Lunch Break’s Mission
As a caring community, Lunch Break freely provides food, clothing, life skills and fellowship to those in need in Monmouth County and beyond. They strive to break the cycle of poverty for those they serve and guide community members in need to self-sufficiency and healthier, more productive lifestyles.
While the need was great prior to the pandemic, Lunch Break’s leadership, staff, volunteers and board could never have imagined how much more critical it would become.
The Impact of the Pandemic
Gwendolyn (Gwen) Love, Executive Director of Lunch Break, recalls watching the news in the beginning of March 2020. She knew the COVID pandemic was getting closer each day, but it never occurred to her or her staff and clients that everything was about to shut down. At the time, the Lunch Break dining room was at full capacity. The Client Choice Pantry was still open and clients came in daily to shop for perishable and non-perishable items needed for themselves and their family members. It was business as usual and Lunch Break was operating at full staff with employees and volunteers.
While Lunch Break’s Board of Directors and leadership team tried to put a phased plan in place to keep things running safely, they knew they had to get ahead of the health threat and sadly, shut down. It was a very emotional decision and the biggest concern was how it would impact clients. Lunch Break is more than a place to get a meal, clothing, pantry items or take part in life skills or wellness programs, it is a place for fellowship which would become even more important once quarantine hit.
That night, as Gwen drove home, she already had a plan in place on how to continue serving the community and met with staff the next morning to start the communication process. The most important part of the messaging was the “why.” They had to let their clients know why they were deciding to shut down and how they would continue to help them get the services they needed.
Later that week, Lunch Break had already transitioned the dining room to grab and go and the Client Choice Pantry moved from in-person shopping to curbside pickup. No clients were allowed inside the building, but could walk, bike or drive up and get what they needed. While this may sound like a straight forward transition, there were many logistical challenges to ensure everything worked smoothly. Gwen and her team had to reconfigure volunteers as many decided to take some time off due to COVID health concerns. They also had to take stock of necessary items and mass purchase disposable containers and utensils.
As the pandemic progressed, it was time for the staff to work from home and they had just a few hours to gather all of the necessary items they needed from the office. This was a very quick turnaround as the employees were already in a good position technology-wise to continue working from home. If someone did not have a computer at home, Lunch Break provided it as well as any additional supplies needed.
The motivation and wellbeing of staff was crucial to making these changes work during the pandemic. In addition to employees working from home, there was an in-house operations team that took care of the kitchen and maintenance of the building. Gwen met with each of those team members individually to get an idea of their comfort level and figure out how to work together while staying healthy. They had a system of weekly check-ins and daily work flow reports to ensure everything was running safely.
Transitioning for Success
Next came modifications to the building to better serve clients. An awning was installed so pickups could comfortably continue even in inclement weather. Doors were changed so large items could easily be transported in and out. They also rented pods to have better access to necessities while they were outside.
As we moved further into 2020, some of Lunch Break’s suspended programs gradually started to come back, specifically the Clara’s Closet. While clients were still not able to come into the building, they could have volunteers shop for them. If there was something a client needed that wasn’t available, Lunch Break would ask for these items to be donated.
For Lunch Break’s Life Skills program, it was a quick transition to the virtual world and they saw an increase in participation now that classes were online. Transportation and childcare had been barriers, but the ability to access the classes from home made it much easier. Lunch Break purchased laptops and Chromebooks for those who needed them, ensuring everyone had access. Many of the classes were recorded so clients could participate on their own time.
A fun addition to the Life Skills program was a cooking class for children. Lunch Break knew that focusing on mental health, especially during a pandemic, was so important and they wanted to do something to help kids. They created a “Cooking with My Hero” YouTube series where children (Junior Chefs!) could pick a recipe and a hero in their lives, and cook together. Lunch Break did the shopping, funded the food and dropped everything off to the clients. They made a cookbook with all the recipes and sent to their donors as a gift.
Support from Donors
The support Lunch Break has received throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of amazing. Donors proactively contacted Gwen and started a COVID Emergency Fund that provided $900,000 to those in need. They also received many deliveries of supplies and other necessary items from generous donors, volunteers and community members. The community collaboration was also incredible as local restaurants provided food to Lunch Break that was paid for by other local businesses. Everyone truly came together to help those who needed it most.
Lunch Break never skipped a beat, even on the hardest days. As the Lunch Break staff begins to return to the office and services begin to come back to pre-pandemic levels, the drive to help the community is even stronger. Visit Lunch Break’s website to stay up-to-date on their programs.