Small Houston UMC participates in $2.2 million restaurant relief program
By Lindsay Peyton
Dr. Vastine Watson was searching for a way that his church Norris Chapel in Houston could help more during COVID-19. Still, with a small congregation, and mostly elderly members, he felt like he hit a wall. Then, he discovered a unique way to make a significant impact, the Houston Eats Restaurant Support (H.E.R.S.) program. Now church volunteers are serving hot meals to vulnerable neighbors once a week. “I was so broken-hearted,” Watson said. “But this is like an answer to my prayers.”
The H.E.R.S. program is managed by Merinda Watkins-Martin and her husband Reginald Martin, who co-own Lemond Catering and Events. They knew firsthand how damaging the coronavirus has been to mom-and-pop restaurants.
“Our last event was in February, and then everyone started canceling,” Watkins-Martin said. “We were panicking. We weren’t sure that we could go on.”
Others in the restaurant and catering business were reporting the same to Watkins-Martin. While the couple managed to employ lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey to stay afloat, others were struggling to keep their heads above water and were considering closing their doors.
Then the couple learned that there was a request for proposal (RFP) for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force to provide relief to local restaurants.
The requirements, however, seemed overwhelming, Watkins-Martin explained. The restaurants assisted all had to be located within certain zip codes — and the people served by the restaurants live in the same area. The 30 zip codes represented low-income and minority neighborhoods — communities disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.
There also had to fewer than 50 employees at the restaurants to ensure that mainly small businesses and mom-and-pop restaurants were receiving help. The restaurants would be charged with supplying about 37,000 meals a week, through the end of the year.
Recipients of the meals not only had to live in the zip code but also needed to be low income or unemployed. In addition, they had to be senior citizens, high-risk, homebound, disabled or have children under the age of 18.
“Reggie and I thought we could maybe do 12,000 to 15,000 meals a week, but we weren’t sure how to deliver the meals,” Watkins-Martin said. “I think that’s where everyone was getting held up.”
Still, the opportunity to help both restaurateurs and food insecure Houstonians was too great to pass up, Watkins-Martin said. “There are so many restaurants threatening to close and so many people who need food,” she added.
The couple drafted a proposal, offering to make 20,000 meals a week. City Council approved a $2.2 million relief program with Lemond Kitchen leading the way in the production and delivery through the end of the year. The relief fund is part of the $400 million in CARES Act funding provided to the City of Houston.
“When we found out that we were approved, I called people and said we need to start ASAP,” Watkins-Martin recalled.
She recruited restaurants that were in the right location and had the required number of employees, and 19 signed up. Participating restaurants include Brooks Family Foods, Burns Original BBQ, Cool Running’s Jamaican Grill, Dona Maria, Ester’s Cajun Café & Soul Food, Himalaya Restaurant and Catering, Langstead Catering, Lucille’s 1913, Ray’s Real Pit BBQ Shack, Seafood Heaven, Silvana’s Catering and Vela Seafood.
Some of the larger restaurants could provide a greater volume, but for the smaller restaurants, even providing 50 meals, could help them stay open, Watkins-Martin said. The first week, they provided 6,000 meals, starting on Nov. 10. “It’s just been growing and growing ever since,” she said.
Currently, Watkins-Martin said already 60,000 meals that have been distributed to those in need. Not only are the restaurants and the employees receiving much needed support, but Houstonians in dire straits financially are benefitting from the H.E.R.S. program.
Lemond Kitchen joined with local agencies and non-profit organizations, including Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, to identify vulnerable Houstonians to receive meals. The faith community in Houston stepped up to help to identify and distribute food to recipients, including Trinity UMC and Norris Chapel UMC in the Texas Annual Conference.
Pastor Watson likens the work of church volunteers to a layup in basketball. Lemond is working with restaurants to cook the food. They bring it to the church. The congregation is charged with the remainder – offering their location as a pick-up location and finding recipients in their community.
Watson heard about the H.E.R.S. program though an email from the Rev. Dr. Elijah Stansell, District Superintendent for the Central South District of the TAC. “I got the email and I called Merinda on the same day,” Watson recalled. “I wanted to get it going.”
The pastor called Charlyne Moaning, head of the church’s 60 Plus Ministry, the most active volunteers in the congregation. “I have to hold them back from doing stuff,” he said with a laugh. “They are really eager.”
Norris Chapel identified 42 individuals in the area, some church members and others who are not. Each receives two meals per serving — lunch and dinner. The church started serving one time a week on Tuesday, Dec. 1 and has committed to continue for the rest of the month.
Already, more people came to the pick-up event – and the following week, Norris Chapel provided 106 meals. Watson said that individuals either came in to receive the food or stayed in their cars, and volunteers placed the pre-packaged meals in their trunks.
“Everybody on our list showed up,” Watson said. “You could see that they were there, because they really needed it.”
Watson tried one of the meals – smothered chicken with rice and green beans. “I mean it was so good,” he said. “They put a lot of love into it.”
That’s exactly Watkins-Martin’s goal. “This may be the only positive touch some people get in their day,” she said. “I want it to be like a hug, the food that they get. I want them to feel like they are our best and only customer.”
The amount of work managing the program has been daunting. “But it’s worth it to see the faces of the restaurant people, to know they will have a brighter Christmas because of this,” Watkins-Martin said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Lemond Kitchen also was involved in community outreach after disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Harvey. The Lemond Foundation plans to remain active in helping others after the H.E.R.S. program wraps up.
“When you’re raised to believe in God and are blessed, we have a duty to help others,” Watkins-Martin said.
Pastor Watson explained that one of Jesus’ most important commandments comes in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
“Jesus says that what you do for the least of his brothers and sisters you did for Him,” Watson added.
Providing meals for the hungry falls in line with his vision for the church. “We’re not only serving the community. We’re doing God’s will,” he said. “We’re ministering to the people who are in a time of lack in their life. We get to be a part of the puzzle.”
Church members were gratified to serve others during this time. “They’re thankful for the opportunity,” Watson said.
He hopes that this is simply the beginning of discovering new ways the church can serve its neighbors. “We have crossed the line and opened a new door, taken a step forward that was really needed in our church,” he said. “Sometimes, during this pandemic, we focus on all the negative. But with the H.E.R.S. program, we will be able look back and say, maybe this is the thing that took us to another level, that opened our eyes.”
To learn more or sign up as a volunteer, visit lemondkitchen.com/hers-program. To find out about the Lemond Foundation, visit lemondfoundation.org