2-24-21 Take Out Hunger expands across Seacoast to help Tri-City area

Megan Fernandes

Fosters Daily Democrat

DOVER — When the Take Out Hunger initiative began in mid-January, organizers saw it as a near-term solution for two problems facing Seacoast communities: food insecurity and restaurants struggling to stay in business through the winter months.

Take Out Hunger is a grassroots volunteer effort that raises funds to compensate local restaurants for preparing healthy meals that are then distributed through local nonprofits to people in the community who need them.

Within a month, Take Out Hunger has provided 4,000 meals across the area since its inception.

More on how it got started: Take Out Hunger: Help for people in need and Seacoast eateries

“Our goal is to support local restaurants and provide healthy meals to our neighbors in need,” Helen Crowe, one of the founders of Take Out Hunger, said.

Take Out Hunger started with only three restaurants and three nonprofits serving the Portsmouth area. In less than six weeks, it has expanded to include 18 participating restaurants and nine nonprofit partners serving upward of 700 meals a week across Portsmouth, Exeter, and most recently, Dover and Kittery, Maine. Gather, the Seacoast’s largest food pantry, serves as the fiscal sponsor of Take Out Hunger.

Several sponsors stepped up to allow Take Out Hunger to expand. Some of those sponsors included donations from Kennebunk Savings Bank, Tri-City Subaru, five Edward Jones offices in Dover and Avery Insurance, among others. Sponsorships allow the restaurants to be paid $10 per meal.

“We’ve gotten a lot of community support, I think in part because people really like the concept of their dollars going to both support restaurants and feed neighbors in need,” Crowe said.

Working with CAP of Strafford County

To address the needs in the Tri City area, Take Out Hunger is partnering with the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County to provide more than 200 meals a week to feed those at its shelters.

Local restaurants Stalk, Chapel + Main, Dos Mexican Eats, Diverge and Lil’s Café in Kittery have been tasked with preparing healthy meals each week for CAP to disperse.

Meanwhile, in Kittery, Blue Mermaid is currently providing 40 meals per week through Footprints food pantry and Black Birch is providing 80 meals per week to Table of Plenty. A small group of retired chefs are also volunteering to prepare 100 meals twice a month for Table of Plenty in Berwick, Maine.

More on the difference it is making: Take Out Hunger pays restaurants to cook for food insecure

The need for CAP’s services across Strafford County has been high in demand, the organization said. Last year, the pantry served approximately 3,800 different households, and its Summer Meals Program, at its peak, was giving out 12,500 meals a week.

Lauren Phillips, nutrition assistant at the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, said that clients have been highly receptive to the program.

CAP will receive meals five days a week for four weeks, which will be spread out across CAP’s services to its homeless clients awaiting long-term shelter at the Garrison Hotel shelter and Strafford County warming center, to seniors and others in need.

“The clients really love it,” Phillips said. “The restaurants have been great in working with us to meet our needs. We needed meals that are individually packaged and ready to heat in a microwave because a lot of our clients don’t have access to stoves or cold storage. Finding like a nice, nutritious and hearty meal that they can just kind of grab and go is usually hard.”

An opportunity for restaurants

When Dos Mexican Eats in Dover opened in March 2020, its owners could not have imagined the toll COVID-19 would take on the new establishment. Within a week of being open, COVID mandates went into effect and the owners decided to temporarily close the location until May. It has been strictly takeout ever since. Now, the owners of Dos Mexican Eats are working with Take Out Hunger and CAP to cook up healthy meals.

“The community has been so supportive of us as a restaurant that we just want to do whatever we can to give back,” said Brett Wintersteen, head chef and partner of Dos Mexican Eats. “It’s an amazing program and we feel very grateful and honored to be a part of it, and that the opportunity is out there for restaurants to not only do good, but to benefit from the generosity of the community.”

This week, Dos Mexican Eats prepared what Wintersteen calls a “power-packed protein punch.” Each serving received a half burrito and half burrito bowl made with meat, rice and beans alongside a spinach and kale salad.

“We will be mixing it up each week,” Wintersteen said, noting that each week will vary from vegetarian tofu and protein-based options like their braised chicken.

A ‘temporary solution’

Crowe said that when she and her co-founders started Take Out Hunger, it was always envisioned as a temporary program for the duration of winter.

“Restaurants are experiencing a difficult time because of no outside dining and limits on number of people that they can serve, on top of winter also being a traditionally a slower time maybe for many restaurants,” Crowe said. “There are also so many families that are at risk with food insecurity during the winter months. That’s why we developed and implemented this idea fairly quickly. We wanted to be able to be responsive to the current need, but we don’t envision this as being a long-term program.”

So far, Take Out Hunger has committed to keeping the program going through May.

“The restaurants we’re working with are really driven by wanting to help their community and be a part of something bigger to contribute to their local community,” Crowe said. “I think there’ll be many ripple effects from the program, because it is breaking down barriers and connecting restaurants with nonprofits. Several chefs have talked about them wanting to continue relationships with nonprofits after Take Out Hunger is over.”

Information: Take Out Hunger