The COVID-19 pandemic has hit restaurants harder than almost any other industry in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority is awarding $14 million in grants to 27 organizations through its Sustain & Serve NJ program.

The program provides grants of $100,000 to $2 million to organizations such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, foundations and food pantries. Those organizations will use the NJEDA grants to make bulk purchases of meals from local restaurants. Those meals will be distributed for free to those in need, including homebound seniors, first responders and those going hungry.

With $14 million in funding, the awardees will purchase more than 1.5 million meals from 160 restaurants across the state.

"The opportunity for many of these restaurants, especially as we're in the tail end of a tough winter, for them to have them essentially have guaranteed business, guaranteed orders for the next three months is something that a lot of them have told us is a lifeline," said Tara Colton, executive vice president of special projects at NJEDA,

Colton said HealthBarn Foundation in Ridgewood is one awardee that expects to provide 100,000 meals over the next 90 days. That's 1,100 meals per day for the next three months.

Each of the organizations that were awarded the grants applied with a group of restaurants that they proposed to purchase meals from. The grants were awarded after the restaurants were approved.

Restaurants can fill out a form online but Colton said it's not a guarantee they'll be approached by an awardee.

Each organization awarded the funding had to demonstrate they had past experience doing  bulk purchasing meals and distributing them in their communities.

"We set a threshold that between March and December of 2020, they needed to demonstrate that they had to purchase at least 3,000 meals totaling at least $50,000" said Colton.

The restaurants that these organizations are working with have no more than 50 employees. The goal was to provide resources that would be going to the small businesses.

Colton said it's important to select awardees with experience so that once the meals are purchased, they wouldn't go to waste.

A full list of participating organizations can be found at www.njeda.com.

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