When New Jersey launched a pilot program in December 2020, the idea was to fight the pandemic-prompted economic downturn on two fronts.
It would, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration hoped, give a boost to restaurants suffering through shutdowns and restrictions, and meet a growing demand for food assistance that had lines outside pantries stretching for blocks.
Sustain and Serve distributes federal COVID-19 dollars and state funds to organizations that help with food insecurity. Those organizations, in turn, purchase meals from restaurants to feed residents in need.
More than 500 restaurants in every New Jersey county benefited last year. Millions of meals were served. The program is entering its third round of funding, with more coming this year. It’s too early to say whether the program will continue past that point.
But many restaurant owners and nonprofits say more help will be crucial to weathering another economic threat — the extraordinary inflation of the past several months.
‘The variety of food was awesome’
“Being part of this has exposed huge numbers of people in New Jersey to the hunger that was in their backyard,” Tara Colton, executive vice president for economic security at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, told Gothamist.
She said the program has been a win all around. It gave restaurants a source of reliable revenue, expanded anti-hunger organizations’ reach and gave food-insecure residents choices.
“It gives our clients the opportunity to experience different meals, which is really wonderful,” said Rescue Mission of Trenton CEO Barrett Young, who participated in the program.
The homeless shelter serves three meals a day.
“I mean, the variety of food was awesome — chicken marsala, vodka penne, chicken parm, veal,” Young said.
Thirty-one organizations received $34 million in the first two rounds of Sustain and Serve last year, according to the Economic Development Authority. Colton said a third round of $17.5 million will be distributed to nonprofits later this year. She said once that’s up and running, state officials will see if there’s community support — and need — for funding beyond that.
John Mastoris owns Pat’s Diner in Trenton and partnered with the Rescue Mission of Trenton to provide one of the shelter residents’ favorite meals during the pandemic: pulled chicken with roasted peppers and cream sauce.
“In the end it was a little extra for me here, so I could afford to pay my cooks and wait staff,” he said. “Now I can say I’m all right, (but) now probably it’s going to cover my inflation expense.”
‘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 that 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.”