When Julia Ortiz’s workplace shut down in March as the pandemic took hold, things were tight. And after the mother of four was called back to work in June, there was a lot of catching up to do.
Then she heard about a free dinner program through a nurse at her kids’ pediatrician’s office, CHOP Care Network West Chester Primary Care, for families like hers. Once a week she could pick up a hot, complete meal for her whole family at the Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester.
“We definitely appreciate it,” Ortiz says. “It’s a total blessing.”
Multiple partners involved
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is supporting the collaborative effort to help food-insecure families in Chester County. The program was conceived by Lisa A. Morris, executive director of the Filet of Soul Culinary Institute (FOSCI), and a development consultant to the Melton Center, where the culinary institute is based. Employees and trainees of FOSCI prepare the meals, giving them steady work during COVID-19. Chester County Hospital, a community hospital in the CHOP Care Network, is also a partner, creating a handout with health tips that go along with each meal.
Morris had secured funding from Department of Environmental Protection and the Brandywine Health Foundation to partially support the meals program. After learning from her Chester County Hospital contacts that CHOP might be interested in helping, Morris reached out and ultimately received generous funding from Children’s Hospital for the program, which allowed it to offer meals once a week in Coatesville, too.
“All the meals are made from scratch,” says Morris. “They always include a vegetable. We put a lot of love in the meals.”
CHOP supports a weekly total of 100 family meals, enough food for 500 people, beginning in November and continuing through May. FOSCI also prepares meals for needy seniors in the area.
Seeking to support families in Greater Philly area
“We wanted to help families throughout the Greater Philadelphia area who were struggling because of the pandemic,” says Falguni Patel, MPH, manager of Community Impact Initiatives at CHOP. “We know food insecurity isn’t limited to Philadelphia and were happy to support this program in Chester County.”
Partnering with FOSCI dovetails perfectly with CHOP’s goal of boosting local economies and supporting women- and minority-owned businesses. Morris seeks out dislocated workers and individuals with barriers to employment for the adult training program. FOSCI has a contract with the Chester County Workforce Development to provide free training, certification and paid work experience to at-risk youth in the neighborhood surrounding the Melton Center, a census tract with a poverty rate four times higher than that of Chester County overall. Adult and youth trainees are paid for preparing the free meals.
“When the pandemic shut down the catering piece of our operation, this was a good pivot,” Morris says. “It’s a privilege and an honor to serve people in need.”
How families are referred
Families at CHOP’s West Chester and Coatesville primary care offices that are covered by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are given information about the program and invited to participate. Nurse Wanda Serdich, LPN, who has worked at both sites, coordinates recruiting families.
For the Ortiz family, which includes 15-year-old Pablo, 12-year-old Celia, 7-year-old Gia and 4-year-old Jemma, knowing they’ll receive one free, hot dinner a week relieves some of the stress brought on by the pandemic. “It’s one less meal I need to make myself, which always helps,” Ortiz says. “Anything extra that doesn’t have me taking money out of my pocket is beneficial. The stress alleviation is amazing.”
An added bonus is expanding the kids’ food preferences.
“They’re used to chicken and rice, but they get to taste new flavors every week,” Ortiz says. “Last week it was Cajun fish with baked potatoes and a salad. They loved it, especially my 15-year-old. He had seconds. It surprises me because it can be hard to change kids’ palates, but they are learning to love a variety of foods and that’s good.”