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Donated truck leads New Jersey diocese to distribute hot meals to the hungry — Christian Hospitality on Wheels

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Volunteer workers Marilyn Stephenson, Gail Bellas, Joanne Gagliardi, Eleanor Ogdin and Jeanine Cavanagh pose for a photo in December 2022 in front of the Holy CHOW (Christian Hospitality on Wheels) food truck, a ministry of St. Joseph Parish in Hillsborough, N.J., after serving hot meals to the needy in a parking lot adjacent to Christ the Redeemer Church in Manville, N.J. (CNS photo/Christina Leslie, The Catholic Spirit)

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. — It takes many willing hands to ease the grip of hunger in Somerset County.

Thanks to an innovative ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Hillsborough, dozens of them are holding tight to the wheel and cargo of a bright blue messenger of hope.

The goal of the used food truck — named “Holy CHOW,” for Christian Hospitality on Wheels — is to improve the lives of the hungry in the Manville area. The Scripture passage from Micah 6:8 on the side of the truck reminds passersby to: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”

Each Tuesday evening, the truck, filled with hot meals prepared at St. Joseph Parish’s church kitchen, departs for a parking lot adjacent to Christ the Redeemer Church in Manville. Since the truck’s inaugural trip in September, more than 450 meals have been distributed to the hungry.

St. Joseph parishioner and food truck volunteer Michelle Laffoon explained an anonymous donor had given the vehicle to the parish before the pandemic, and a committee was formed to discern its best use.

The food truck ministry is in partnership with Somerville-based SHIP, which stands for Samaritan Homeless Interim Program. It is a community-funded, -assisted and -supported grassroots interfaith organization that offers programs and services to Somerset County-area poor.

“We went into the community to see the need,” said Laffoon, whose husband, Christopher, also is involved in the project. “We created a 90-minute program to train workers how to serve, not just the food, but serve the people. You have to have a soft heart and work together as a team.”

The process begins in the pews. With the aid of recipe cards and baking pans, willing parishioners prepare and donate casseroles four times a year for the food truck’s weekly trips.

When these parishioners are scheduled to make a casserole is dependent upon in which section they sit for weekly Masses. Food is stored in the parish freezer in preparation for each Tuesday evening’s repast.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, like every Tuesday since September, multiple groups of willing volunteers began a multistep production reminiscent of a military-style undertaking.

Jeanine Cavanagh, the parish director of social ministries, outlined the schedule volunteers follow as they prepare, transport and distribute the meals.

“It is our mission to provide nourishment on many levels, and offer great hope to individuals served,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey.

The day began at 7 a.m. as one volunteer visited Panera Bread in Somerset to pick up the restaurant’s donation of leftover breads and sweets for the meals. Cooks arrived at the parish kitchen about 11 a.m. to slide the casseroles into the oven, warm industrial-size cans of green beans and load all hot food into the truck’s Cambro unit to stay at temperature.

Meanwhile, the food truck was checked and replenished with all needed supplies for the evening: clamshell to-go containers, carbonated water, extra boxed and canned food, cleaning items, utensils and statistics paperwork.

The Holy CHOW food truck left St. Joseph Parish just before 5 p.m. to meet the evening’s mission volunteers; all drove to the Manville lot where they set up the eating area, opened the food truck awning and began to serve at 5:30 p.m.

Recipients of the ministry emerged slowly from the shadows, greeting the workers and patiently queuing for the hot meals as the temperature dipped into the low 20s. A worker led them in praying grace before the meal, and the plates were filled with the foods chosen from the colorful outdoor menu board.

Laughter could be heard over the sound of the truck’s generator, and the atmosphere lightened as clients shared their gratitude for the meals.

“I lost my job and my home, and can’t always stay with my son,” said “Mary,” a middle-age woman bundled up against the cold. “Now I live in a hotel. These meals are great. I try to eat healthy.”

“Sam,” a young man who sheepishly requested to buy some food with his last remaining two dollars, was incredulous when he learned the truck’s volunteers would bestow him with two dinners for free. Clutching his bounty, he uttered, “Thank you” repeatedly as he slipped away in the darkness.

New Holy CHOW volunteer and St. Joseph parishioner Jill Witt mingled with the clients and shared the reasons for her participation.

“This is my hometown” she said. “I used to be part of corporate America, but hated it. It’s good to give back. I think I found what I need to do.”

Father Francis “Hank” Hilton, St. Joseph’s pastor, reflected upon the food truck ministry, declaring it met the parish’s mission to nurture its priests, prophets and kings — three legs of a tripod, each integral.

“We pray, we serve, we build up community. Everyone knows what they are doing,” Father Hilton said. “We don’t just want the same 20 people doing everything. That’s not what it’s all about.”

The Holy CHOW food ministry has about 45 members and is growing, for it takes many behind-the-scenes workers to assist with truck maintenance, driver scheduling, food collection and other vital tasks to make the program a success.

Cavanagh said both volunteers and clients received gifts from the Holy CHOW project, explaining: “It truly is a work of God. Those that serve and are served … resonate the love and vitality of the Lord. The mutuality of God’s love is a gift to all involved,” she said.

“Our charity is love … and it is more, so much more than providing food,” she added. “This is about nourishing body and soul. It is about serving up nutritious, delicious food with a heaping helping of hope!”