First COVID, now inflation. $52M program to feed NJ’s hungry is keeping restaurants open

 First COVID, now inflation.  $52M program to feed NJ's hungry is keeping restaurants open

‘Hunger doesn’t wait’

At Pita Square restaurant in Newark on a mid-July Monday, Leeja Carter watched workers package meals of chicken shawarma, falafel and baked tilapia onto freshly steamed yellow rice.

Carter founded the Coalition for Food and Health Equity, which distributes healthy meals directly to residents, primarily senior citizens. Her nonprofit received $1.2 million in funding from Sustain and Serve in the first two rounds, and is waiting for the third round to come through. Contracts with awardees for the third round are still being finalized, according to the Economic Development Authority. In the meantime, the coalition is only serving clients with the most urgent needs.

“Hunger doesn’t wait,” Carter said, adding that her staff is delivering mostly to seniors who are homebound and can’t get to food pantries, or who have to choose between paying for their medications or food.

Those sort of issues have always been present, she said — “and now with inflation, that’s made it worse.”

Carter said in the early days of the pandemic, she used donations to purchase meals from a struggling café, and gave them to residents in need. Other nonprofits were also forging similar relationships.

Colton, from the Economic Development Authority, said the state wanted to scale up those kinds of organic partnerships through Sustain and Serve. To be eligible, an organization needed to demonstrate a track record of purchasing meals from restaurants.

“There’s specific requirements, but then we kind of get out of the way and we let them go and purchase the meals from the eligible restaurants, distribute them to people in need and then we reimburse them after they document the expenses,” Colton said. “It’s a fairly straightforward mechanism.”

Participating restaurants also had to prove they were affected by the pandemic, and employ no more than 50 people. Multiple participating organizations told Gothamist Sustain and Serve, unlike some other government programs, was easy to administer.

Joyce Campbell, executive director of the Trenton Soup Kitchen, said she doesn’t know how the group will afford to serve 8,000 meals a week without the added funding. That’s close to twice the demand the kitchen served before the pandemic.

“This inflation is really walloping people,” she said, adding that some of the meal distribution sites she manages are reporting an increase in clients. “One thing hit on top of the other.”

Medhat Eldeeb, who owns Pita Square, said his restaurant is also relying on the state program. During the prior round of funding, 70% of his business was preparing food for the Coalition. While he waits for the next round of funding, he’s donating meals to the organization.

“We can’t stop. Like the people that really need it, they’re not going to have anything to eat during the week,” he said. “We need to do something.”

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