SoupKitchen411 continues aid in Union County through meal distribution

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — SoupKitchen411 Inc. is continuing its important crusade to feed the hungry in Union County through soup kitchen and restaurant collaboration. Given the pandemic, its mission has become more impactful than ever before.

“SoupKitchen411 is a platinum-rated nonprofit that has been around for six years, and FeedNJ is our biggest program,” SoupKitchen411 publicist Dan Knitzer said on Monday, May 24.

Assistant FeedNJ program coordinator Alyssa Verrelli said SoupKitchen411 influenced the creation of the FeedNJ program and supports those who have been involved in the fight against hunger and food insecurity.

“SoupKitchen411 was created in 2015 by friends Ken DeRoberts and Philip Gentile to serve as a hub for anti-hunger advocates to raise awareness about the epidemic of food insecurity in America,” Verrelli said on Friday, May 21. “The free online database at soupkitchen411.com utilizes interactive maps to provide detailed information — such as hours of operation and contact information — for 250-plus tristate-area and over 700 national soup kitchens and food pantries. Since 2015, the organization has held fundraisers to benefit local soup kitchens, including Trenton Area Soup Kitchen in Trenton, Eva’s Village in Paterson and Lunch Break in Red Bank.

“Our board members — Raul Esquivel, Michael Graham, Laura Ali and former Springfield Mayor Ziad Andrew Shehady — have been huge in our efforts to amplify the voices of and celebrate other anti-hunger organizations,” she continued.

“Since SoupKitchen411 had an existing database of local soup kitchens, Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole and I wanted to partner with SoupKitchen411 to combat hunger while bringing business to restaurants that had suddenly been unable to serve anyone inside but still had rent and overhead,” Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, the co-chairperson of FeedNJ, said on Friday, May 21. “Naturally, purchasing delicious, restaurant-prepared meals is more expensive than purchasing raw groceries, but that difference is felt by patrons, who get these full meals at soup kitchens and other pop-up sites, where they can grab a hot, boxed lunch to go.”

O’Toole said SoupKitchen411’s program coordinator, Jaclyn Krausman, arranges with nearly 100 restaurants and determines when and where the meals go. Krausman is supported by assistant program coordinators Alyssa Verrelli, Chris Marx and publicist Dan Knitzer, all of whom are part-time employees. SoupKitchen411’s free database helps clients locate nearby soup kitchens and food pantries. The FeedNJ program aids overburdened soup kitchen staffs, many of which have been operating without volunteers since the start of COVID-19, by providing meals for them to distribute. That’s one day that the staff doesn’t have to simultaneously cook, prep for the next day and serve clients. Also, since restaurant spending has been down considerably due to the pandemic, this program helps the restaurants as well, by making up for a piece of the gap in business.

“Partnering restaurants in Union County are Bayway Catering in Elizabeth, Portugal Express in Elizabeth and Bella Gina’s Italian Deli in Linden,” said O’Toole. “We arrange the same places to get meals at the same time every week, and often from the same restaurants, but not always. Sometimes, we’ll ask Bayway Catering to bring meals to New Destiny Community Development Corp. in Roselle Monday afternoons.”

In Union County, all meal services are based on what the site coordinators deem necessary, given their usual numbers of clients, said SoupKitchen411’s DeRoberts on Friday, May 21. This means that SoupKitchen411 pays for 200 meals twice a week for the St. Joseph’s events, and 500 meals weekly for the New Destiny Community Development Corp. food distribution.

“In Union County, that’s our biggest event,” said DeRoberts. “Since we launched FeedNJ, we’ve served 8,940 meals in Union County as of May 21, 2021. The meals are always served for free, and we buy them from local restaurants at between $9 and $10 per meal.

“From April 2020 to February 2021, FeedNJ used funding from many local, regional, national and international sponsors to purchase meals from restaurants suggested by the community,” said DeRoberts. “We are delighted to receive $2,000,000 from the (New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s) Sustain and Serve grant, which is the largest amount available, to expand our programs. That program stipulates that would-be restaurant partners email the EDA their valid Business Registration Certificate, a current and valid municipal health certificate showing a satisfactory rating, and an Employer Report of Wages Paid, the WR-30, from the fourth quarter of 2020, for the EDA to cover the purchase of these meals.

“While the funding from this great EDA program is available, we’ve been partnering with restaurants that have submitted this information to the EDA.”

Annette Calderin, a mental health counselor and coordinator of the soup kitchen at St. Joseph Social Service Center in Elizabeth, said St. Joseph got involved with the FeedNJ program last year during the pandemic. At the time, Harry Coffee was the SoupKitchen411 program coordinator.

“The amazing people at SoupKitchen411 make contact with the different restaurants around the community and arrange the different delivery dates,” Calderin said on Friday, May 21. “I have worked closely with Harry and recently with the new program coordinator, Jaclyn, to schedule the meal deliveries two times a week this year. The meals get delivered Wednesdays and Fridays to our center by the restaurant staff or even owners. Our staff and volunteers help distribute the meals.”

The St. Joseph Social Service Center clients are grateful for the restaurant meals, said Calderin. Since the program began, she said, they have received meals from Bayway Catering, Portugal Express and Bella Gina’s. She added that they are also grateful for the work the restaurants put into making and delivering the meals.

“Everyone has been so nice. With the help of FeedNJ/SoupKitchen411 and the different community restaurants, we have distributed thousands of meals to our community here at St. Joseph,” she continued.

Portugal Express Owner Denise Horta said they started working with SoupKitchen411 a few months ago. This is their first time delivering meals to a soup kitchen, and she said it has been a wonderful experience.

“The process is simple,” said Horta on Friday, May 21. “We make the delivery of x amount of meals, and the volunteers at St. Joseph’s, who work tirelessly, day in and day out, to help out those in need, pack them up in bags and distribute them to the people who show up for the meals.

“I think it’s great what SoupKitchen411 is doing,” she continued. “It helps a lot of people in Union County to not have to worry about whether or not their families are going to go hungry during these difficult times, and that lessens the burden of everyday challenges a lot of us are facing.”

“Serving 9,000 meals across Union County and counting is really something to celebrate,” state Sen. Joe Cryan said on Friday, May 21. “The FeedNJ program is so unique, and families across Roselle, Elizabeth, Plainfield and all over are benefiting from not just picking up raw ingredients to make meals at home, but receiving delicious, nutritious meals from local restaurants.”

The Rev. Reginald Atkins of the New Destiny Community Development Corp. praised the initiative, which provides New Destiny’s Monday food distribution events with 500 meals.

“We’re getting positive accolades for this program. This program is helping supplement 500 individuals,” Atkins said on Friday, May 21. “This pandemic has impacted the lives of so many people. Most of the people we see are not experiencing homelessness. These are working-class people who just need extra help.”

Photos Courtesy of Dan Knitzer

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