PORTSMOUTH – As dusk fell on Wednesday evening and a bitter chill covered the Seacoast, one by one, individuals sporadically arrived on foot at the parking lot of the Greenleaf Recreation Center.
They waited patiently outside, in front of a table spread with plastic forks, napkins and a large insulated hot food carrier.
Through the glass doors of the recreation center, Tammy Joslyn, executive director of nonprofit Operation Blessing, would see them, and quickly come outside to serve them a hot meal.
This week’s offering was baked chicken, rice, mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes and onions, courtesy of White Heron Coffee and Tea, from their second, and new, cafe location in Eliot, Maine.
The meal distribution, which is scheduled to feed homeless individuals on Wednesday nights at the Greenleaf Recreation Center, is part of a new Seacoast-wide funding initiative called Take Out Hunger.
The organization essentially pays restaurants to cook meals for the food insecure, vulnerable individuals, or places where a need is identified – helping to keep the restaurants afloat financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, while simultaneously addressing the growing issue of hunger.
How it works
The Wednesday meals, for example, are a partnership between Operation Blessing and White Heron. It’s one of several partnerships that involves eight nonprofits and 10 restaurants across the Seacoast, and the number is growing.
The partnerships thus far include: Gather and Black Trumpet; Crossroads House, The Kitchen and Rail Penny Tavern; White Heron Tea and Operation Blessing; Great Bay Community College and Green Bean; St. Vincent de Paul in Exeter and Green Bean; Reds Good Vibes, Ore Nell’s BBQ and Mr. Kim’s.
“As a culture, we show we care for people by cooking for them,” said Helen Crowe, one of the founders of Take Out Hunger. “I hope that comes through, that we’re not just providing a meal, but a sense of caring.”
Crowe said with the overwhelming impact of COVID-19, including the rapid growth of food insecurity, she, Carol Bridges and Deanna MacDonald started researching solutions. They came across the innovative model of compensating restaurants to provide nutritious meals to those in need.
They took queues from Cooking For Community in Portland, Maine, and Vermont Everyone Eats. Pooling together $25,000 in seed funding, the trio launched Take Out Hunger in Portsmouth.
Gather, the Seacoast’s largest food pantry, serves as the fiscal sponsor of Take Out Hunger.
Restaurants are compensated $10 per meal, which must be easily packaged and reheated. The partnerships between the restaurants and nonprofits last four weeks, at which time the relationship can be evaluated
Take Out Hunger is hoping to raise $25,000 each month until May to keep the effort running “during the height of COVID and the winter months,” Crowe said.
RiverWoods provided the effort’s first corporate sponsorship, and they’re currently seeking additional support from businesses that haven’t been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
‘It helps a lot’
Owner of White Heron Coffee and Tea, Jonathan Blakeslee, arrived on Wednesday evening at the Greenleaf Recreation Center with 40 hot meals prepared by his staff earlier that day.
While Blakeslee’s Portsmouth cafe location is established and well-known, his second location in Eliot is still coming online. It made sense for that location to join the Take Out Hunger program.
“Devastating”:1 in 7 in NH don’t know where next meal will come from
“It really does help,” he said. “I opened a new, small cafe in a pandemic, but for all of the employees, I have to have enough going on to keep people working. The staff feel excited abut helping.”
For those 40 meals, Blakeslee and his team would receive $400. For the four-week partnership, that number will total $1,600.
Crowe noted that chefs and restaurant owners have demonstrated they’re certainly “in it” for more than the financial support.
“Take Out Hunger has given me the opportunity to witness both the significant need and generosity within our community,” said Crowe.
One of Wednesday night’s meal recipients was Justin McGowen, who said he’s resided in a tent off-and-on for the last two years. He was picking up meals to bring back to the other individuals living in his encampment.
“It’s pretty awesome,” he said, adding that he’ll alert others to the meals. “It helps a lot.”
Joslyn has said Operation Blessing’s interactions with the area’s homeless population have increased significantly during the pandemic. For that reason, her partnership with Take Out Hunger comes at an opportune time.
“I’m always blown away by our community,” she said. “The hearts that they have to serve is amazing. Very innovative, very thoughtful.”
Joslyn said she’s enjoyed developing her relationship with Blakeslee and White Heron. “I’m just really looking forward to seeing this thing grow,” Joslyn said.
How to assist
The Alliance for Greater Good is hosting a virtual event for adults to benefit Take Out Hunger on Feb. 4 called “Cocktails for a Cause.”
During the event, Jon Plaza and Evan Mallett of the Black Trumpet will teach guests how to mix three cocktails. Local rock band Jamsterdam will play during a break while participants enjoy their creations.
The alliance has set a goal to raise $10,000 from the event, which will pay restaurants to make 1,000 meals.
Crowe said restaurants and nonprofits who may be interested in participating can contact her at [email protected]. Businesses interested in learning about corporate sponsorships can contact Carol Bridges at [email protected].
Checks can be mailed to Gather, 210 West Rd #3, Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03801, with attention to Take Out Hunger.