A New Jersey program that partners nonprofit organizations with restaurants is helping people and small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

Published Nov. 15, 2021Updated Nov. 17, 2021

After lining a kitchen utility table with rows of food trays, the team members of MadeMeals, a meal prep service in Kearny, N.J., take their next steps with caution and speed.

They carefully place sliced blackened chicken breasts and herb-roasted chicken thighs onto trays with salads, roasted vegetables or string beans, and brown rice pilaf. Once all of the trays have a protein, they are covered, bagged and boxed. Then the meals, about 300 in all, are refrigerated overnight, ready to be delivered to New Jersey residents the next day.

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

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

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which rolled out the program last November, said the nonprofit organizations were receiving $100,000 to $2 million each to purchase meals from eligible restaurants, which 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 the program was on track to serve 3.5 million meals by the end of January.

MadeMeals is paid by Coalition for Food and Health Equity, a nonprofit organization that was awarded $1.2 million to serve weekly meals to around 400 people who are eligible for its meal subscription service, the Hunger Project.

The Sustain and Serve program was created as another element to combating food insecurity in New Jersey.

“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 projected in a September 2020 report that as many as 1.2 million people would struggle to have food on a regular basis during the height of the pandemic last year.

“Now, no less than around 800,000 people are food insecure,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

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

“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 Foundation for University Hospital in Newark received more than $1 million through the program. 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.”

A wide range of factors contribute to the high number of food insecure people in the state, and experts said common perceptions about who was actually struggling with 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 addiction 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 from the Sustain and Serve program and has partnered with local restaurants to serve three free hot meals to more than 100 people daily.

“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, has been living in the shelter at Rescue Mission since December, she said, after a legal situation forced her out of her home. 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 to help struggling restaurants keep their doors open through the pandemic.

Dana Lancellotti, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said that 20 months into the pandemic, restaurants were still facing challenges, like labor shortages and supply chain issues, but initiatives like Sustain and Serve were helping many places 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 restaurant, which is also in Trenton, partnered with the Rescue Mission.

When Trentini’s opened in 2002, Ms. Leon ran it alongside her brother. When he died seven years ago, Ms. Leon started feeling as if she was fighting to stay open.

“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.”

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

“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.”