NJ Initiative Aiming to Serve More Than 5 Million Free Meals

Sustain & Serve NJ purchases meals from local restaurants that have been hurt by the pandemic, then distributes the food to those in need.

Three employees packing meals in the kitchen

Sustain & Serve NJ is on track to distribute more than 5 million meals in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of New Jersey Economic Development Authority

We are now three years into the pandemic. When so much came to a screeching halt in March 2020, no one could have predicted the impact Covid-19 would have on our state. Lives were lost, businesses and restaurants shuttered, and organizations both big and small had to pivot to survive.

Covid also exacerbated food insecurity, causing more people to seek food assistance. In true New Jersey fashion, within months of the start of the pandemic, organizations and leaders jumped into action to help. One of those initiatives, Sustain & Serve NJ, is as impactful as it is innovative.

Launched by Governor Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) in late 2020, Sustain & Serve NJ provides eligible groups with grants to purchase meals from New Jersey-based restaurants that have been hurt by Covid and distribute those meals free to the community. Full disclosure: NJEDA is an underwriter of the public-policy programming I anchor on public broadcasting.

Since its launch, Sustain & Serve NJ “has grown from a $2 million pilot to a $57 million program that’s on track to support the purchase of more than 5 million meals,” says Tara Colton, NJEDA’s executive vice president of economic security.  

One of Sustain & Serve’s partners is the Coalition for Food and Health Equity, which has invested more than $1 million in small businesses and helped dispatch more than 150,000 meals. 

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“Our clients are now able to eat healthier and be exposed to healthier food options that they would not have been able to afford; and on a consistent weekly basis, they can rely on us,” says the coalition’s CEO and founder, Leeja Carter. “We’ve been able to deepen our work, make it more consistent, reach harder-to-reach areas, mobilize food, and do this in loving partnership with our restaurant partners.”  

The Coalition for Food and Health Equity is just one example of a Sustain & Serve NJ grantee that is committed to feeding its neighbors and supporting its communities with respect and dignity. There are countless others working together in this multipronged strategy to strengthen the economic security of all New Jerseyans while also helping to eliminate food deserts. 

According to Colton, just like food deserts are caused by multiple factors that have taken root over generations, driven by structural racism and underinvestment, there is no one solution to the challenge. Says Colton, “Sustain & Serve NJ is central to our holistic approach to addressing food deserts, in alignment with the Food Desert Relief Act championed by Speaker Craig Coughlin and Governor Murphy. True food security means that residents can access fresh, nutritious, healthy food at times and locations that are convenient to them and meets them where they are, literally and figuratively.”

The Sustain & Serve NJ initiative is truly making a difference, not only for the nonprofit grantees, but also for restaurants in the Garden State and, ultimately, the people they serve. 

Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of five books including his latest, Lessons in Leadership. He is also an Emmy® Award–winning anchor on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. Check out steveadubato.org. Steve has appeared on CNN, FOX5 in NY and NBC’s Today Show, and his “Lessons in Leadership” video podcast with co-host Mary Gamba airs Sundays at 10 am on News 12+. Steve also provides executive leadership coaching and seminars for a variety of corporations and organizations both regionally and nationally. For more information, visit stand-deliver.com.

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