As many Hudson County residents began a sixth week (but who’s counting, right?) at home, the Hudson County Hunger Project (HCHP) was mobilizing its fourth week (that’s what really counts) of fresh meal deliveries to some of the community’s most vulnerable. “We need these feel-good stories right now,” Lizeth Morales, a local restaurant owner, told Jersey Digs. And we couldn’t agree more.
What began as a Coronavirus-related conversation between Square 1 Community Eatery co-founder and chef Mory Thomas and a regular customer, Dr. Leeja Carter, grew quickly into a grassroots initiative to feed senior citizens whose access to food — in a senior center, at a food bank, via a program, the list goes on — is now affected by social distancing measures. More than just a pandemic pivot, local restaurants and volunteers have organized quickly, creating the Hudson County Hunger Project and forging a model to feed people during this unprecedented health crisis, while delivering (deliciously) on its tagline: We Got You.
Square 1’s Mory Thomas, faced with a sharp decline in sales, a supply of fresh food, and a staff who wanted to keep working, wondered aloud how he could sustainably put his skills and resources to use. “There’s so much need and very little capacity to organize that need,” Mory recounted to Jersey Digs. “There’s no model to feed people during a pandemic because there’s never been one. How do we do it?”
Serendipitously, Mory chatted about this with Dr. Carter who is not only rooted in the community but also has significant experience in the non-profit health sector. An Assistant Professor in the School of Health Professions at LIU-Brooklyn, Dr. Carter had the know-how to successfully scale a non-profit kind of operation (serendipity). Her strategy and coordination gave shape to Mory’s and Square 1’s talent and a task force was born.
The Hudson County Hunger Project launched March 31 and has since delivered upwards of 500 meals. The taskforce has quickly morphed into a virtual team of 10, overseeing departments including production, logistics, fundraising, social media, and research/data collection. This virtual team of volunteers also mans the HCHP hotline all weekend (Friday-Monday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.) to enroll eligible Hudson County seniors in the program.
During HCHP’s first week, the focus was delivering hot meals to Hudson County’s older homeless population who tend to live in shelters full-time and who the county had moved into motels to protect them from the spread of the novel Coronavirus. At the same time, “Demand was rising on a parallel path,” Mory told Jersey Digs, and there are fewer programs and resources in place for senior citizens facing food insecurity. Now more focused on seniors, each week’s deliveries are freshly prepared meals recipients can easily reheat and eat anytime.
HCHP works directly with the Hudson County Department of Health and the Office on Aging, coordinating deliveries among the senior citizen centers. Dr. Carter views HCHP’s role as a kind of crisis intervention or disaster relief program. “There are existing programs,” Dr. Carter continued, “but they were unprepared. We’re offering additional assistance to existing wonderful programs. We can fulfill those needs and the needs are great.”
HCHP is able to fill in the need gaps, to plug in where there is a lack, and they are working together every day with Hudson County, with the resident coordinators of the senior housing facilities, with individual seniors in need who’ve reached out, with new restaurant partners, all while considering seniors’ specific needs, allergies, dietary conditions, and beyond. Dr. Carter stressed the essential joy of daily teamwork and that they’ve found “balance and a good rhythm.”
Mory is especially thrilled to “raise the bar on the quality of food for seniors which is often frozen, with no seasoning, no love. We want to deliver comforting food,” he continued, “food that makes them feel cared for and reduces anxiety.” On the menu one week was braised chicken with mashed potatoes and ratatouille and on another was bacon quinoa meatloaf with roasted vegetables and sauteed spinach. Recipients have been wowed and “frankly overwhelmed by the food,” Dr. Carter reported. “It’s having an impact and it’s very exciting. There’s no shame. Everybody deserves this kind of meal and we’re here to support you.”
On Monday, April 20, Jersey City Heights Peruvian restaurant El Gordo joined forces with HCHP, preparing and delivering more than 100 meals. Owner Lizeth Morales saw her own grandmother in each needy senior and was immediately on board when HCHP reached out. Generous personal donations also enabled El Gordo to prepare and deliver the meals at half the cost to HCHP.
Lizeth wanted to make sure the meals were “yummy, hearty, and nutritious,” focusing on the traditional Latin staples: oven-roasted chicken (plus Peruvian dressing), yellow rice, vegetables, and beans — a combination that can “never go wrong in your belly,” said Lizeth. “It’s nutritious, delicious, fresh, and feels like it’s made just for them.”
What does the future look like for the Hudson County Hunger Project? “It’s an ongoing conversation,” said Dr. Carter. HCHP is entirely donation-based and has raised nearly half of its $25,000 goal via GoFundMe. One meal costs approximately $10 which includes all that is necessary to maintain a sustainable model for preparing and delivering fresh nutritious food. “Please give what you can,” Mory posted via Square 1’s Instagram. “Consider it a hug to your grandma, grandpa, mom, or dad.”
“My kitchen is open,” Lizeth of El Gordo told Jersey Digs. “I’m here to cook and sharing motivates others to do the same. It’s two-fold greatness, it’s a win-win.”
The Hudson County Hunger Project can be reached at 800-943-1752 or [email protected].