Feb. 27—SHARON — A substantial federal grant for pandemic relief has given a local food bank the ability to offer free, fully cooked, locally prepared meals to those in need.
In the process, the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County is delivering nourishment to an expanded clientele, and the kitchen is being kept warm and busy at one of the area's leading banquet halls, which has lost much of its business due to the pandemic.
Financially hammered households are getting more food on their dinner tables, but the Extra Helpings program also targets an often-overlooked category of people — the elderly and those recovering from an illness or having mental health issues.
"We wanted to find vulnerable people and help them during this pandemic," said Mimi Prada, the food bank's public relations director and grant writer. "There are a lot of people who are very, very leery of leaving their homes now."
The food bank landed a $180,000 federal grant for the temporary program, which started in August and runs through April. It's an enormous sum for the non-profit, which has an annual budget of a little over $1 million.
Extra Helpings has another twist beyond volunteers merely delivering food to doorsteps. They're delivering complete meals created by the Corinthian Banquet Hall and Event Center in Sharon.
"We cook the food, package it, and it gets put into a freezer at Food Warehouse so it gets frozen and then delivered," said John Bianco, the Corinthian's owner. "You can put it in a microwave to heat up and serve."
One package has two meal servings, with a total of 500 packages delivered each week. Each meal has an entree of either beef, chicken or pork along with a vegetable and a starch, such as macaroni and cheese.
"We try to keep it interesting," Bianco said. "In the fall when it was Octoberfest season, we made a meal of sausage, cabbage and noodles and mixed vegetables."
Meatloaf is the most favored cuisine among clients, he added. On this day Mike Magazine, a Corinthian chef, had meatloaf prepared and was working on the side dish, macaroni and cheese.
"I found eight pounds of macaroni with one gallon of melted cheese tastes the best," Magazine said.
The food bank is delighted to partner with the Corinthian. This comes at a time when the restaurant and banquet industry is suffering due to the pandemic, Prada said.
"They've supported us for years with donations," she said. "We're glad we can give them something back."
Having full meals delivered has been a smash hit among clients.
"The stories we hear from them are heart- wrenching," Prada said.
Through social agencies the food bank scouted out those most in need. In one case a 98-year-old woman living by herself initially turned down the meals.
"She told us we should give it to people who really need it," Prada said.
As Extra Helpings' name suggests, the meals aren't meant to provide every-day nourishment seven days a week.
"It's a supplement," said Rebecca Page, the executive director of the Community Food Warehouse
Since the pandemic hit last March, the demand for free food at the food warehouse has skyrocketed 30 percent. Prior to that the food bank served 4,200 people, which means its clients surged by 1,260.
"The majority of those people are new faces," Page said. "These are people who have never have been laid off before and don't know how the system works to get help."
When the pandemic hit in mid-March, the state ordered the closure of a number of businesses, such as restaurants. That shocked food banks to the core.
Prada found herself on daily phone conferences with other non-profit groups and government agencies.
"And things changed daily," she said. "What we were told how things would be in the morning got changed that afternoon."
Local individuals, groups and charities have pitched in financially to cover the extra costs, both women said.
"We've gotten phone calls from local foundations saying they want to help us," Page said.
Additional pallets and towering stacks of boxes of fruits, canned goods and other items required extra hands at the food bank.
"We all went out to the warehouse to work," Prada said of food bank's six-member staff.
With government regulations easing, the food bank is seeing demand slack off a little. Still, the mission of the food bank remains unchanged.
"We want to find people who need our help," Page said.