By PENNY SCHWARTZ
SHARON, Mass. (JTA) — When Neil Morris heard the news that his hometown schools were closing for at least two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, his first thought was about the kids who would lose access to their free or reduced lunches.
Morris, the owner of A Perfect Taste, a kosher catering company, called his friend and fellow Sharon resident Avi Shemtov, a chef and owner of Simcha, a restaurant here where both grew up.
Both are passionate about reducing food waste and curbing food insecurity. They knew they had to play some role in ensuring that kids would have access to lunch.
Morris and Shemtov stepped up to the challenge by prepping more than 500 grab-and-go meals in three days last week distributed from the parking lot outside Simcha. And they’ll be repeating the effort this week in the effort to help their neighbors.
“It seemed like that could be done,” Morris told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “There is so much food waste in this country and so many who are food-vulnerable. They shouldn’t exist together. We always try to close that gap.”
Shemtov reached out to the local schools to make sure no efforts would be duplicated. He learned that there were 300 students in the affluent Boston suburb’s school system whose families earn so little that they are eligible for federally subsidized school lunches.
That was on March 13, when Sharon, which has a sizable Jewish population and many synagogues, became one of the first towns in Massachusetts to close schools due to the coronavirus. That Sunday, the state announced a shutdown of its schools through at least April 7, alongside other measures restricting large gatherings. The restrictions have since tightened as cases and deaths in Massachusetts have risen.
Over that first weekend, even as they were juggling the seismic shift in their own businesses, Morris and Shemtov set out a plan. Shemtov rustled up food that otherwise would have gone to waste, including from their own shelves. Then they took to social media and other personal contacts seeking volunteers.
“All kinds of people showed up,” Shemtov said, adding that many volunteers came from the local Jewish community. “Families with schoolkids, elderly people. My son’s school bus driver, who had been laid off, offered to drive lunches to people.”
Finally, a week ago at Simcha, volunteers donned food preparation gloves, stood six feet apart and prepped 175 sandwiches, pairing them with fruit and chips. The menu for the next two days was more creative, Shemtov said, with quesadillas and even a to-go version of a mac-and-cheese bar with a choice of toppings.
Among the volunteers was Jacob Margolis, a 15-year-old student at Southeastern Regional Vocational high school with aspirations to become a chef. He prepped sandwiches, cut vegetables and helped others follow the safety precautions.
Margolis’ younger sister, who just celebrated her bat mitzvah, and their parents also joined the effort.
“I felt like I was giving back to people who are having a rough time, out of work and out of school and not getting the food they need,” he told JTA.
As a bonus, the good deed also got him out of the house, he said. Margolis plans to volunteer again this week.
Morris said an especially poignant moment for him was seeing one senior citizen who is raising his six grandchildren nearly in tears in gratitude for the lunches. Another woman collected sandwiches for delivery.
“You see the best in people in this period of time,” Morris said.
The local school system is now offering free breakfast and lunch three days each week to all children in town. Morris and Shemtov will supplement on the other two days.
“The easiest and most fulfilling thing to do at a time like this is to do for others instead of sitting around in despair,” Shemtov said.