It is a cold pre-snow afternoon and Karen Lemon’s white SUV is parked in front of The Meeting House restaurant on Witherspoon Street. She’s there for an afternoon pickup of 29 trays of barbecue wings, mixed vegetables, and rosemary roasted potatoes.
As the retired AT&T vice president preps her boxes and watches for the closed restaurant’s side door to open, she says she has been volunteering with the Share My Meals (SMM) hunger project organization since April.
She says the urge to do something related to area hunger came after she noticed a block-long line of people waiting at the Princeton Food Bank.
“These are our neighbors” says Lemon. “People don’t realize that there are people in their neighborhood or building who need help.”
She adds that she learned about SMM, appreciated its approach of working to solve multiple problems, and joined in April and delivers meals several times a week..
As she keeps her eyes on the door she says she marvels at the organization for engaging a range of food providers — from “local farms to high-end restaurants” —and how restaurants, such as The Meeting House, were so accommodating.
To illustrate that point, she says The Meeting House staff was there only to prepare food to help SMM help struggling individuals and families.
“They have their own struggles,” Lemon says of The Meeting House and the other participating restaurants crippled by the pandemic.
But, she says, since she is delivering SMM meals to the people in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the restaurant staff and owners know they are also helping their neighbors.
And while it is a good plan, it wasn’t planned that way.
During a recent telephone interview, Share My Meals founder Isabelle Lambotte says the organization’s original mission was to gather food surplus from area businesses and distribute it to area residents in need of support.
But that changed in March, and the organization needed to address hunger while also dealing with the pandemic and the sudden surge in unemployment within the restaurant and banquet industries.
“We are very food wasteful, and there is food insecurity, and we wanted to fill the gap by distributing the food surplus to people in need,” Lambotte says about the organization’s core focus.
To address that need she and others developed a “Waste Watchers Program” based on the reality that restaurants, foods service companies, school and corporate cafeterias, and caterers generally prepare excess food to satisfy customers and clients.
However, that practice also leads to healthy and nutritious meals being thrown away — unless there was a simple mechanism food providers could use that would take the food away and distribute it.
“We began in January (2020) with one of the eating clubs at the university, Tiger Inn. We were receiving 100 meals and giving them to families in Princeton.”
She says the organization was able to identify individuals and families in need through SMM vice president Liliana Morenilla, Princeton Public Schools community outreach coordinator and founder of Princeton Mobile Food Pantry.
Soon 15 families had been identified and registered with SMM to receive meals once every two or three days.
Lambotte says the project was gaining steam and more involvement, but the state’s pandemic-related closures of businesses, restaurants, and eating clubs halted operations and created a gap in providing food.
That in turn resulted in business closures, unemployment, and more individuals facing economic insecurity.
“I started talking with the restaurants to see if they would continue in the months ahead, and we would cover the cost of food and pay staff members,” says Lambotte.
With the participating restaurants and farms wanting to help, Lambotte says, they came up with an approach where SMM pays the food provider a fixed price, and they prepare and pack the meals that volunteers pick up and deliver.
“From the time we started working that way, we’ve served 35,000 meals — thanks to the volunteers,” says Lambotte, who says the organization is fueled by volunteers.
She says the 40 individuals who help in various ways come from word of mouth and from looking at the organization’s website.
“It is not just delivering, there are other options. It could be marketing, fundraising,” she says.
After an individual fills out the form on the SMM website, coordinators organize a meeting with the applicant and conduct a “preliminary group session where we talk to them and understand their motivation. Some will see it as not for them, but 99 percent go to the next step,” Lambotte says.
She says there are a few essential volunteer requirement: a car and car insurance or some other means of transportation to deliver food if needed. SMM provides additional insurance to support volunteers and provides insulated bags for food delivery.
Regarding her background and interest in the creating such a project, the Belgium-born daughter of a university researcher father and lab assistant mother, says, “I am a pharmacist and have been working many years, moving from one country to another. I’ve been in Princeton since 2006 (when her husband took a pharmaceutical job in the area). I had been working with Liliana at the Food Pantry every Wednesday morning and giving fresh produce provided by Mercer Street Friends.”
After seeing more people waiting for less available food, the mother of two says she felt a need to do something to help.
She also saw food going to waste everywhere from Princeton University to even her own home. “We buy more than we need, and when we don’t use what we bought we discard it.”
She says she then started to look for a model in order to begin addressing the situation.
“It was not easy to start,” she says, pointing out that businesses supplying meals to community members is “not their main issue.” Yet she and other volunteers developed an approach. “If we provide (the food source) with the trays, and it wasn’t too much work to pack the food. And if we supplied the transportation, it would help the company and corporations and it would help the community.”
She says adding tax-deductible donations through the nonprofit organization that activated at the start of the year and helping the business show a connection to the greater community “made sense for everyone.”
And while things were in place for the project to grow before the pandemic, Lambotte says, “That is what we’re going to do when the corporations are starting to open. It was our main objective, and we’re waiting to start. Meanwhile, we have gained credibility, and we have a better idea of how to manage 100 families rather than 15 and we are more aware than six months ago.”
She says her approach to making connections and finding people to help develop the project was simple. “You know Princeton is a small town. And I started to ask people I knew. It was mainly word of mouth. The more I talked with people, the more people I saw excited. I reached out to people at Princeton University, people in corporations, and on LinkedIn.”
An advertisement on an area French community chat site and her familiarity with other foreign-born area residents, such as the Spanish born Morenilla, resulted in an all-European founding board that is now adding two native-born Americans.
Looking back at the organization’s first year, Lambotte says, “It was supposed to be a small activity, and all of a sudden there was larger visibility. Originally we started thinking of a budget of $50,000. This year we reached $300,000” — including support from the Princeton Area Community Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Sodexo, Blackrock, and the Merancas Foundation, which provided a matching grant.
In addition to Tiger Inn and The Meeting House, other participating area restaurants include Bagel Nook, Kristine’s Princeton, La Mezzaluna, Terra Momo, and Trattoria Procaccini. Area farms and markets include Cherry Grove Farm, Honey Brook Organic Farm, Skillman Farms, and Pennsylvania Dutch Market. The Hun and Princeton Day schools also participate.
About the coordinating effort, Lambotte says, “We are seven board members who are working 70 hours a week. We are very happy to be volunteers, but we found we have been growing in the future to have some support and some staff.”
Yet for now, she says the group is looking for more donations to support its current COVID-19 program that hires out-of-work people to participate in ways that help clients, community, and businesses.
She says the group is also looking for volunteers who can help promote SMM awareness and develop greater support.
“We want to create a movement in Princeton. We are trying to get people in the community involved with problems. Share My Meals is more than food,” says Lambotte.
Back at The Meeting House, Lemon notices movement at the restaurant’s side glass door as the restaurant’s chef, who prefers to be called Fito, opens it, props it in place, and disappears into the closed restaurant.
As Lemon approaches, Fito re-appears with a stack of aluminum trays for her to pack. Several remain at the door for individuals to pick up.
In between trips to the kitchen and door, Fito says The Meeting House has been involved since May. “When we were in quarantine, we cooked six days a week (for SMM). But now that we’re open, we come in two or three days.”
On this day — with an impending snow storm and kitchen help living outside Princeton — Fito and two local cooks, Antonio and Luis, came in early to make sure the meals were ready.
“It’s great that (SMM) helps people,” says Fito as helps Lemon slip the hot trays into her insulated delivery boxes. Then as he watches her put the last bag into her car and head to her first delivery, he sums up the entire effort with a simple, “We’re all doing the best we can.”
For more information on Share My Meals, go to www.sharemymeals.org.