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Cambridge To Pay Restaurants To Make Meals For Homeless People

Rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in March of 2017. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in March of 2017. (Charles Krupa/AP)

As Greater Boston's economy downshifts help contain the spread of the coronavirus, among the many groups of people feeling the pain are restaurant workers and people experiencing homelessness.

The city of Cambridge is trying something new that could benefit both groups.

Starting Monday, the city is launching a program that will pay local restaurants to make and deliver boxed or bagged lunches to nearby homeless shelters. Working with Central Square Business Improvement District and Harvard Square Business Association, the goal is to deliver about 1,800 to 2,000 meals to nine different shelters by the end of this week.

In more normal times, local homeless shelters often rely on nearby restaurants to donate food, and on outside volunteers to help with food prep. But the city and statewide shutdowns have disrupted that system.

"Many of the programs were both down staff and had a reduced number of volunteers, which made providing meals to their guests much more complicated," said Ellen Semonoff, Cambridge's assistant city manager for human services.

“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," Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Louis DePasquale said in a statement announcing the initiative.

Harvard Square Business Association has brought together more than a dozen restaurants to help with the effort, including Bon Me, Black Sheep Bagel Cafe, Broadway Marketplace, Chutney's, Cardullo's Gourmet Shoppe, Dunkin', El Jefe's Taqueria, OTTO, Orinoco, Pinocchio's Pizza, Subway, Tanjore, Veggie Grill and Zinneken's.

"They're providing a service but they're also able to keep their people employed and they're doing what they do best, which is to make food and serve the public," said Denise Jillson, the association's executive director.

"At the end of this week, we'll evaluate, and then if the city wants us to continue to do this, we're prepared to do it until the crisis is over," she said.

In the coming weeks, Semonoff said, the city hopes to expand the program to include more shelters and more restaurants. Any restaurant hoping to get involved can contact the City of Cambridge Purchasing Office.

Adrian Ma Twitter Reporter
Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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