When the coronavirus shuttered the Big Apple — resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs — chef Matt Jozwiak was ready.
Jozwiak had already been feeding as many as 10,000 New Yorkers a week through his nonprofit, Rethink Food, which turns excess food from restaurants into meals for the needy. By April — as the throngs of unemployed New Yorkers soared into the hundreds of thousands — Jozwiak was suddenly feeding 10,000 people or more every 48 hours, or 35,000 meals a week.
And still he was being inundated with e-mails from people telling him that more needed to be done.
Some of the most desperate pleas, he says, have been from health care workers too busy to eat during grueling 15-hour-plus shifts, as well as their worried spouses.
It’s why Rethink will be rolling out its first food truck this week to service hospitals. The truck, which Rethink aims to launch on Tuesday, will start delivering 500 free meals a day to workers of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood, and to SUNY Downstate Medical Center across the street.
More food trucks and more locations will follow, including one that could also be launched as soon as this week, Jozwiak said.
“We want to look back and say we did everything we could,” Jozwiak said. “People joke about being ‘hangry,’ but it is a real thing. What breaks people’s spirit is the lack of access to food. If you are working 16-hour days, you look forward to these meal times. And if you don’t have that consistency, it’s hard to go through your day.”
Rethink hopes to soon have 10 trucks on the go — depending on fundraising — to feed as many 5,000 medical workers a day, seven days a week. Hospital workers can just “show up” and grab meals for themselves and their units, Jozwiak said.
The project will cost $700,000, including $64,000 for each food truck. Thanks to food donations, each meal costs $4, Jozwiak said. They’ve raised $100,000 so far, he said.
“We are financially exposed, but our hope is that we think it will happen and we are going for it. It is just one of those things. It needs to happen. We can figure out who pays for it later.”
The meals will be prepackaged, sealed single servings consisting of “simplified lunch and dinner comfort food menus, full of healthy things like roast chicken breast, brown rice, lightly roasted broccoli, and a tomato sauce,” said Jozwiak, a former chef de partie at the upscale Eleven Madison Park in downtown Manhattan.
Each truck will come with one driver and one server, all wearing masks, gloves and a plastic face shield as protective gear. All Rethink staffers will have their temperatures taken each day, practice social distancing and work on food prep surfaces that are cleaned every hour, said Linda Zhou, who oversees Rethink’s safety practices.
Jozwiak started Rethink in 2017 to help restaurants minimize their waste while also feeding people in need. “I really wanted to use my skill set to do more than make rich people food,” he said.
Since COVID-19 hit, he has dramatically expanded the charity’s services, including a pop-up meal center outside a Harlem church that replaced a soup kitchen has shuttered in the wake of the pandemic.
Rethink, which makes food from its kitchen in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, has been helped by founding board member and Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm, who has turned his Michelin-starred restaurant into a commissary that churns out an extra 2,500 meals a day.
“New York has given me everything,” Humm told The Post. “I am so happy to play a small part in figuring things out and learn something we can take into the future.”
Jozwiak says he expects Rethink to expand even more in the coming weeks as the coronavirus further weakens the economy.
“There will be bread lines,” Jozwiak said. “It will take a couple of weeks to settle in. You’re talking about a quarter of a million unemployed restaurant workers alone. It will be a disaster. It will be an army of people who need assistance.”
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