Somewhere during the span days since Covid-19 upended—well, everything—the Twitter-verse noted a nuance in this popular Mr. Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Rogers’ words are inspiring on their merits. Yet here’s the thing: He was talking to kids, which means it’s us, the adults, who are being called on to help.
As people clear grocery shelves and the restaurant industry is upended, the nature of how and where we eat is in flux. With school closures mandated statewide, this includes the half a million NJ children who rely on free lunch and breakfast programs throughout the week.
Districts including Camden City are guiding students toward free weekday meal sites on their websites. To bolster their efforts, a few local restaurateurs have decided to do their part to feed the younger members of their communities.
Normally, Elsie’s in Haddon Township—home of the pickle sandwich—is a gluten-free sanctuary. This week, Katherine Cohen and her team retooled their operations to serve free lunch to kids. “Right now, we’re not open to the public at all. We’re just serving kids in need,” Cohen explains. “We do a sandwich on white bread, which is so funny because there has never been any bread in here.” Though Cohen feels a sense of loss temporarily closing the doors to people with food allergies or celiac disease, she’s driven to help her community however she still can.
The response has been strong. Most of the items supporting the program were sourced through donations, and Elsie’s is fully stocked. Partnership is also key. “We started doing it, I got in touch with Jackie and Dan from The Square Meal [in Oaklyn] to bake fresh cookies. They’re always down for anything so they made the cookies for us.” To create a second access point on the other side of the White Horse Pike, lunches are also being distributed there.
Each day from 11am—1pm, kids can stop by Elsie’s or The Square Meal for a healthy lunch that includes a sandwich, a snack and a bottle of water. The Square Meal’s Jackie Walther says she’s determined to do whatever she can to help kids maintain a sense of normalcy. “I used to be a teacher, so I’m feeling for all of the teachers and the kids that are being home-schooled right now. It’s good for them to be able to see that the community is here to support them.”
And what provides comfort like a chocolate chip cookie? “They taste as good as they look,” Walther says. “My husband makes them. He’s the best.” To keep things healthy, they’re also adding in healthy snacks like fresh bananas.
If this remains the new normal for a while, Cohen expects a need to grow, particularly among those in the restaurant industry itself. “There are a lot of hourly employees who have been let go: Bartenders, servers,” Cohen reflects. “With all these dining rooms are closed…a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. We’re going to do this as long as we can.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Cory and Natalie Reuss at Macona in Collingswood, who are running their free brown bag lunch program each weekday from 11am–2pm. “We know firsthand that this thing is crushing restaurants and employees at every level,” Cory Reuss says. “We wanted to do something to help.”
Lunches for kids include either a hot dog or PB&J with fruit, chips and a juice box. “I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, and I am very familiar with kids relying on those school meals as a means of nourishment,” Reuss reflects. The restaurant is also focused on comfort. “The options in the lunches are what my son Mason would eat every day if he could.”
Macona is also offering a 50 percent discount to anyone in the restaurant industry, available via delivery, takeout, and curbside pickups. “No one should ever go hungry and food is the one thing that brings us all together. We will continue to do this for as long as we can and as long as the community needs it.”
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