“A hot meal is a sense of home, no matter where you are. There’s just nothing better for the soul.”
That’s the principle behind Café BG’s, according to Rosa Chisholm, who serves as head chef for the Trenton-based food service provider.
Café BG’s provides high-quality meals using healthy, fresh ingredients to local daycares, school facilities, and shelters that serve Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) or Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) meals. Café BG’s also offers an internship program that provides hands-on instruction, including ServSafe certification, CPR, and hospitality training.
The surrounding community is vibrant and warm, but Chisholm and her team see firsthand the issues that impact youth, families, and their access to nourishing food. So many depend on childcare, afterschool, or summer program settings to access fresh, healthy meals. Café BG’s fills that need with warm, nutritious meals served in partnership with organizations in the Trenton region.
“We focus on hot meals because, statistically speaking, cold meals will include ingredients like lunch meat and other products that require chemicals to maintain the integrity of the food. A hot meal is always fresher,” says Chisholm.
Now faced with the challenges of COVID-19, the community is struggling with unemployment, an increase in drug use, and coming to terms with the realities of the virus.
“Our families are already facing so many challenges, but with COVID-19, they are justifiably overwhelmed,” said Chisholm.
Café BG’s and other food service providers are also plagued with an increase in need, in sharp contrast with the implications that a shut-down has for the organizations they serve. Whereas they had been serving between 550 and 700 meals per week prior to the pandemic, widespread closures forced the provider to decrease its production to approximately 120 meals each week in the wake of COVID-19.
“Some of our organizational partners have had to close their doors temporarily—whether it’s due to general CDC guidelines, or because someone onsite tested positive—and now the youth they serve are losing access to the meals we had been providing. Unfortunately, they need them now more than ever,” said Chisholm.
Thanks to funds secured through NJCNF, Café BGs has been able to pivot to expand its mission. New kitchen equipment has allowed the company to explore innovative ways to continue to offer fresh produce—now for at-home preparation, primarily using blast freezing, dehydration, and vacuum sealing.
“This has changed the entire concept of how our program serves people. Our meals largely include fresh produce, which is best for nutrition but is unfortunately perishable. But the ability to freeze and vacuum seal food increases its longevity. This way we’re providing with foods with longer shelf life, but we can still offer that same nutritional value,” said Chisholm.
That longer shelf life has allowed Café BGs to shift from daily meals to what Chisholm calls “virtual meals.” The company can now distribute meals for up to one week all at once, which limits interaction and potential exposure to COVID-19 among employees and residents. And the meals are large enough to feed an entire family.
“There is no way we could have continued to keep up with demand without this new equipment. Reinvestment Fund trusted us to make an assessment of our needs, and as a result, we had the autonomy to make the choices that were best for us and the people we serve,” said Chisholm.