The second phase of the state Economic Development Authority's "Sustain and Serve NJ" program is adding another $11 million, bringing the most recent round of funding to $20 million to be divided among more than two dozen organizations statewide, providing meals from close to 400 restaurants to New Jerseyans in need.

Tara Colton, NJEDA executive vice president for special projects, said the $14 million allocated in Phase 1, starting in February, was responsible for 1.5 million meals. This money is expected to account for 2 million meals that will be distributed by food banks, soup kitchens, and other entities that serve the food insecure.

"Food insecurity in New Jersey was a major challenge before COVID, and the scale of the problem, especially among families with children, has continued to worsen," Colton said. "The impact of being able to have a steady, reliable source of meals, and the human impact that that confers, has been really powerful."

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As Colton puts it, consistent access to nourishing meals gives families a sense of dignity, and alleviates the dread that comes with often not knowing where the next meal will come from.

It's "more than just the meal," though, Colton said, and that's especially true with a pandemic still smoldering.

"Restaurants are able to keep their lights on, have a reliable source of revenue, keep their workers employed, and give back to their communities by having the meals that they prepare go to people in need," she said.

A program like Sustain and Serve also builds trust in the community. Colton anecdotally told the story of one facility in Bergen County which, after it began giving out meals, was able to launch a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Hunger can often hide in plain sight, she said, but involving more and more people in the efforts to fight it helps to raise the visibility of the problem.

"There are so many ways to give back and support and strengthen communities, and so like Gov. Murphy says, this is a grand slam," Colton said. "It just hits so many things in a very simple model."

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