The City of Cambridge is paying restaurants to make meals for people experiencing homelessness

"It just made so much sense," said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Cambridge, MA 2/25/2020: The restaurant El Jefe  in Cambridge. It is opened until 4 am in Cambridge, but don't try this in Boston. Even 2 am is a stretch. El Jefe facing neighborhood opposition to open on Boylston Street past midnight.   Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
El Jefe's Taqueria is among the restaurants helping to serve hot and cold meals to Harvard Square homeless shelters. –Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

With restaurants facing a sudden loss of revenue due to Gov. Baker’s mandated dine-in ban, and homeless shelters seeing a drop in volunteers helping to deliver and prepare food, the City of Cambridge came up with a solution to benefit both parties: Paying restaurants to make and deliver food to homeless shelters.

The program launched Monday after the city reached out to both the Harvard Square Business Association and the Central Square Business Improvement District to help organize the initiative, with a goal of distributing roughly 1,800 to 2,000 meals to various shelters by the end of the week.

“By contracting with local restaurants in Central and Harvard Square, where a large majority of homeless programs are located, we are able to minimize delivery challenges, and facilitate the availability of both hot and cold meals to shelters and other sites in both Squares,” said Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale in a joint statement.

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Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said that it has already brought roughly 15 restaurants on board to make meals for local shelters like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y, a youth homeless shelter that has seen many of its student volunteers leave following Harvard’s closure.

“It just made so much sense,” Jillson said. “We were on board immediately. We reached out to restaurants that were still operating; about 15 of them responded and said they would be more than willing. The restaurants get to do what they do best, which is to cook food and serve the public.”

Among the restaurants serving Harvard Square’s homeless shelters are Black Sheep Bagel, Cardullo’s, El Jefe’s Taqueria, Orinoco, Subway, and Veggie Grill. Jillson said that they have tried to provide a range of healthy meal options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Central Square Business Improvement District partnered with PAGU to deliver meals to Bay Cove Human Services and the Cambridge YMCA.

“We made our first delivery [Monday],” said Michael Monestime, executive director at the Central Square Business Improvement District. “It was pretty humbling and sad at the same time. It’s hard enough being homeless on any given day, and then under these circumstances it’s even more difficult.”

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Monestime said that they have also distributed 400 reusable water bottle to those in need, and that the city has placed three public hand washing stations in Central Square.

While the Central Square Business Improvement District and the Harvard Square Business Association have been in charge of identifying restaurants and distributing food for this week’s deliveries, the City of Cambridge will be seeking additional restaurants for contracts and meals next week and beyond. Restaurants that would like to get involved with this initiative can contact the City of Cambridge’s Purchasing Department at purchasing@cambridgema.gov.

In addition to providing hot and cold meals to those experiencing homelessness, the city has set up a Cambridge Community Food Line, available to any resident who is a high risk for food insecurity. The delivery service provides a weekly bag of produce and shelf-stable food items to individuals and families who have experienced the following:

  • The food pantry or meal program you used has closed until further notice;
  • You have lost your job or part of your income and cannot afford groceries at this time;
  • You are homebound due to illness, disability, or quarantine and do not have friends or family that can bring you food;
  •  You are at high risk for COVID-19 (coronavirus) and do not have access to a regular food source.

Anyone who needs to use the food line can call 617-349-9155, where they will be prompted to leave a voicemail with their name, number, and address. A staff member will return calls within 24 hours; those who meet the program’s criteria will be added to the weekly distribution list.


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