Setting a Plate for Jesus in North Cape May

Setting a Plate for Jesus in North Cape May
Bishop Dennis Sullivan writes a blessing on one of the frozen meals that Catholic Charities will distribute through the “Set a Plate for Jesus” initiative.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan writes a blessing on one of the frozen meals that Catholic Charities will distribute through the “Set a Plate for Jesus” initiative.

If you’re living on public assistance, or welfare, in Cape May County and using temporary housing vouchers from the Board of Social Services to help cover housing expenses, there’s a chance you may be living out of a motel.

Although the county is trying to cut back on the trend, many individuals and families that are part of the housing voucher program have traditionally been able to redeem them at one of the many motels in the region that operate as resort lodgings during the summer months. That means for up to 12 months, families could be living out of a single room, with access to only a microwave and fridge — at best — in the way of a kitchen.

For these families, food pantry items just aren’t sufficient.

“You don’t even have access to a can opener a lot of times,” said Cheryl King, coordinator of Catholic Charities’ Cape May County Family and Community Services Center, located in Rio Grande.

“A lot of the people who come to us have health problems. Nutrition is also a problem when you have limited access to food or cooking options. Canned foods are not always the way to go.”

That’s where a new program developed by the Parish of St. John Neumann, North Cape May, in partnership with Catholic Charities’ Cape May office fills an important need.

During a standard meeting between pastor, Father Ernest Soprano, and King, the idea came up for a frozen dinner program to meet the needs of the families and individuals living in motels.

“Everything happened in rapid succession,” Father Soprano said.

Using poor box funds, the parish purchased two freezers, one for each of the churches that make up the parish, and microwave-safe, compartmentalized, individual dinner containers.

Students in the parish’s CCD program put instructions in the containers and stuck labels, and Father Soprano spoke about the new program at the weekend Masses. In a matter of weeks, “Set a Plate for Jesus” was born.

The idea is that at a family’s dinner, one portion of whatever is being eaten gets set aside in one of the containers, labeled with the date and the contents, and frozen. Parishioners can drop off the dinners in the freezers after Mass and pick up a new container.

The initiative was inspired by a similar “Plates for Christ” program in Atlantic City, a partnership between the Catholic Charities’ Atlantic City center and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Absecon. For years, the parish has supplied the center with home-cooked frozen dinners that are distributed to needy individuals and families.

On March 14, during St. John Neumann’s post-confirmation dinner, Bishop Dennis Sullivan kicked off the program by making the first plate, signing the label with a blessing for whoever would receive the meal.

During Holy Week, a parish volunteer made the first delivery of boxed dinners to Catholic Charities, a total of 40 dinners collected during the program’s first week.

“I’m ecstatic,” King said. “My prayers were answered. I’m just amazed at how quickly the parish responded. It’s such a blessing when the parishes are involved with Catholic Charities. They’re helping us extend the hand of Christ in the Diocese of Camden.”

“The meals are just beautiful. It’s wonderful to think these people without access to a kitchen will have a nutritious meal,” she added.

Father Soprano hopes the program will be an ongoing ministry of the parish. The religious education classes will continue to put the boxes together through the end of the school year as part of an ongoing service project.

“The response has been overwhelming. We ran out of containers at the first Mass,” Father Soprano said. “Everybody is happy about doing it, and everyone is involved; that’s the joy.”

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