CUUC’s Meals for HOPE Project


To appreciate the impact of CUUC’s Meals for HOPE project, just count the chicken thighs and legs our volunteers have cooked and donated away. Over 80+ weeks (as of Dec 2021), we’ve prepared about 5,000 pounds of chicken. That’s two-and-a-half tons of near-gourmet quality chicken distributed for free – and that’s not counting the boneless chicken dinners, the turkey and ham dinners, the meatballs, the beefaroni, the sandwiches, and so much more – something like 15,000 meals in all.

The project supports HOPE (Help Our People Eat) Community Services, a mainstay of New Rochelle’s philanthropic universe. Meals for HOPE is CUUC’s most active community service project, and CUUC is the HOPE Soup Kitchen’s largest and most reliable provider.

Begun soon after the Covid epidemic struck, CUUC’s Meals for HOPE project produces a weekly meal to feed some 150 people, plus about 100 PB&J sandwiches, and about 160 eggs worth of egg salad.

Our volunteers buy or procure raw food, bring it to CUUC, cook it, pack it up, and deliver it each Tuesday around noon to HOPE Community Services at the Iglesia Benjamin Palacios in New Rochelle. More than 20 volunteers from CUUC, along with some non-member friends, have been vital to maintaining the effort.

Most of the food is portioned out at HOPE as takeout for their clients for evening meals, with the sandwiches and egg salad added on as a supplement to the next day’s meals. When there was a partial waning of Covid, HOPE fed some clients in person at its headquarters.

When there are leftovers from client meals, CUUC's food also goes to feed the staff at HOPE, a mix of volunteers and professionals involved in housing advocacy, homeless support, community outreach, and food banking. They say they love it when they get CUUC food. Soup kitchen staff likewise are highly satisfied with our offerings because they are tasty and a joy to serve. The fact that CUUC provides somewhat in excess of HOPE’s daily need also gives the charity a cushion when other sources run short, which happens frequently.

CUUC’s involvement with HOPE Community Services stretches back several years. Back then, CUUC volunteers were producing a smaller meal quarterly. When Covid struck, HOPE saw demand skyrocket. They approached CUUC to request we move to a weekly schedule and supply a greater volume of food, because other organizations had reduced their own output for a variety of reasons (including but not limited to Covid).

CUUC began providing weekly meals in May 5, 2020, and has taken only one week off for the 2021 winter holidays. Meals for HOPE food trays center on a dinner of protein and starch plus a vegetable side. Sandwiches are produced by a separate group of volunteers working at CUUC. Egg salad is usually produced by a husband-and-wife team working out of their own home.

At earlier stages of the pandemic, we had offered gift bags with sweets for kids; other kinds of sandwiches made at volunteer’s homes; and trays of vegetables and other food also made at volunteer’s homes. All these practices evolved into our current streamlined operations.

Beginning in spring 2021, CUUC expanded production even more by adding about 20 meals a week for the Open Arms Men’s Shelter in White Plains.

Typically the meal stars chicken legs on the bone, the most inexpensive source of protein (which nevertheless has doubled in price since Covid began). We also often use ground beef and turkey when we can get them for free (more on that below). Starch is usually rice or pasta, or occasionally mashed potatoes from dried flakes.

We have experimented with other proteins, including fish sticks, premade meatballs, ham, and whole turkeys. All have turned out to be too expensive or too much trouble to put into regular rotation. Pork products we try to avoid because HOPE has clients who require kosher or halal food.

The actual cooking is done at CUUC’s professional-grade kitchen. At first a single cook handled the main effort because congregation Covid safety policy required us to keep kitchen occupancy low. Over time we moved to two cooks, masked, until the vaccines emerged.

Currently, we rely primarily on three individual chefs working on a rotating basis, with other members of the congregation substituting on an as-needed basis. We occasionally have a dedicated cleaning volunteer, though this role has become less frequent as the chefs have learned to clean as they go. We get some janitorial support from the congregation custodians.

We have produced a fairly wide range of dishes, including roast chicken, chicken cacciatore, chicken parm, arroz con pollo, baked ziti, beef and turkey chili, beefaroni, meatloaf, mac & cheese, and others. We change menus depending on what is available and what other ingredients (cheese, beans, veggies) we have. For the vegetable course we use whatever is cheap and fresh at the markets, typically broccoli, cauliflower, squash, carrots, onions, etc., cooked alone or in a medley, steamed or roasted.

Shopping is largely handled by two of the project’s primary organizers, who most weeks travel to Restaurant Depot in Port Chester. They buy bulk meat, eggs, bread, vegetables, canned goods, mayo, spices, and kitchen staples and supplies. Though shopping is less comprehensive now that HOPE has begun providing us with material (see details below), it is still a near-weekly event.

Funding for CUUC’s Meals for HOPE project has come from the congregation, supplemented by generous contributions from individual members. At the beginning we were spending about $200 a week for supplies. Over time, we have gained experience around economizing and been able to use measures described below, so that now we are spending under $100, while producing more food than ever. There are no personnel costs associated with the project – everyone involved volunteers their time and efforts.

Starting in 2021, we began cooperating more closely with the HOPE Food Bank, another facet of the charity's operations, which distributes uncooked food weekly to about 350 New Rochelle residents. Because the Food Bank has access to bulk protein, starch, and canned goods from government and other charitable sources, CUUC has been able to halve or better our outlay to support the Meals for HOPE project. We now receive regular infusions of free ground beef, chicken legs, pasta, rice, canned beans and vegetables, and more. For HOPE, this arrangement is often an opportunity to use institutional-sized donations that they can’t easily distribute to individuals. And even when they give us items they would otherwise give to clients, the food returns to those clients as prepared meals.

This synergy with the HOPE Food Bank has been made possible because two CUUC members are now also Food Bank volunteers, thus connecting our congregation even more closely with the charity.

Through our Meals for HOPE project, CUUC is actively performing vital services in our community, and putting into action our congregation's mission to “engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.” We are grateful for the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication of our volunteers that has made this possible.

Respectfully submitted 12.5.21,
The Meals for HOPE Team