“Putting Funds Donated by the Community to Work For the Community”
Last year, thanks to skyrocketing job losses and pandemic-related business closures, more than a million New Jersey residents turned to soup kitchens and food banks – many of them for the first time.
Since the pandemic hit, TASK has been serving about 10,000 meals a week throughout Mercer County. To meet this extraordinary need, hunger-relief nonprofits like TASK have had to find creative ways to scale up meal production and food distribution with limited staff and very few volunteers.
The Sustain & Serve NJ program, offered through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, offered a novel solution. The program provides funding to nonprofits to pay restaurants to help prepare food. TASK now supplements the meals we cook in-house with more than 3,500 hot lunches and dinners each week prepared by local eateries thanks to funds received through the program.
Gov. Phil Murphy recently hailed TASK’s hard work and partnership with the Sustain & Serve NJ program. “Over the past year, under the leadership of Executive Director Joyce Campbell, TASK has seen the demand for their services expand dramatically — a more than 70 percent increase,” Gov. Murphy said at a press conference on May 24.
“To answer the call of the community, they added community meal sites and expanded their ability to provide meals to seniors,” Gov. Murphy said. “Joyce [Campbell, TASK Executive Director] and her team turned to local restaurants to help them meet the unprecedented demand, putting funds donated by the community to work for the community. TASK is one of our state’s truly iconic community organizations and we thank Joyce and her team and the restaurants that partnered with them for all that they do.”
As of February 2021, the EDA awarded more than $14 million to help various nonprofits purchase 1.5 million meals from some 160 New Jersey restaurants. SoupKitchen411, the largest recipient of the Sustain & Serve NJ funding, provides 1,500 restaurant meals to TASK each Wednesday through its Feed NJ program.
TASK also works directly with three local restaurants to deliver meals throughout the week: Leonardo’s, an Italian restaurant in Lawrenceville (400 meals); Asian Halal Meat & Kebab House in East Windsor (750 meals); and Mexican Mariachi Grill in Hamilton (900 meals).
These delicious, prepackaged restaurant meals are a special treat distributed at TASK’s Escher Street kitchen and at 16 community meal sites throughout greater Mercer County. All of the Asian Halal meals are distributed to various sites by TASK’s “Hunger Van,” which is operated by the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton – yet another collaboration borne out of this innovative program.
For restaurant owners, the Sustain & Serve NJ funding has provided a lifeline in a state that saw nearly 4 out of every 10 restaurants shut down during the pandemic. Mexican Mariachi owner Ricardo Ramos said the funding TASK provides has literally meant the difference between keeping his Hamilton restaurant open or closed.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we had to lay off half of our people, but because of this program, we called them back to work,” said Ramos. “We practically devote the operation to serve TASK.”
Ramos’s 25 year old son, Carlos, who manages the Hamilton restaurant, said it was extremely gratifying knowing they were preparing meals for people in need. “It gives us to the energy to wake up early in the morning to help TASK. We start work at 4 a.m. in the morning!”
A typical meal from Mexican Mariachi might include fragrant Mexican rice, tender black beans, a spicy mix of ground beef with salsa and fresh tortillas. “We cook one day ahead of time and then we start reheating, cooking and packing in the morning so all our food is fresh,” said Ramos, who boasts a family legacy of traditional cooking from the Saltillo-Monterrey region of Mexico dating back several generations.
Paul Jensen, TASK’s Associate Executive Director for Operations and a former chef himself, piloted a similar program in June 2020, before the Sustain & Serve program began. TASK spent $50,000 at the time to support local restaurants.
“We had the money and we wanted to help. It allowed us to add more sites without taxing the kitchen even more than we had,” said Jensen, who is delighted to participate in the Sustain & Serve NJ program. “It has been a win-win for us and the restaurants, when the pandemic hit and even now. It’ll take them years to recover.”
“It’s been a very difficult, terrible year,” added Ramos. “We are very grateful for the Sustain & Serve NJ program. In Mexico, you can’t find programs like this. The United States is a very beautiful, very blessed country.”