Providing Meals to Those Who Need Them While Supporting Restaurants

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and several area restaurants partner to get meals to school-aged kids and others experiencing food insecurity.
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PHOTOS COURTESY AUNT CHERYL’S CAFE

In conjunction with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Allegheny County food businesses and nonprofits have prepared more than 850,000 meals for those in need since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through its Student and Families Food Relief Fund.

The participating entities are Aunt Cheryl’s Cafe, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Elegant Edge Catering Love Rocks Cafe and Scratch & Co., as well as nonprofit vendors Allegheny Center Alliance Church, EAT Initiative and YouthPlaces.

“My whole mission in life has always been to help people and to provide good, fresh food. And this blended it all together,” says Cheryl Johnson, a retired social worker who owns Aunt Cheryl’s Cafe in Braddock.

The Student and Family Food Relief Fund began with a partnership of $1 million in funding from regional foundations, including a significant contribution from the PNC Foundation. It received upward of $3 million in July via CARES Act funding from Allegheny County.

“Long before the pandemic and now during it, the United Way identifies the most critical needs in the community and finds people and organizations to ensure that these needs are met,” says Cheyenne Tyler, Manager of School Initiatives.

The program initially was geared toward school-aged children and their families. With in-person learning capacity in Pittsburgh Public Schools halted, it was essential to find ways to get meals to kids who typically get breakfast and lunch at their educational locations.

However, it is now open to anyone who has been impacted by COVID-19. “Congregate care has been drastically impacted. Those seniors can’t go into a communal space to eat, and those supplemental meals have gone a long way to help them,” Tyler says.

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Johnson estimates that she and her team have prepared somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 meals. “It’s astounding to me when I add it up that that is how many meals we provided to our community,” she says.

The fully prepared, family-style meals are meant to be filling, nutritious and tasty. To date, Johnson’s lineup has included chicken parmesan over pasta, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, stir-fried chicken with vegetables and cabbage and kielbasa. “The food had to be good. I’ve seen some of these programs where the food comes in, and the kids don’t want to eat it,” Johnson says.

The restaurants are also preparing “backpacks” for children meant to last for several days; Johnson’s includes fruit, oatmeal packs, juice, muffins, noodles and snacks.

Meals typically are sent out once a week. Once the food is prepared, it’s distributed in a variety of ways: Vendors will deliver directly to public housing locations volunteers distribute the meals on-site; some support centers will pick up meals from Eat’n Park restaurants; three school bus routes in McKeesport, Sto-Rox and Penn Hills in partnership with ACCESS Transportation Systems, bring the meals and other goods to the bus stops and families can receive meals by going to the bus stops; additionally, some agencies serve as hubs for distribution.

“It’s difficult to get food if you live in a place like Prospect Terrace. There aren’t any grocery stores near there, and people don’t always have the transportation to get to them. We know [that by delivering food] we are providing something that they want and that they need,” says Johnson.

Tyler says that CARES Act funding expired in December but that additional resources from Allegheny County have helped to extend the program. People in need of food assistance can call 211 to be connected with someone that will help them. And anyone interested in contributing to the program can donate to the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Emergency Relief Fund. “We’re going to go as long as we can to serve the community,” she says.

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