, and hasn’t had restaurant food in God knows how long,” Ms. Graham said. “Then you have this program that allows you to support local restaurants that were on the verge of closing, and also feed homeless people chicken Marsala.”
Michele DeLury, 54 years old, has been staying at Rescue Mission shelter since December after she was forced out of her home by a legal issue. As she tries to get back on her feet, she said she appreciated all that the shelter has done, including supplying people like her with “quality” food.
“This is not my home, but having the three meals a day makes tackling the days a little easier,” she said.
The meals program was also designed in order to help struggling restaurants stay open during the pandemic.
Dana Lancellotti is the president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. She said that despite the fact that the pandemic was over, many restaurants still faced challenges such as labor shortages and supply chain issues 20 months later, initiatives like Sustain and Serve are helping them keep their doors open.
“There are people who have come back that we didn’t know they would be able to,” she said of the businesses that Sustain and Serve had been able to help. “That was all unpredictable.”
Jenny Leon, owner of the Spanish and Italian fusion restaurant Trentini’s, said the program saved her from shutting her doors permanently. The Rescue Mission was also partnered with the Trenton-based restaurant.
When Trentini’s opened in 2002, Ms. Leon ran it alongside her brother. Ms. Leon felt like she was fighting for the business to continue after her brother’s death seven years ago.
“I was actually working by myself,” she said, referring to the early days of the pandemic. “In the front, the back, taking calls, cleaning, doing all this stuff because I couldn’t pay anyone. My kids came and helped me.”
Ms. Leon claimed that 12 employees were able to be hired after the restaurant had earned enough money through the meals program.
“I’m so grateful for that,” she said. “Most of my employees were waiting for that call.”
She added: “After my brother passed away, this is more than just a business. This is my home.”
Source: NY Times